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EDITIONS
 Monday, 20 January, 2003, 17:10 GMT
Is the war on terror violating human rights?
  Click here to watch the forum.

  • Click here to read the transcript


    George Bush has said that the fight against al-Qaeda is a battle for hearts and minds, and not just a matter of military power.

    But America has been accused of violating the human rights of captured al-Qaeda operatives and Taleban commanders now held at the Bagram air base in Afghanistan, as well the 'detainees' at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.

    The human rights organisation Human Rights Watch, investigates, reports on, and seeks to curb human rights abuses in some 70 countries.

    Kenneth Roth, Executive Director of Human Rights Watch has conducted human rights investigations around the globe, devoting special attention to standards governing military conduct in time of war, the human rights policies of the United States and the United Nations.

    How can democratic governments best fight an enemy like al-Qaeda? What should the limits of interrogation be if you have reason to believe the prisoner knows information that could prevent an act of terror?

    Kenneth Roth answered your questions.


    Transcript:


    Newshost:

    Hello and welcome to this BBC News Online interactive forum. The United States has been accused of overlooking abuses in countries which back its war on terror. It has also come under fire itself for allegedly violating the human rights of al-Qaeda detainees at its Guantanamo Bay base in Cuba.

    The charges are being made in the annual report by Human Rights Watch - the international human rights organization. I'm Paul Reynolds. The organisation's executive director says that when the America flouts human rights, it damages the human rights cause worldwide. Its director, Kenneth Roth, is here to answer your questions. Kenneth thank you for joining us. Let go straight to the e-mails.

    Vig, UK: Isn't the declaration that the prisoners at the US base in Cuba are "illegal combatants" a violation of the Geneva Convention?


    Kenneth Roth:

    The method that the United States has used to call these people illegal combatants is a violation of the Geneva Convention, in that the Geneva Convention require the establishment of a combatant tribunal to make that determination.

    President Bush has decided to dispense with the tribunal and simply to declare on his own that everyone there is an illegal combatant. In fact, we suspect that if a tribunal were established - let's say the Taleban detainees at least would probably be found to prisoners of war. Many of the al-Qaeda detainees might well be found to be illegal combatants but you'd need a tribunal to make that determination, it's not up to President Bush.


    Paul Reynolds:

    Sij, Southampton, UK: Isn't holding someone without charge a violation of their human rights?


    Kenneth Roth:

    Not necessarily. If a combatant is detained in the course of conflict, he can be held until the end of the conflict - that's permitted under the laws of war - there's no requirement that he be charged or tried. It's only if somebody's arrested outside of a war context that the ordinary human rights requirements of charge and trial enter into the picture.


    Paul Reynolds:

    Phill, Staffs, UK: Isn't it true that mercenaries are not covered by the Geneva Convention and therefore true that Al-Qaeda can legally be exempt? Do you think our human rights would be protected if we were their prisoners?


    Kenneth Roth:

    I actually don't think it's correct to call al-Qaeda a mercenary organisation in that from what we know of al-Qaeda, most of its members are not there for profit but for ideological purpose.

    One can debate whether the Geneva Conventions apply to a completely a completely non-governmental group operating in an international level like al-Qaeda. But you can certainly derive principles from the Geneva Conventions that should be governing the war with al-Qaeda.


    Paul Reynolds:

    What about the point, would our human rights be protected, he asks, if we were their prisoners?


    Kenneth Roth:

    Probably not but that's looking at the issue too narrowly because to defeat al-Qaeda, it's not a enough simply to use security measures targeted at them, one also needs to address the culture that gives rise to terrorism. One needs to persuade people who live in countries where the terrorists reside to cooperate with the fight against terrorism. And if the United States is flouting human rights standards - if it's supporting abusive governments around the world - that's hardly going to convince people to cooperate in combating terrorism.


    Paul Reynolds:

    What other examples do you have then of other governments abusing human rights?


    Kenneth Roth:

    Well, for example, in the war against terrorism we have the Musharraf government in Pakistan that in the last year, President Musharraf has given himself an extra five years as president, unelected. He has reinforced military control over civilian institutions. This is a government that the US is actively backing. President Bush, when asked about these disturbing trends, said of Musharraf - he's tight with us in the war against terrorism, that's what matters to me.

    Similarly the US is backing an abusive military in Indonesia. It's getting very cosy with the Karimov government is Uzbekistan. It's working with the warlords in Afghanistan. These are all disturbing trends that we've identified in our recent annual report.


    Paul Reynolds:

    This e-mail has just come in. Owen O'Connor, London: The US is correct to hold Taleban supporters, not just for information purposes. While human rights activists are quick to denounce the US, what are they intending to do about the human rights abuses in Iraq itself?


