NEW CHALLENGES FOR DEMOCRACY AND HUMAN RIGHITS IN THE POST SEPTEMBER 11 ERA
Lâm Lễ Trinh
The world’s new look in the post September 11 era
It all started on that fateful morning on September 11 with the discovery of a new weapon: a fully fueled commercial airliner hijacked by members of the al Qaida terrorist group and transformed into a tool of destruction. It hit more than the twin towers of the World Trade Center. It wounded America and the world to the core. It was so unexpected, so enormous that one doesn’t know what to call it – an attack, an act of war? What is certain is that nothing now will ever be the same again. The crimes committed on September 11 will be repeated. History shows that when a new weapon is used, however monstrous, it will be used again. This was true of the use of mustard gas during the First World War and the bombing of civilians target after Guernica. And half a century after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the fear of a nuclear holocaust still hangs over the world.
The authors of the September 11 attacks had three objectives: physical destruction, symbolic impact and maximum media exposure.
More than 4000 people died in the destruction of the World Trade Center, a section of the Pentagon and the crash of the White House-bound airliner in Pennsylvania. If the targets had been nuclear plants, they would have caused tens of thousands of deaths.
The symbolic impact of the attacks was equally devastating. al Qaida wanted to strike at the symbols of American might, its economic power (The World Trade Center), its military power (The Pentagon) and its political power (The White House).
The attacks also got all the media exposure Osama Bin Laden, the alleged mastermind of the operation (and the product of American victory over Soviet hegemony in Afghanistan), could have hoped for. All the television screens throughout the world endlessly replayed the scenes of destruction, subjecting people in their homes to the spectacle of American vulnerability and the power of evil. Overnight, the name of a man who had been virtually unknown, became a household word.
It is clear that we have now crossed into the era of hyper-terrorism, terrorism on a global scale; global through its organization but also its objectives and extent. The demands of the new terrorists are unclear. They are not asking for the independence of a territory, or the installation of a specific regime, or some concrete political concession. They are out to punish the United States and beyond the U.S. Western nations, for a certain type of behavior.
The Washington-Beijing-Moscow triangle
The Clinton administration was known for its “humanitarian wars”. The Bush administration wages “the war against terrorism”. Multilateralism may be the message the State Department is sending the media but it doesn’t seem to be part of White House policy. It is interesting to compare the present situation with that during the Gulf War. At that time, George Bush Sr. made sure that he had the backing of an international coalition, wrapped himself in United Nations resolutions, got the tacit or explicit approval of Beijing and Moscow. These factors played a crucial part in Congress giving him the green light, by a narrow majority, to use force in January 1991. Ten years later, his son talks about multilateralism and coalition but his administration is making unilateral moves. In “Face the Nation” on CBS, on September 23, 2001, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld publicly stated that “the mission determines the coalition, we do not allow coalitions to determine the mission.”
In Resolution 1368 on September 12, the Security Council declared itself ready to take all necessary measures within the framework of the United Nations charter, to respond to the attacks. The United States declined the offer. It also declined offers made by its NATO allies who, for the first time in the history of the organization, invoked Article 4, which states that an attack on one of its members constitutes an attack on the whole organization. The United States preferred to go to war with the lone backing of loyal friend British Prime Minister Anthony Blair.
There has been a turning point in relations between the United States and China and Russia, two countries whose opposition to the United States have brought closer together, militarily and politically, in recent years. Moscow and Beijing too, are against “Islamic terrorism” and willing to support an international coalition against radical Islamism. In 1996, together with three former Soviet republics, Kazhakstan, Kirghistan and Tadjikistan, they set up the “Shanghai group” whose objective was to fight Islamic militancy. The Shanghai group became The Shanghai Organization of Cooperation, with Uzbekistan as a sixth member last June. Since September 11 however, Beijing has stayed on the sideline, much as it did during the Gulf War when it abstained from voting within the Security Council. Mindful of Washington’s reaction on the eve of China becoming a member of The World Trade Organization at the WTO meeting in Doha in November, Beijing did state its support in principle for the fight against terrorism but would like the response to the September attacks to take place within the framework of the United Nations and has asked for support for its own fight against “Islamic terrorism” in Xinjiang.
Beijing has many reasons to worry about current events as they can easily lead to a semi permanent American presence on China’s western borders; a rapprochement between the United States and Pakistan would limit China’s range of action since it has been supporting Pakistan in order to neutralize India; Japan is recovering a certain measure of its ability for foreign military intervention; the United States is also increasing its pressure on China to stop selling arms to states who allegedly support terrorism; last and not least, there’s the rapprochement between Moscow and Washington which China fears will result in the Russians agreeing to the US anti-missile shield project.
Relations between China and the United States got a little tense when Washington refused to lift the sanctions imposed on Beijing for providing Pakistan with material that could be used for the manufacturing of missiles (something that Beijing denied doing). Ironically, after September 11, the United States lifted the sanctions imposed earlier on Pakistan and India for violating the ban on nuclear proliferation. This weighed heavily on the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit held in Shanghai in October, which should have showcased the APEC countries’ support for the United States at war. There was no mention in the Summit’s final resolution of any direct support for the American offensive; on the contrary it stressed the necessity to act against terrorism within the framework of the UN and international law.
