Why the antiwar left must confront terrorism

The director of Amnesty International USA warns that the left must confront terror with the same zeal that it battles Bush -- or risk irrelevance.

Published November 15, 2003 9:10PM (EST)

More than two years into the Bush administration's lurching war on terror, William Schulz, executive director of Amnesty International USA, is aiming some of his sharpest criticism not at the White House, but at the American political left. His message: Take on the terror threat, or risk irrelevance.

War protesters of various stripes, alongside anti-globalization and human rights activists, have staged several large rallies nationwide this year, channeling their anger at the Bush administration through slogans like "No blood for oil," "End the imperialist occupation" and "Regime change begins at home." But in an interview with Salon, Schulz said that the political left has thus far botched a key mission. "There's been a failure to give the necessary attention, analysis and strategizing to the effort to counter terrorism and protect our fundamental right to security," he said. "It's a serious problem."

In his new book, "Tainted Legacy: 9/11 and the Ruin of Human Rights," Schulz argues that rising global terrorism requires the left "to rethink some of our most sacred assumptions." A vigorous defense of human and civil liberties, while essential to spreading democracy worldwide, is not enough to stop terrorists from blowing up airplanes or shopping malls, he says. And that presents the left with a problem, because some of the tools needed to fight terror, such as stricter border controls or beefed up intelligence work -- and, perhaps, war against states that support terrorists -- chafe against traditional leftist values.

But protecting America's borders as well as its treasured freedoms is a daunting task. There is ample reason to decry (as Amnesty has) the deeply invasive potential of the PATRIOT Act, the secretive rounding up and prolonged detention of more than 1,200 Arabs and Muslims nationwide, and the alleged coercion -- some would call it torture -- of terror suspects by the U.S. government. Of equal concern is Washington's current distaste for multilateral diplomacy, which puts crucial alliances at risk at a time of mounting global turmoil. But it's not enough, Schulz says, to launch defiant rhetoric at a barreling, unilateralist Bush administration, even when its policies threaten to bulldoze the very cornerstones of democracy.

He raises some hard questions: If there's reason to believe the New York City subway is a prime terrorist target, should we really object to surveillance cameras in the name of privacy rights, especially if use of the evidence they obtain is limited? If democratic elections would bring a radical Islamist government to power in Pakistan that might distribute nuclear weapons to terrorists, should we still call for democracy there over military rule?

Like many on the left, Schulz doesn't have ready answers. Saddam's horrific human rights record was well-known -- Amnesty International documented it for more than two decades. And yet, Amnesty takes no official position on the U.S. intervention in Iraq, and Schulz sticks to careful, noncommittal language when it comes to defending human rights with military power. "The job of the human rights world is not to make military decisions of one sort or another," he says.

With the new terror threat roiling the globe -- which some argue has given brutal regimes freer license to crack down at home -- Amnesty may need to recast its framework for defending human rights. U.N. sanctions failed to undermine Saddam's rule throughout the 1990s, and they raise complicated humanitarian concerns, typically compounding economic pain for populations already pinned beneath the heel of dictatorship. "In the long run," Schulz admits, "it may not be wise of Amnesty to have a policy that it takes no position on military intervention."

Still, he remains deeply troubled by the PATRIOT Act and the Bush administration's aggressive doctrine of preemption. "I think history gives us good reason to think this is exactly the wrong strategy to pursue," he says, "if the goal is to prolong American power, and, presumably, its values."

Salon reached Schulz by phone at his home in New York.

Why has the political left failed to articulate an adequate strategy for fighting terrorism since 9/11?

Because of an abhorrence -- a quite understandable one -- for the Bush administration's policies, there has been a tendency for the American political left and the greater human rights community to downplay the genuine, serious threat of terrorism around the globe. Presumably the human rights community is committed to protecting Article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, namely the guarantee of security of person -- the right to life. But there's been a failure to give the necessary attention, analysis and strategizing to the effort to counter terrorism and protect this right to security. Far more energy has gone toward offsetting the very real, damaging human rights violations committed not just by the United States, but by many governments, in the name of fighting the war on terror.

But why else do you think that is? In the book you point out that human rights advocates, as much as anyone, should despise terrorism, and be willing to act against it. Is the human rights community simply too disorganized to combat terror, or is there a deeper ideological problem?

Human rights organizations are basically set up to put pressure on governments, not on more amorphous entities like terrorist groups. The traditional tools we use are generally not going to be effective with terrorists. I doubt Osama Bin Laden is going to be moved by 50,000 members of Amnesty International writing him a letter asking him to refrain from terrorist acts. In the face of a new kind of force in the world that is detrimental to human rights, the human rights community has been slow to adapt to that new reality, in both its understanding and its tactics. There's a cultural lag at work here.

