24 April 2024 07:52 AM



From The Cold War to War on Terror

December 10 is Human Rights Day. Nandita Haksar, a human rights lawyer of repute, traces the background to analyse the current violations of human rights under the war on terror being waged by governments of the world.

The Second World War has been called the deadliest conflict in history in which an estimated sixty million people died; a third of the human population in 1939. These deaths include the five million prisoners of war who perished in the gas chambers, camps and detention centres; the figure includes 11.000 Indian prisoners of war taken at the Fall of Singapore, who died in captivity. These statistics do not tell the stories of the millions of individual tragedies and the sufferings of the survivors.

It was the horror and brutalities that pushed the world’s independent states to draft a Universal Declaration on Human Rights. The idea was to include a vision of a world which would be free of fear and want. It took two years to draft a Declaration acceptable to the majority of people.

December 10, 1948

The General Assembly passed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. But it was by no means a document acceptable to everyone; although no country voted against it. Forty-eight sovereign states voted for the Declaration; there were eight abstentions.

Saudi Arabia objected to equality of women; South Africa objected to the idea of equality of races; and the Soviet Bloc objected to the declaration on the ground it encapsulated a capitalist vision in which the individual was supreme.

The Declaration could become law only if it was elaborated into a Covenant and it would take nearly twenty years for the world to agree on the contents of the Covenant.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is the most celebrated document in the world; and the Guinness Book of World Records says it is the most translated document; more than 400 translations from Abkhaz to Zulu.

It took nearly three decades more for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to become enforceable law.

January 7, 1976

There were sharp disagreements between the Western capitalist countries and the Soviet Union which had the support of the growing number of Third World states.

The dispute was whether human rights should include socio-economic, cultural rights of people such as the right to work, the right to social welfare and the right to development; or as the West argued, human rights were designed to protect individuals from State violence.

Finally, in order to accommodate the sharp political differences there were two Covenants passed which together are called the Bill of Human Rights. The Covenants are the basis of international human rights law: the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights and the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

United States of America did not ratify the Covenants or any major human rights treaties all though the Cold War.

War and Military Interventions: 1948 to 1988

The USA interventions throughout the fifties to eighties were made in the name of curbing and curtailing Communism which it claimed to be a threat to the “free world”.

U.S. troops used a substance known as napalm from about 1965 to 1972 in the Vietnam War; napalm is a mixture of plastic polystyrene, hydrocarbon benzene, and gasoline. This mixture creates a jelly-like substance that, when ignited, sticks to practically anything and burns up to ten minutes. The effects of napalm on the human body are unbearably painful and almost always cause death among its victims.

Throughout the duration of the war, 1965 – 1973, eight million tons of bombs were dropped over Vietnam; this was more than three times the amount used in the Second World War.

In addition to dropping napalm bombs the USA used Agent Orange, a deadly defoliant, to destroy fields and forests in Vietnam. Agent Orange not only had devastating effects on agriculture but also on people and animals. The Vietnam Red Cross recorded over 4.8 million deaths and 400,000 children born with birth defects due to exposure to Agent Orange.[1]

At home the USA launched the counter-insurgency programme, COINTELPRO by the FBI. FBI agents destroyed Black Panther movement, resistance by Native Americans and even organizations fighting to end the war. One of the most famous prisoners of the time was Angela Davis. A student of Sorbonne University who was released after a worldwide campaign was launched told the FBI undercover agent: Yes I am a communist. And I will not take the fifth amendment against self-incrimination, because my political beliefs do not incriminate me; they incriminate the Nixons, Agnews and Reagans.”[2]

Burning Naga Villages, bombing Mizoram

It was during the 1950s and 1960s that India waged her own wars in the North East region of the country in a desperate bid to put down the insurgency by the Nagas and later the Mizos.

Villages were burnt to cinders by the Indian army, women were raped and men tortured for months. Later the Indian Air Force bombed Aizwal in a bid to stop the Mizo National Front from declaring their independence from India.

This was the time the Indian Parliament passed the notorious Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958.

The Communists and the rest of the country were silent on the horrendous human rights violations of Indian citizens. They said that the insurgencies had been instigated by the CIA; even if that were true can combing of one’s own citizens be justified?

In 1975 the Congress Government declared a national Emergency. During that period hundreds of people across the country were arrested and jailed; this included opposition party leaders, students, activists and journalists.

In the aftermath of the National Emergency human rights movement in India was born.

Human Rights Discourse: Tool of Imperialism

After the USA lost their war in Vietnam they tried to recover their lost prestige by becoming champions of Human Rights. This was the time when the USA foreign policy linked human rights to foreign aid. The 1974 Foreign Assistance Act was used by the USA to aquire moral high ground by appearing to be champions of human rights while supporting the most brutal and vicious governments;

The Reagan Administration supplied the Salvadoran military with billions of dollars worth of security assistance in its attempt to suppress a left-wing insurgency that threatened the brutal military-controlled dictatorship. The result was the deaths of over 80,000 Salvadorans. The imprecise phrase “gross violations” of human rights also allowed the United States executive the opportunity to circumvent U.S. law. American Presidents, when they want to provide aid to governments that violate human rights, simply determine that the violations do not constitute gross violations. The legislation mandates that the violations must be significant in their impact without determining the level of significance. Arbitrary imprisonment is listed as a gross violation but detention with- out charges for weeks, months or even years are not considered gross because of the relatively brief period of confinement.

Another major limitation of the legislation is “consistent pattern.” Presidents simply fail to find patterns or declare the patterns of human rights violations inconsistent, and, thereby, aid can be granted to abusing countries. For example, Carter found that in the case of Indonesia in 1979 there was not a consistent pattern of human rights violations because there was a plan to someday release the political prisoners. So, in spite of the fact that approximately 100,000 people were murdered 30,000 were still incarcerated, Indonesia was not denied U.S. security assistance.[3] These human rights violations could all be justified in the name of containing communists and communism.

