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BUILDING A COALITION: Rights abuses overlooked to gain allies

The 'anything goes' attitude may backfire, some critics say

September 27, 2001


WASHINGTON -- In his search for allies in a war on terrorism, President George W. Bush at least for now has pushed long-held U.S. standards about human rights and democracy to the background.

Bush has suddenly reached out to -- and in some cases is now relying on -- countries and groups that the United States in the past held at arm's length because of human-rights violations.

They include central Asian countries such as Uzbekistan that are virtual dictatorships; longtime U.S. adversaries such as Iran, Syria and Sudan that are on the State Department's list of terrorist-sponsoring nations; and the armed opposition to Afghanistan's Taliban rulers, some of whom are accused by U.S. officials of everything from kidnapping to rape, torture and political killings.

The Bush administration has already received help from Libya, Syria and Sudan, the Boston Globe is reporting today.

Administration officials say such concerns must take a backseat to the overriding need to find those responsible for killing nearly 7,000 Americans on Sept. 11 and to prevent future terrorist attacks.

"The current situation definitely seems to bolster pragmatism," a White House official said Tuesday.

"I don't think it is in any way off the radar screen," said a senior State Department official, referring to human rights. But, he said, concerns over U.S. partners' human rights records should not be a bar to bringing to justice those responsible for the hijacked planes hitting the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a Pennsylvania field.

Others, including human-rights advocates and some members of Congress, say they worry about making the fight against terrorism the new organizing principle of U.S. foreign policy. The long-term consequences of the new alliances appear to have been given little thought in the coalition building of Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell, they say.

For a precedent, the critics say, Bush and Powell need look no farther than Afghanistan itself. There the United States supplied arms to fight the Soviet Union to the same Muslim fighters who are now attacking U.S. interests worldwide.

Elsewhere around the world during the Cold War, the United States allied itself with corrupt dictators from Africa to Latin America as long as they agreed to be bulwarks against communism.

"We're very concerned that the 'anything goes' attitude toward human rights, when it came to building a Cold War alliance, may be resumed now in the fight against terrorism," said Kenneth Roth, the director of New York-based Human Rights Watch, an independent organization that investigates reports of human-rights violations.

In a letter sent to Powell on Monday, Roth and Human Rights Watch Chairman Jonathan Fanton urged him not to let U.S. coalition partners use the antiterrorism banner as an excuse to crack down on their internal opponents.

In many countries, they wrote, "there already is a sense that the United States may condone actions committed in the name of fighting terrorism that it would have condemned just a short time ago."

Indeed, on Tuesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin won backing from Germany for his position that Russia's war on the breakaway Muslim region of Chechnya is part of the war against terrorism. Human-rights groups have long criticized Russia's war against the Chechens. German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, hosting Putin, said the campaign in Chechnya deserves a "new evaluation."

Potentially most controversial is Bush's tentative outreach to Iran and Syria, both of whom sponsor terrorists who oppose Israel.

The White House has few illusions that either one will stop promoting terror, but hopes they will provide intelligence on the Sept. 11 attacks and tell groups they control to cease terrorist operations for now, according to diplomatic sources who requested anonymity.

Other members of the coalition are fighting domestic battles against Muslim separatists. These include moderate Arab countries and China, where Muslim ethnic Uyghur separatists in the Xinjiang region have received backing from Muslim militants in Afghanistan and elsewhere.

In Uzbekistan, President Islamnjman Karimov runs "an authoritarian state with limited civil rights," according to the State Department's latest annual human-rights report. In his bid to root out the extremist Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, Karimov has cracked down viciously on mosques not approved by his government.

Uzbekistan is fast becoming a major staging ground for potential U.S. strikes into neighboring Afghanistan.


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