It's a serious problem. It means that human rights advocates are seen solely as harping critics. We certainly need to be that; it's a very important role. But if we fail to engage with the very real, hard decisions that governments have to make about protecting the safety of their citizens, then we'll be dismissed as charlatans, or ideologues who are out of step with reality.

A recent Gallup poll showed two-thirds of Iraqis think that the ousting of Saddam "was worth any hardships they have personally endured since the invasion," and two-thirds said they believed that the country will be better off in five years than it was before the invasion. Do you support the invasion and occupation of Iraq?

Amnesty International took no position on the military action itself. We had been highlighting for more than 20 years the human rights violations by Saddam Hussein. No one who cares about human rights can help but be grateful that he is no longer in power.

But the way in which the United States went about the overthrow, particularly in its thumbing of its nose at international institutions, and without an international sanction for the invasion, did in the long run, I'm afraid, enormous damage to the international support structure for human rights.

But over the last decade didn't the international system prove unable to undermine Saddam's brutal regime? Is it fair to say that the repeated call by the Europeans and Russians to let the U.N. inspections process continue rang rather hollow by 2003?

Remember that the European stance, perhaps with the exception of Germany, was not that military intervention of some sort could never be authorized. The fundamental stance of many critics of the Bush administration at the U.N. was that there ought to be more time allowed for the weapons inspectors to do their necessary work. In the book, I do criticize the French and the Germans and the Russians for failing to offer a viable, effective alternative to [military] intervention as a way to put an end to Hussein's human rights violations.

But the issue here is whether or not one country, or a very small group of countries, can, in a hurried fashion, simply ignore international institutions that prop up human rights, along with the many other multilateral enterprises -- not only in the absence of international sanction, but with what appears to have been [direct] opposition.

The NATO-sanctioned intervention in Kosovo speaks to this. Granted, it also took place well after many human rights violations had been committed there, but it was a united action, which has since been supported by a relatively united attempt to rebuild Kosovo. So a greater degree of patience and respect for those international processes regarding Iraq might well have resulted in a far broader coalition, and there's a good chance the consequences of rebuilding Iraq would've been far less drastic, for all involved, than they are now.

Why did the Bush administration ultimately carry out its Iraq policy the way it did? Do you subscribe to any of the more cynical views commonly voiced by the left, for example that the war was simply a big oil grab?

I think it reflects a rather wholesale disregard for international institutions, for a multilateral framework in which to conduct U.S. foreign policy. I don't think it's only about oil. That may be part of it, but fundamentally it's about American power. The United States has articulated in the National Defense Strategy (PDF file) -- with its precursor being the Project for a New American Century (PDF file) -- the desire to make sure American military power is preeminent, and will stay that way 100, 200 and 500 years from now. That will be accomplished by asserting American unilateral military power -- and economic power, though the two in some measure go hand in hand -- wherever it's needed around the globe.

Paradoxically, I think history gives us good reason to think this is exactly the wrong strategy to pursue if the goal is to prolong American power, and the values for which America presumably stands.

At the latest antiwar demonstrations in Washington and San Francisco on Oct. 25, which were largely organized by the radical group International ANSWER, protesters used slogans such as "End the imperialist occupation," and "Bring the troops home now." Do you think these are tenable positions, or is this the type of insular politics you criticize in your book?

I think you need to articulate the position you're asking me about a little more clearly than just a slogan.

Well, what happens if we do pull the troops out of Iraq now?

Look, this may be frustrating, but Amnesty International doesn't take a position on pulling the troops out or keeping them in. What we do believe is that there has to be a rebuilding of the judicial infrastructure in Iraq, and much of the work we're doing there is designed to educate and train, and to rebuild a system that will allow the people who had crimes committed against them and their families to seek redress -- and ultimately allow there to be a functioning system of justice when the troops are withdrawn. Amnesty has not called for the withdrawal of troops. And we certainly didn't call for them to be put there in the first place.

Our job, and the job of the human rights world, is not to make military decisions of one sort or another. It's to say, once we're in there, "Here are the standards that must be met by the occupying troops, and here are the kind of government institutions that must be built. And if you're not doing that adequately, whether it's in Afghanistan or Iraq, then you're not doing your job."

But isn't that somewhat of a contradiction of your view that human rights advocates need to articulate a constructive strategy for both battling terrorism and defending human rights, including whatever the necessary military tools? You can't establish a functioning judicial system in Iraq if you don't establish security first.