Structural Adjustment Programmes

Throughout the 1980s the West tried to manufacture consent among the human rights community that the main cause of human rights violations were the ethnic conflicts within the third world countries. One expert stated: “The fact that nearly all wars after World War II took place in the Third World” but he forgot to mention that these regimes were supported and propped up by the West.

Also a large scale human rights violations were due to the structural adjustment programmes imposed on poor countries by the International Monetary Fund.

According to UNICEF, over 500,000 children under the age of five died each year in Africa and Latin America in the late 1980s as a direct result of the debt crisis and its management under the International Monetary Fund’s structural adjustment programs. These programs required the abolition of price supports on essential food-stuffs, steep reductions in spending on health, education, and other social services, and increases in taxes.

In 1994 many activists formed a coalition against the policies of the World Bank and the IMF on the fiftieth anniversary saying “50 years is enough”.

Terrorism: an outside enemy

The War against terrorism did not begin after the attack on the Twin Towers. The USA needed to invent another enemy to replace the communist as the main enemy of freedom and liberty; another threat to democracy, human rights and freedom. That enemy was going to be Islamic terrorist.

The invention of this enemy began right from the 1970s. Right back in 1972 the General Assembly of the United Nations set up an Ad Hoc Committee to define terrorism. There was a sharp division between the US and the third world countries on who was a terrorist. The third world leaders refused to call political activists engaged in national liberation wars against foreign occupation as terrorists.

Even though many anti-terrorist law were passed in the USA in the 1990s they did not arrive at a satisfactory definition of terrorism.

The problem was to define who was a terrorist and what is terrorism? After a survey of leading academics the International Institute of Terrorism (founded in 1996, long before the attack on the Twin Towers) discovered there were 109 different definitions of terrorism.

India and the war against terror

India also had its own war against terrorism. In 1985 it passed the Terrorism and Disruptive Activities Act. Large scale human rights violations were committed by the police and finally the Act was allowed to lapse in 1995.

On August 24, 1994 Union Minister of State for Home, Rajesh Pilot, told the Parliament: “Of the approximately 67,000 individuals detained since TADA came into force, 8,000 were tried and only 725 persons were convicted. Some 59,509 people had been detained with no case being brought against them. The TADA Review Committees found that except in 5,000 cases the application of TADA was wrong and asked for the withdrawal of cases. Despite the admissibility of the confessions made to the police as evidence – which were invariably made under torture – the conviction rate was less than 1 per cent. Yet, thousands of people underwent prolonged detention without ever being convicted. The maximum numbers of arrests under TADA were not made in Punjab, Jammu and Kashmir or North-east India but in Gujarat, which had no record of terrorism. The majority of the victims belonged to religious minorities.”

The War against Terror

Human rights community has been alarmed by the lowering of international human rights standards in the name of security legislature in the United States and all over the world.

During the two terms of US President Ronald Reagen CIA gave aid worth five billion worth of dollars to fund the Afghan war in order to defeat the Russians. In their desire to fight communism they made radical Islam a force which they cannot control.[4]

In the name of democracy and human rights the USA has invaded

A large-scale survey of Iraqi households by UNICEF, published in 2012, estimated that between 800,000 and a million Iraqi children under 18 – or about five percent of Iraqi children – have lost one or both of their parents

As of 2007 more Iraqis had lost their homes and become refugees than the population of any other country. Over 3.9 million people, close to 16 percent of the Iraqi population, have become uprooted. Of these, around 2 million have fled Iraq and flooded other countries, and 1.9 million are estimated to be refugees inside Iraq.

The American soldiers who have been in this war are suffering from mental and physical disabilities; including PTSD and amputations.

The full truth of the horrors of the war against terror would never have been exposed had it not been for a few very brave individuals, journalists and whistle-blowers. For instance, it was WikiLeaks which first exposed in November 2007 how the US had tried its best to control and restrict access of the International Committee for the Red Cross to prisoners, especially those held in solitary confinement. The US military denied that there were certain prisoners who were off-limits to the Red Cross; WikiLeaks exposed the lie. Wikileaks also exposed the fact that dogs were used to intimidate prisoners.[5]

For the founder of WikiLeaks, Julius Assange himself has been under threat of arrest for revealing government secrets. Like Assange, Edward Snowden risked his life to expose the extent of surveillance being carried out by the USA. He has had to leave his home and country and seek political asylum in another country.

For Edward Snowden and Julius Assange human rights does not offer adequate protection but the right to free speech and the right to privacy are their only legal defence and the basis for a worldwide campaign for their right to publish. Human rights law can offer legal protection to individuals but only if they can afford expensive lawyers who are trained to use human rights law in courts which are biased in favour of the government, the rich and the powerful.

Human Rights Today

There are nine million men, women and children languishing in the prisons all over the world. The highest rate of incarceration is in the USA. It is estimated that one every four Black men in the USA will be in prison at this rate.

Eighty per cent of humanity does not have adequate food to eat. It is estimated there are 30 million slaves in the world and many of these include girls and women who are trafficked.

In India between 1980 and 2010 twelve million girls were aborted. This gendercide has resulted in 37 million more men in India than women.

The world is not getting any safer; it is still racist and patriarchal; and it is unjust and increasingly conservative and authoritarian.

For these millions of people who go hungry every day, watch their children die of curable diseases because they cannot afford medical expenses; for those who sleep out in the cold Human Rights Day is meaningless. For the millions of men, women and children who are victims of human rights violations the Bill of Rights offers very little solace. They must find other means to resist the occupation of their country by foreign troops, the denial of human rights by their governments and the fight the unfair international order.