NEW CHALLENGES FOR DEMOCRACY
AND HUMAN RIGHITS IN THE POST SEPTEMBER 11 ERA
Lâm Lễ Trinh
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
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 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
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
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
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.