Of course not. All I can tell you is that Amnesty has not called for the withdrawal of troops. You're absolutely right that security needs to be established. Human rights can't function in a situation of chaos and anarchy. We believe that. And that will involve, under the current circumstances, a military presence for some period of time. In fact, in Afghanistan we've called for that military presence to be extended beyond Kabul so that security can be established across the country, precisely so that a new judicial system, and a larger system with respect for human rights, can be established.

Michael Ignatieff, director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, supported the Iraq war on human rights grounds. Recently he said in the New York Times, "What always drove me crazy about the [war] opposition was that it was never about Iraq. It was a referendum on American power." Shouldn't Amnesty in fact take a position on the use of military power if its primary goal is ending the human rights abuses of regimes such as Saddam's?

In the long run it may not be wise of Amnesty International to have a policy that it takes no position on military intervention. Certainly I have argued within Amnesty that in the face of genocide, such as in Rwanda, the organization is utterly remiss not to take a position in favor of military intervention.

Again, for better or worse, Amnesty did not take a position on military intervention in Iraq, and doesn't take one now regarding the withdrawal of the troops -- though we certainly aren't calling for their withdrawal. There does indeed need to be basic security before any support for human rights can be established.

Recently several Democratic U.S. senators spoke out in favor of the PATRIOT Act. According to the Washington Post, Joseph Biden, D-Del., said popular criticism of the legislation has been "ill-informed and overblown," and even Russ Feingold, D-Wis. -- the only U.S. senator who actually voted against the legislation -- said he supports "90 percent" of its provisions, and that the rest are "fixable." What's your view of PATRIOT? Can we stop terrorism without it?

There's little evidence at this point that the PATRIOT Act is a critical factor in defending the country against terrorism. The Justice Department has acknowledged that they have used it exceedingly sparingly, and that when it has been used, it's been against non-terrorist criminal elements. This isn't to say that there aren't parts of it which are reputable, about which civil libertarians and human rights advocates should have no complaints.

It's clear that the major element of the PATRIOT Act that's drawn criticism is its short-circuiting of the traditional process of seeking subpoenas from an independent court for retrieving personal information. I've seen no evidence, from Feingold or anyone else, that sidestepping the traditional process of going to court -- where you have to show at least some degree of evidence as to why such information is relevant to the pursuit of a suspect -- is a necessary provision. The Justice Department itself, by saying it has rarely used the provision, appears to be acknowledging it isn't necessary.

That knocks out a fundamental argument in favor of PATRIOT in the first place: You have to be able to prove that some derogation of traditional rights is not only effective, but necessary to pursuing the protection of security -- that without the suspension of these rights, the public's safety will be considerably jeopardized. Thus far I haven't seen such evidence.

What about with the alleged al-Qaida cell broken up in Portland, Ore., or the Lackawanna terror case in New York?

I've seen no evidence that those cases would not have been effectively pursued and cracked, absent the PATRIOT Act. The key issue here is whether or not the attorney general, in effect, can make decisions unilaterally, without having subpoenas approved by a court. As I read the long New York Times account of the Lackawanna case, I didn't see any element of that case which depended on bypassing the traditional subpoena route. Judges almost always agree to the government's subpoena requests [in these types of cases]. So from a pragmatic point of view this looks like a most unwise, and at the very least unnecessary, short-circuiting of that process. I don't think John Ashcroft has tried to make the case that there were major cases over the last two years that would have posed a great threat to American security had the PATRIOT Act not been in place. Nor have I seen any evidence that using the traditional court system is inadequate, not just in terms of the subpoena process, but once the arrest is made, when the individual should be promptly told of the charges against him, and provided an attorney.

In the book you say that supporting human rights does not require being pacifist. When is the use of violence appropriate?

I personally believe that in the face of genocide the world community should intervene militarily. That situation clearly trumps national sovereignty. I think it was the Clinton administration's greatest shame that it blocked the United Nations from intervening in Rwanda. I think the intervention in Kosovo is defensible on human rights grounds, and there may be others.

But there are also profoundly destructive human rights situations, such as Zimbabwe today -- where the free press is being stifled, where political opposition leaders are being tossed into jail -- that don't necessarily warrant military intervention, at least not at this point. In Zimbabwe's current case, the international community should use all the other tools that are available to it to try to bring pressure on the Mugabe government.

Do you feel the same was true of Iraq before the U.S.-led invasion?

To the best of my knowledge, neither Amnesty nor any other human rights organization had documented active genocide going on in Iraq. There were profound human rights violations going on, and I think there's an arguable case that those violations may very well have justified some sort of international military intervention. That's a case I'm certainly prepared to discuss.