    Kenneth Roth:

    With respect to Iraq, Human Rights Watch has been working intensively on Saddam's awful human rights record for well over a decade.

    We were the organisation that did more than anybody else to document the genocide against the Kurds in 1988, including exhuming mass graves, interviewing hundreds of survivors, including seven people who had been on the execution line and miraculously survived. We even went through 18 tons of stolen Iraqi secret police documents to come up with evidence of abuses.

    So we've been reporting on Saddam's atrocities since the repression of the 1991 uprisings, the repression of the Marsh Arabs and the day-to-day repression that the Iraqi people suffer.


    Paul Reynolds:

    Vusa, Azerbaijan: How do you take into account that Saddam is himself responsible for violation of International Law?


    Kenneth Roth:

    Saddam Hussein is absolutely responsible for the worst human rights abuses around, including genocide. There's an open question though whether that should give rise to military action against him or not.

    I think it's important to stress that the proposed US invasion of Iraq is not a classical humanitarian intervention in the sense it is being waged for the benefit of the Iraqi people. If Saddam were replaced by an equally repressive tyrant tomorrow, who nonetheless decided to cooperate with the weapons inspectors, there's no question that the US would not invade. This is a military action for other purposes. But despite Saddam's awful human rights record, it's not a classical humanitarian intervention.


    Paul Reynolds:

    F S Hyatt, Pakistan: People around the world do not want war and there is clear cut message for Bush and his supporters not go to war. Does your organization have a position on the potential war?


    Kenneth Roth:

    Human Rights Watch traditionally does not take a position on whether war should be started on not. Instead, like the Red Cross, we see our job as making sure that any party to an armed conflict does everything possible to avoid harm to civilians.

    So for example, in the case of Iraq, we have been very concerned about the kinds of atrocities that could take place, should there be a war. On everything from the US Government's misuse of cluster bombs in civilian areas to the likelihood that Saddam Hussein, once he sees the end is near, will try to bring as many people down with him, using whatever weapons were at his disposal, to either enact broad scale reprisal killings or simply to embarrass the United States by killing people in the wake of an invasion.


    Paul Reynolds:

    A. Miles, Florida, USA: To fight back against an enemy like the al-Qaeda, there should be no limits to interrogation. Have we already forgotten the thousands who died?


    Kenneth Roth:

    This is a very timely issue because as the Washington Post recently reported, there is evidence that US interrogators are using torture both at Bagram airbase in Afghanistan an on the British territory of Diago Garcia in the Indian Ocean.

    This is appalling. It is violating one of the most basic human rights principles. It would subject those involved in torture to criminal prosecution any place in the world. It does no good to fight terrorism - which after is a breach of fundamental human rights principles by yourself breaching those basic principles.


    Paul Reynolds:

    How do you define torture in this context?


    Kenneth Roth:

    Torture is defined by the international convention against torture. Essentially it's the intentional infliction of physical or emotional pain.


    Paul Reynolds:

    What is being alleged in these cases?


    Kenneth Roth:

    According to the many sources interviewed by Washington Post, the US interrogators were using what they called stress and duress techniques, which involved banging the suspects' heads against the wall while they were blindfolded, holding them in contorted, uncomfortable positions, subjecting them to sleep deprivation, extensive noise, depriving them of medical treatment. When you put this together, it certainly comes very close to torture, if not actually being torture.


    Paul Reynolds:

    W J Arnold, Canada. There is no reason to resort to torture and interrogation. With proper interrogation techniques, everything you need to know will be learned. What are the actual procedures military and police are using?


    Kenneth Roth:

    Part of the problem is we don't know what procedures the military and police are using. They have been very secretive about their interrogation techniques.

    Significantly there has been no high level denial by the US Government about the allegations in Washington Post which is suggesting more than we already thought - that the allegations there might actually be true. But this is a critical issue that needs to be looked at very closely.


    Paul Reynolds:

    Chandler Moss, Kerhonkson, New York, USA: Has there been an investigation regarding the United States' supposed use of depleted uranium against Iraq in the Gulf War of the early 90s? Did the use of this cause mass birth defects in Iraq?


    Kenneth Roth:

    I have to say that although many people talk about depleted uranium as being a tremendous health hazard, the scientific evidence that Human Rights Watch has examined - this is not studies we've done ourselves but studies by others we've looked at - suggests that there is no long-term health damage caused by depleted uranium. This is clearly something that needs to be looked at. But so far the allegations are more myth than reality.


    Paul Reynolds:

    So the question of mass birth defects in Iraq would not therefore arise?


    Kenneth Roth:

    I know of no evidence to suggest that the use of depleted uranium has led to mass birth defects.


    Paul Reynolds:

    Chris Lowe: I hate Saddam and all he stands for but I have yet to see any real argument for war rather than continued peace. There are many states with as bad or worse human rights records that we could choose to deal with but don't.


