Nations Use Fear to Distract From Rights Abuses, Group Says

By Nora Boustany
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, May 24, 2007

Powerful governments and armed groups are spreading fear to divert attention from human rights abuses, exacerbating polarization in an increasingly dangerous world, Amnesty International said yesterday in its annual assessment of rights worldwide.

"The politics of fear is fueling a downward spiral of human rights abuse in which no right is sacrosanct and no person is safe," said Irene Khan, secretary general of the human rights watchdog. Governments are undermining the rule of law and human rights with "short-sighted fear-mongering and divisive policies."

The United States is "the leading country using fear to justify the unjustifiable," said Larry Cox, executive director of Amnesty International USA. "The U.S. used to be in a position to speak out effectively against torture and military tribunals. We can't do that now because we are carrying out some of the same practices," he said.

The organization urged the new U.S. Congress to take the lead in restoring respect for humane standards and practices at home and abroad.

Citizens in many countries are being manipulated by fear, the group said. In Iran, attacks on civil society and the arrests of journalists and scholars are being carried out in the name of protecting the country from a U.S. attack, Cox said. The Sudanese government has warned about the country's possible colonization as it tries to minimize the gravity of the conflict in Darfur.

"If you look at Egypt, they have had a state of emergency for decades and now use fear of terrorism to entrench those laws and make them permanent. Russia has been using the situation in Chechnya in the same way, and Zimbabwe's government has based its tactics on racial fears," Cox said.

"In Colombia, in the name of legitimate fear of armed groups, the government has been engaged in serious violations of human rights," he said.

The number of governments committed to upholding standards has declined. "Those which you could usually count on, such as the United Kingdom or countries in Western Europe, have been found to be mostly complicit in secret detention sites and they are tightening up their refugee laws," Cox said.

In 2006, major crises were met with timid responses. "Whether it is in Sri Lanka or Lebanon, we have not been effective as a result of our loss of moral authority," he said.

"The U.N. took weeks to muster the will to call for a cease-fire in the conflict in Lebanon in which approximately 1,200 civilians lost their lives," the report said.

The report also expressed concern about the treatment of migrants and displaced populations.

In Africa, "several million refugees and internally displaced people, including children and the elderly," lack basic shelter, protection and care because of armed conflicts on the continent.

The extensive use of the death penalty in Africa was also criticized. In Rwanda, the scene of a genocide in 1994, 600 people are on death row, the report said. The death penalty was "one of the main obstacles preventing the transfer to Rwanda's national jurisdiction of detainees held by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda or indicted genocide suspects living abroad."

Fear has allowed the persecution of ethnic and religious minorities to flourish: "From Dublin to Bratislava, anti-Roma attitudes remain entrenched. . . . In many western countries, discrimination has been generated by fears of uncontrolled migration and, post-9/11, aggravated by counter-terrorism strategies targeting Arabs, Asians and Muslims."

Amnesty applauded civil society for its "courage and commitment" in the face of abuses. Marches, petitions, blogs and armbands "may not seem much by themselves," the report said, "but by bringing people together they unleash an energy for change that should not be underestimated."

"People power will change the face of human rights in the 21st century," the report said.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company