Was there a more clear case for military intervention with Saddam's slaughtering of the Shiia in southern Iraq when the U.S. pulled out after the first Gulf war? Or with Saddam's gas attacks on the Kurds?

Well, the attack on the Kurds was in 1988, but you were asking about 2003, and to the best of my knowledge there was not active genocide going on in Iraq in 2003. I do think in those instances, the attacks against the Kurds and later against the Shiia, were situations that might very well have justified military intervention. Absolutely.

There've been credible news reports from Afghanistan and Guantánamo Bay that U.S. officials have used coercion -- what some would call torture -- to interrogate terror suspects. Is there ever a case where this can be justified to any degree? In particular I'm thinking of the capture of al-Qaida mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed, where there is near certainty that he has valuable information which could unlock terrorist plans and potentially save many lives.

The judgment about whether something spills over into cruel, inhumane, degrading treatment has to be made on a case by case basis, and not just by Bill Schulz; there are international courts that determine this. I don't know what techniques are being used on Khalid Sheik Mohammed, nor does Amnesty International. That, of course, is part of the problem here: It's very difficult to make judgments without information. Some of the descriptions from the New York Times and the Washington Post of the types of interrogations taking place would, I think, be described by an international court or a human rights commission, as cruel, inhumane, degrading treatment -- as torture. For example, being shackled in painful positions for a long period of time.

On the other hand, the reports of prisoners being misled into thinking they've been transferred to the New York City police department or some foreign government, techniques of disorientation and duplicity ... I think that those probably don't fall into that category. In the book I cite that the FBI has [dozens] of interrogatory techniques that have proven effective without using physical coercion.

Why has there been so little outcry from the American public about the rounding up of roughly 1,200 Arabs and Muslims in the United States after 9/11, or about the reports of coercive techniques used on suspects and prisoners?

The government has led the general public to believe that these actions are necessary to keep it safe. Even though we know that of the 1,200 [domestic] detainees not a single one of them was charged with anything having to do with terrorism. Only about 100 of them were charged with any crime other than visa violations, and those crimes had nothing to do with terrorism. Human rights groups have frequently requested access to these prisoners, and we've consistently been turned down.

I think the government has certainly implied that the stress and duress techniques [of interrogation] are yielding significant information which is helping protect the public. I have no idea whether that's the case. It's very difficult to tell. So much of this is veiled in secrecy, not just from human rights groups and the media, but from the courts themselves -- some of it with the courts' connivance, as in the [Federal Appeals] court decision that the courts have no jurisdiction in Guantánamo.

It's an entire system of incarceration without oversight of any kind, except that of the International Committee of the Red Cross. The ICRC took a remarkable step and broke a decades-long tradition of never speaking out publicly: They criticized the indefinite detention at Guantánamo, with no access to lawyers for the detainees. To the best of my knowledge, it's the only oversight agency that's had any access to Guantánamo, and it hasn't had access to Baghram airbase in Afghanistan, or to wherever prisoners have been transferred in Egypt, Morocco or Syria, or elsewhere. I think if you're going to undermine the most fundamental rights in the U.S. justice system, and the Geneva Conventions, as the United States has clearly done in Guantánamo, at the very least you have an obligation to allow appropriate parties access to those individuals to make a judgment as to their conditions and treatment.

Freedom from torture is a non-derogable right agreed to under every international human rights treaty, including the Convention Against Torture, which the United States has ratified. The president himself has issued a statement that torture is absolutely unacceptable. So in this respect all we're asking is that the U.S. government hold itself to its own standards.

What if there is another major attack on U.S. soil? What would that portend for civil and human rights?

I think there's no doubt it would have a very damaging impact. It would provide an excuse for even deeper forays into violations of human rights, and in the long run that would be tragic and utterly self-defeating.

With the war on terror, we're faced with convincing millions and millions of people around the globe who may be yet undecided about whether or not to opt for support of extremism rather than democratic values and respect for human rights. We have to win the loyalty of those people -- to say nothing of maintaining the loyalty of those predisposed to supporting the United States in the first place, whether it's the moderate Muslim world, or our European or other allies.

It's utterly critical for the human rights community to take the threat of terrorism seriously and do whatever it can to articulate and carry out a strategy for diminishing that threat -- stopping violent attacks is part of that. But promoting human rights is a profoundly important weapon in the struggle to defeat terrorism. It's a far more important one than the Bush administration has acknowledged.

By Mark Follman

Mark Follman is Salon's deputy news editor. Read his other articles here.

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