    Kenneth Roth:

    There certainly are other baddies around the world. Saddam Hussein probably has been responsible for a quarter of a million deaths during his tenure as president of Iraq. That's a huge number and I don't want to minimise it in any sense. But obviously we know that in, say, during the Rwandan genocide, when the West refused to intervene, 800,000 - three-quarters of a million - people were murdered in the course of just a few months.

    So clearly there are other awful atrocities that take place. As I said, I don't think the Bush administration can credibly claim it is intervening in Iraq for humanitarian purposes.


    Paul Reynolds:

    We've had a lot of questions about asylum seekers which is becoming a big issue here in Europe - especially in Britain. Alan Collison, UK: How can a country determine a terrorist from a genuine asylum seeker without violating human rights?


    Kenneth Roth:

    Well first of all it is important to stress that most asylum seekers are exactly what they say they are - they are fleeing persecution, they're fleeing hardship in their countries. They are peaceful people who have sought refuge someplace in the West for reasons of personal safety.

    Now obviously you can always find one bad apple in the barrel - every once in a while that will happen. But just because of that bad apple, one should not throw out the entire asylum system. It is an important safety value for people who genuinely are fleeing persecution around the world.


    Paul Reynolds:

    How do you tell the difference was the question?


    Kenneth Roth:

    You tell the difference in the same way that the police would tell the difference - you ask questions, you probe, you test the story, you look at independent witnesses. It's not rocket science, it's just a matter of closely scrutinising a case.

    Frankly, there is no difference between an asylum seeker and anybody else who might be migrating to a country - even just a visitor could be a terrorist. This problem arises all the time. I think it is completely unfair to single out asylum seekers.


    Paul Reynolds:

    Tim, Stoke, UK: How can the Government of the UK put the civil rights of asylum seekers, who seem to be attacking the very people who help them, over the civil rights of its own citizens?


    Kenneth Roth:

    Again it's the same kind of question. Britain could just as easily close off the country to any visitor - a would-be terrorist could be among the thousands who go through Heathrow every day, most of whom are simply visiting the country, they have nothing to do with seeking asylum.

    Just because one person in recent incident happened to have been an asylum seeker is no reason to single out this one very needy category of people.


    Paul Reynolds:

    John Tierney, Düsseldorf, Germany: Why do you offer rights to people who seek to destroy many and hide the fact that they would be a part of such an act?


    Kenneth Roth:

    Well first of all if indeed you are a terrorist - that is if you've engaged in the persecution of other people- you are not eligible for asylum, so nobody is trying to protect those people. Everyone agrees that someone who is actually involved in terrorism should not be given protection. That exclusion is built right into the Refugee Convention.

    But again simply because occasionally some people might misuse the asylum system, just as they might misuse the privilege of visiting Britain or Germany for business purposes or for tourism purposes, doesn't mean you want to shut off the entire country to all tourists or all business people.


    Paul Reynolds:

    We've had another e-mail come in. They're rolling in these ones linking this issue of human rights and terrorists. Les Berrisford, Nottingham, UK: Why should terrorists be protected by human rights laws when they have clearly denied the same rights to their innocent victims?


    Kenneth Roth:

    That question goes beyond the asylum question, so let's look at it more broadly. I think it is essential that in fighting terrorism that the West be scrupulous in upholding human rights, even though the terrorists are acting completely antithetically to the concept of human rights and I say this for two reasons: first because it's important to substitute a culture of human rights for the pathology of terrorism, to reinforce the values that dissuade people from thinking that it's ok to attack innocent civilians.

    Second, as I mentioned, terrorism will never be defeated from afar. You need the cooperation of the people in the countries where terrorists reside in order to cooperate with law enforcement inquiries, in order to dissuade would-be terrorists. If they see their government backing their oppressors - whether it's the Indonesian military or the Musharraf government etc. - they are hardly going to be inclined to help and the war against terrorism is going to be lost.


    Paul Reynolds:

    Final question on a different subject, euthanasia. Jeff Fowler, England: Is it a human right for an individual to have the right to end their own life, as and when they choose?


    Kenneth Roth:

    The leading human rights treaties don't speak explicitly in terms of euthanasia or the right to suicide or anything of the sort. You would have to make the argument from the right to privacy, or the right to autonomy in a sense that does exist within those treaties. It's an argument that still hasn't been recognised by the leading international bodies and would have to be spelled out.


    Paul Reynolds:

    Do you have a position on it?


    Kenneth Roth:

    Human Rights Watch has not taken a position on that, no.


    Paul Reynolds:

    I'm afraid that's all we have time for. My thanks to our guest Kenneth Roth of Human Rights Watch and to you for your many emails. From me, Paul Reynolds, goodbye.


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