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Will Obama's America stop exporting fear?

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The results of the U.S. presidential election this week are more an overwhelming rejection of the way the United States has been run in the recent past, particularly during the Bush administration, than merely a victory for Barack Obama.


The overwhelming enthusiasm during the campaign, and with the announcement of Obama’s victory, reflect how bad things are in the United States. The almost universal enthusiasm for Obama throughout the world, including Asia, is a clear expression of how badly the actions of the United States have affected the rest of the world.


There are many examples, but the worst is the way the so-called War on Terror has been manipulated to serve the interests of the greedy and of authoritarian governments at the expense of democracy, rule of law and human rights. The United States’ negative initiatives in the aftermath of 9/11 have generated many forms of global psychological warfare against human dignity, human freedom and the struggle to improve living conditions.


“Anti-terrorism” initiatives from the world’s most powerful country were exploited to the maximum by cynical leaders in other countries, mainly to deprive their own populations of basic freedoms and democracy. In many countries the War on Terror was manipulated to portray freedom of expression, publication and organization as subversive endeavors, and to deprive people of fair trials and protections against torture, illegal arrest, illegal detention and extrajudicial killings.


Through what are called “prevention of terrorism laws,” all these freedoms were sacrificed under the pretext of national security. In fact, with these laws in place, recent times have been the most insecure in many countries.

The existence of groups that might be portrayed as terrorists became a boon to unscrupulous leaders. In fact, the creation of terrorist responses through state-sponsored terror became a common element of ruling strategies in many places.


The “War on Terror” was not something that was meant to be won. It is, in fact, meant to be continuous so that populations may be continuously suppressed. The society that George Orwell foresaw in his novel 1984 is being realized in all too many places.


The manipulation of the media under the pretext of preventing terrorism has become more sophisticated than ever. Techniques are used to create confusion in the minds of people about themselves and their neighbours. By repeating various suggestions, doubts are created in the minds of the people as to the authenticity and credibility of any person or group that advocates democracy, rule of law and human rights.


A favorite theme concerns those accused of indirectly supporting terrorists. Anyone who seeks information – including lawyers, judges, journalists and intellectuals – that may be damaging to the leaders is portrayed as supporting the sinister plots of terrorists. Doubts are created concerning the intentions of such people, so ordinary people become confused.


In Asia, Sri Lanka is the most glaring example. Anti-terrorism laws and actions have now been extended to the deprivation of legal services to those considered “enemies of the state,” as demonstrated by a letter distributed to human rights lawyers by a group calling itself Mahason Balakaya, the Battalion of the Ghosts of Death. Death squads, operating under different names, have become part of peoples’ lives.


In the name of national security, Sri Lanka has come to resemble a police state. Similar conditions have been experienced in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Thailand and the Philippines, to name a few.


The American people have now rejected the government for which anti-terrorism was the core issue. The question is whether this will translate into genuine enthusiasm for democracy, rule of law and human rights.


The overwhelmingly positive response from countries outside the United States to the election of Barack Obama implies a deeply felt need for the United States to get its priorities right. People want to exorcise the psychosis of fear, cynicism and negativity and replace it with a belief in cooperation and human solidarity.


What really matters is not what the administration of Barack Obama will do. More important is what freedom-loving people throughout the world will do by creatively responding to the energies that have found expression in these times.


Movements for democracy, rule of law and human rights must take note of this new enthusiasm and work to create better conditions and develop strategies that prioritize human freedoms and human welfare. If the world passively waits for the next U.S. administration to take the lead, a great opportunity for a great change will be missed.


(Basil Fernando is director of the Asian Human Rights Commission based in Hong Kong)

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