On October 19, President Bush met his Chinese counterpart to try and win him over to his proposal for an anti-missile shield. His efforts did not pay off. The meeting between Putin and Jian Zemin the next day led to a joint statement calling for an end to the bombing of Afghanistan and reaffirming the two countries’ support for the ABM Treaty which Bush considers outdated. The following day, the meeting between Putin and Bush ended on a more positive note for the United States: Putin said that he believed he and Bush could come to an understanding on the question of anti-missile defense, and Bush once again, called for the Cold War to be “truly” left behind.
This triangular game in which Putin played the central role didn’t start with September 11. Since coming to power, Putin has been pushing the interests of the arms and hydrocarbon industries, two main Russian exports. He has strengthened ties with China, India, Iran and other importers of Russian-made weapons. He has also courted the two largest potential customers of the Russian hydrocarbon industry, China (a 2, 400 km-long pipeline will bring Siberian oil to China in 2005) and Germany (Russia is its main gas supplier and a major oil supplier and Germany is also one of Russia’s main creditors). Putin has also strengthened ties between his country and Iraq, with an eye on the day the embargo will be lifted and the country will be once more opened to the Russian oil industry.
It was Putin who, in July 2001, in Moscow, signed a treaty of cooperation and mutual solidarity with China, for a period of twenty years. The treaty’s political clauses are implicity directed against Washington, notwithstanding the fact that Putin has met with President Bush four times since the latter came to power, with great demonstrations of friendship. Stung by the cold reception he received from the Europeans in the earlier days of his mandate, Bush had understood that he needed the support of Russia if he were to get his allies to agree to his proposal for an antimissile shield. As for Putin, he understood that the shield was a valuable bargaining chip in his relations with the United States.
In return for agreeing to an amendment or complete overhaul of the 1972 ABM Treaty, Moscow is asking Washington for a new symmetrical, contractual reduction of strategic arms; a reduction of Moscow’s debt to the member states of the Paris Club; support for Russia’s accession to the WTO in 2004; and the removal of obstacles such as the Jackson-Vanik amendment to this effect.
The Americans are not as naive as President Bush appears to be in his dealings with Putin. During the mid-October summit, Bush made no concessions. He unilaterally announced a reduction of the US nuclear arsenal as approved by the Pentagon while refusing to commit himself to a new Start treaty like the one considered by Clinton and Yeltsin and demanded by Putin; he reiterated his decision to unilaterally do away with the ABM Treaty if need be and to go ahead with his own antimissile defense plans.
New challenges for democracy and human rights
President Bush asked the question: why is it that some countries hate the United States while receiving American aid and favors? The New York Times’ editorials suggest that this is because the United States is the champion of capitalism, democracy, individual rights and the separation between Church and State. The Wall Street Journal put the question to non-Western bankers and high officials and came to the conclusion that the United States has a negative image because it has not helped the cause of democracy and economic development. And it has at times supported brutal regimes, some of them terrorists. The United States has unhesitatingly extended its hand, in the service of its own interests, to countries known for flagrant human rights violations: China (Tibet, Xinjiang, Falun Gong), Russia (Chechnya), Turkey (The Kurds), South Africa during apartheid, Iraq (before Saddam Hussein turned against the US), Afghanistan, Israel (the Palestinian problem), Iran under the Shah… Washington needs allies during its current war against terrorism, and human rights and democracy are minor concerns, as long as authoritarian regimes join the fight and agree to provide intelligence and contribute militarily.
Al Qaida is an organization perfectly adapted to globalization, with its multinational ramifications, financial networks, media connections and communication resources, propaganda cells, groups and sub-groups. Globalization has given rise to the “person state” of which Bin Laden is a prime example. Like a hermit crab taking over an empty shell, Bin Laden takes over an empty, unstructured state (Somalia once, then Afghanistan) placing it at the service of his ambition. The “person state” will give way eventually to the “company state” operating under the same principles.
Many analysts do not see terrorism as a tool of the powerless, on the contrary. Besides their superiority in armament, the powerful also control ideological and cultural resources that enable them to show terrorism under a positive light.
Who right now is able to challenge the United States? Russia, reduced to recruiting rich American tourists to finance its space flights? China, who needs 20 years of peace to stabilize its economy and society? American military superiority is absolute. The Rumsfeld Commission is able to say, straight-faced, that the threat comes from “people like Osama Bin Laden who may acquire satellite means”. We truly live in an upside down world!
The fight against terrorism requires a reduction of the level of terror, not an increase. When the IRA commits a terrorist act in London, the UK government doesn’t destroy Boston, a city where the IRA enjoys great support, or Belfast. It seeks out the culprits and puts them on trial.
A first step against terrorism would be to refrain from contributing to the level of terror. Then to look at the policies that have led to the kind of situation that the perpetrators of the terrorist acts have been able to exploit. These last few weeks, American public opinion has woken up to a whole range of international realities and has perhaps made its first steps in this direction.
- Condoleeza Rice, “Promoting the National Interest” in Foreign Affairs, Jan-Feb 2000
- Robert Tucker & Frederick Hendrickson, “The Imperial Temptation”, Council on Foreign Relations, New York 1992, p. 10.
- Jesse Helms, “Entering the Pacific Century”, Heritage Foundation, Washington DC, 1996
- Noam Chomsky, “Terorism, Weapon of the Powerful”, Philip S. Golub, “America’s Imperial Longings”, Ignacio Ramonet, “The World’s New Look”, in Le MondeDiplomatique, July and December 2001.