The ‘war on terror’ must not become a cover to support repressive regimes

The ‘war on terror’ must not become a cover to support repressive regimes, Robin Cook, Independent, 24 October 2003

I do not know whether, as the press have claimed all week, our ambassador to Uzbekistan has been “recalled”, but I remember Craig Murray as a conscientious and earnest diplomat. I am only too familiar with his dilemma on how to maintain civil relations with a very uncivil regime.

Uzbekistan is a challenging case for human rights advocates. Amnesty International sums up its record with the blunt word, “dire”. The UN Special Rapporteur on Torture has reported that its use in Uzbekistan is “systematic”. The Foreign Office, to its credit, provides a frank exposure of the failings of the regime in the recent edition of its Human Rights Annual Report, which Labour started publishing on taking office. The section on Uzbekistan registers the case of two prisoners who were tortured to death with boiling water, and is illustrated with a photograph of inmates at a “notoriously brutal” prison. Our ambassador’s excellent speech on the need for Uzbekistan to improve its standards is reprinted as an annexe to the Annual Report (which suggests approval rather than reprimand from his ministers).

To describe the practices in such countries as human rights violations does not rise to the occasion. We are not contemplating simply a legalistic breach of a multilateral code, but brutal abuse of individual persons, who will have suffered excruciating agony and cowed in terror from the next interrogation. Silence is not an option for the international community in the face of the screams of the victims of torture. In Britain we enjoy the right to express ourselves freely without fear that we or our families will be imprisoned and beaten for our views. As Tony Blair never tires of reminding us, with rights come responsibilities, and the high standard of human rights that we enjoy puts on us a special responsibility to speak up for those peoples who are denied liberty.

Repressive regimes tend to resent criticism from outside as much as dissent from the inside. They are given to pleading that the West is committing a form of cultural imperialism when it imposes its standards of liberty, free speech and popular democracy. This is self-serving nonsense. There is no evidence that the peoples, rather than the governments, of any country regard torture and arbitrary imprisonment as an important part of their national heritage. As Kofi Annan memorably observed, African mothers also weep when their sons or daughters are killed or maimed. We see their tears on television in our living rooms. We are witnesses to their suffering, and if we stay silent we become accomplices in their oppression.

We can also make a practical difference as well as a rhetorical statement. In the case of Uzbekistan, the Foreign Office is advising on judicial reform, training judges and funding the recording of court proceedings. The next stage is to broaden the investigative capacity of the police, who now rely on confessions in police custody, which in turn provides the incentive for brutality.

I never met anyone in my years as Foreign Secretary who was prepared to defend torture as a valid government method. Regrettably I came across many in the media who were prepared to mutter that it was none of our business what governments did to their own citizens and our job was not to upset the people with power. This is profoundly short-sighted. It is a welcome feature of the modern world that repressive regimes are on the retreat, partly because of the incompatibility of an information economy with mediaeval repression. Those foreign powers who have supported human rights will be better able to do business with the more representative political leaders who displace authoritarian governments.

I remember visiting Nigeria shortly after the death of General Sani Abacha had opened the path for a return to democracy. Our high commissioner there had gone straight from being the least favoured foreign diplomat, because of our trenchant criticism of Abacha’s brutality and corruption, to being one of the most influential on the new authorities, for exactly the same reason. Some day the ageing military junta in Burma will fall and Britain will be in a stronger position for the support our embassy has given to Aung San Suu Kyi. We should support human rights because it is the right course to take, but in the long run what is right in principle usually turns out to be right in practice.

This brings us back to Uzbekistan, which justifies its repression as a necessary tool against Islamic militants. We should not be romantic about the nature of militant dissent. If fundamentalists were successful in sweeping aside the present regime, they would not replace it with an inclusive government promoting individual liberty and respecting freedom of speech. But they will not be beaten by violence and repression, which only provide them with more martyrs. Nor does the existence of a fundamentalist movement justify the Karimov regime in suppressing bona fide critics of their human rights record: that only gives their population fresh reason to fear the regime and welcome its removal. If the government of Uzbekistan really wants to isolate the terrorists, it needs to make a common cause with those in their nation who want a more open society than either President Karimov offers at present or the fundamentalists hope to impose in the future.

There is a similar message for the Bush administration to ponder. It is rumoured that the British ambassador to Tashkent has fallen out of favour not so much because he upset the government of Uzbekistan, but because that in turn upset the government of the US, which has secured a base from which to prosecute its operations in Afghanistan. We have been here before. Nothing more discredited the conduct of the West in the Cold War than its willingness to form alliances with reactionary regimes around the globe to whom freedom and democracy were strange and threatening concepts. It would be a tragedy if the Bush administration were to revert to turning a blind eye to human rights abuses in order to find allies in its War on Terror.

It would also be a political blunder. We will only beat the terrorists if we stand by the values of liberty, tolerance and non-violence which are the strengths of the open societies they want to destroy. We provide grist to the propaganda mill of the fundamentalists if we allow ourselves to be associated with regimes who have as little compunction as the terrorists in using violence for their own ends. Terrorism will not be beaten by security measures alone and must be defeated politically.

None of this means that making progress on human rights is going to be easy. But there are no voices more irritating than the world-weary who argue that because we cannot make the world perfect we should give up trying to make it better. The growing interdependence of countries gives us ever greater opportunities for economic leverage and political persuasion of repressive regimes. If we refuse to take these opportunities, we ourselves share responsibility for the agony and the terror of the tortured victims of the regimes with whom we connive without protest.