Closing Minds, Closing Borders

Sept. 11's Collateral Victims

Demolishing Xinjiang Village, Beijing
A migrant worker in China demolishes a home in 'Xinjiang Village,' a Uighur neighborhood in Beijing, February 1999 (Photo: AFP).

Vladimir Putin is in seventh heaven. At his side, his French counterpart, only recently one of the most severe critics of the Russian intervention in Chechnya, has now come over to his way of thinking. “France believes that no cause can justify terrorist actions,” Jacques Chirac asserted, alluding to the Chechen independence fighters. During his visit to Sochi on the Black Sea on July 19 and 20, the head of state echoed the somewhat hazy position that is now in vogue in Western capitals. Chirac continued: “The only suitable response is political in nature. And it is my understanding that this is what is under way.” Putin, who has repeatedly insisted that a political process has been launched without being able to point to any specific progress whatsoever, has won. Sept. 11 has been a windfall for some.

From Russia to China, from Algeria to Israel, regimes criticized only yesterday for their human-rights violations have been able to wrap themselves in a newly found legitimacy by placing their actions under the unassailable banner of the fight against terror. “Each one has his Bin Laden; ours is named Arafat,” Ariel Sharon proclaimed on Sept. 13.

The fight against terrorism—and cooperation with Washington—has become the supreme criterion for evaluating international relations. Human rights have seen gains and losses. “Bin Laden has handed a gift to Putin, who now has a free hand in the north Caucasus,” says Sergei Kovalev, a former dissident and Duma member. The anti-terrorist operation being conducted in Chechnya is no longer questioned, even though, with the exception of the Arab commander Khattab, there is nothing to support Russian allegations of links between Chechen fighters and Bin Laden’s networks.

Sept. 11 has revealed “the world’s imperfections,” in Kovalev’s estimation: “Russia is systematically violating human rights in Chechnya, but the West has turned a blind eye because Moscow is fighting against worldwide terrorism. Russia is taking advantage and is eagerly rubbing its hands, while the West acquiesces. Sept. 11 showed that Law with a capital L cannot have regional variations.”

Putin, who was the first to lend his support to Bush by phone after the attacks, is not the sole beneficiary. Uzbekistan, where up to 1,500 U.S. soldiers have been based, and Tajikistan, which has provided its air base in Manas, are receiving commensurate aid from Washington. Yet these regimes have a disastrous record in human rights. Obsessed by the Islamic threat, they have beefed up their repression.

On Aug. 26, China received a very special gift: The United States added the name of a Uighur independence group in the western province of Xinjiang to the list of terrorist organizations. For over a year, Beijing had been trying to lump Uighur nationalism together with Al-Qaeda. Washington refused to go along, and in October 2001, Bush even declared in Shanghai: “No government should use our war against terrorism as an excuse to persecute minorities within its own borders.”

The United States gave in. The East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) is not the best known of the Uighur groups in exile, but [Washington’s] gesture was enough for the Chinese government to justify its repressive policy in Xinjiang. Mary Robinson, the United Nations’ High Commissioner for Human Rights, denounced the “increased repression” against the Uighur people.

Under the guise of “fighting against terrorism,” surveillance and control have been increased around Muslim institutions, and the authorities have forbidden anyone under 18 to attend places of worship. Quranic schools have been closed. Beginning in September, the Uighur language will be banned from the University of Xinjiang and replaced by Mandarin.

In the Western camp, there have been repercussions from the abandonment of any reference to human rights or, at the very least, their relegation to a secondary position.

Some democratic countries have become emboldened, convinced that they will be exonerated from any slips in conduct for the sake of the “good cause” (anti-terrorism). This begins with Israel, where a wave of Palestinian suicide attacks gave justification to Sharon’s strong-arm tactics. Elsewhere, in Spain, Prime Minister José María Aznar has felt encouragement to radicalize his policy, even pushing through a ban on the Batasuna party, the political arm of Basque Homeland and Freedom (ETA).

“The most serious consequence of the attacks is that they have removed any vague inclination the Americans might have to criticize Israel,” laments Jessica Montel, the leader of the Israeli human-rights organization, B’Tselem. “This has probably spurred Ariel Sharon to move more quickly and to hit harder while no one is willing to criticize him.” Dalia Kerstein, the director of Hamoked, the Israeli Center for the Defense of the Individual, underscores that the attacks have taken away any perspective the Israelis may have had on what they were doing in the territories. People have said to one another: “Why should we not have the right to fight against terrorism the way the Americans do?” All this has lent a sort of legitimization to the reoccupation, the bombings, and the arrests.

All but silent about Israel, the United States could not refrain from applauding the green light given by the members of the Spanish Parliament on Aug. 26 to the ban on Batasuna. Madrid “has the right to use all its democratic institutions to defend itself against terrorist organizations,” a State Department spokesman was pleased to say.