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U.N. Fears Abuses of Terror Mandate

Policy: Rights monitors see some governments using new requirements to justify repression.


UNITED NATIONS — Demands by the Security Council that U.N. members act against global terrorism are being used by some regimes to justify repression of domestic dissent, U.N. officials and independent human rights advocates say.

The anti-terrorism campaign has been used by authoritarian governments to justify moves to clamp down on moderate opponents, outlaw criticism of rulers and expand the use of capital punishment.

Compliance with the Security Council requirements "could lead to unwarranted infringement on civil liberties," Bacre Waly Ndiaye, the chief human rights officer at the U.N. Secretariat, told the council's new counterterrorism committee. "There is evidence that some countries are now introducing measures that may erode core human rights safeguards."

In an unexpectedly swift response to the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the Security Council called on U.N. members on Sept. 28 to provide information within 90 days about their legal restrictions on fund-raising, financial transfers, arms acquisition and immigration.

But there is no agreement on what constitutes terrorist activity, U.N. experts say, and some governments are presenting what critics contend are police-state measures as part of the U.N.-endorsed campaign.

"In some countries," Ndiaye told the counterterror committee at its Dec. 13 meeting, "nonviolent activities have been considered as terrorism, and excessive measures have been taken to suppress or restrict individual rights, including the presumption of innocence, the right to a fair trial, freedom from torture, privacy rights, freedom of expression and assembly, and the right to seek asylum."

Ndiaye carefully refrained from identifying those countries, but human rights advocates quickly came up with a long list, from Algeria to Zimbabwe. In an interview at his office here last week, Ndiaye said he was concerned that the campaign could backfire and undermine U.N. efforts to promote democracy and the rule of law in Eastern Europe, Southeast Asia and his native West Africa.

"The challenge is how to make counterterrorism measures compatible with human rights," he said. "Unfortunately, under the guise of fighting terror, some governments are pursuing other agendas. Our concern is that this may provide cover to many governments to get rid of their opponents."

Insulting Mugabe May Be Outlawed

On Dec. 20, the Cuban legislature, with President Fidel Castro presiding, unanimously passed a law that state media said expanded the application of capital punishment for crimes defined as terrorism, including the use of the Internet to incite political violence.

A week earlier, the government of Zimbabwe published a proposed law that would make it a crime to "undermine the authority of or insult" President Robert Mugabe, who is again seeking reelection. Mugabe's aides defended the legislation as necessary to combat terrorists, a category they said includes most of the president's opponents as well as critical journalists.

"We agree with President Bush that anyone who harbors, finances or defends a terrorist is himself a terrorist," a presidential spokesman said.

In Central Asia, the government of Uzbekistan has defended its jailing of moderate Islamist opponents as part of the world campaign against "evildoers," while Kyrgyzstan has intensified internal travel controls on dissidents.

The trend to toughen statutes aimed primarily at domestic dissent worries advocates such as Michael Posner, executive director of the New York-based Lawyers Committee for Human Rights.

"We are going to see repeated examples of governments using the new security environment as a pretext for silencing dissidents," he said. "This gives a green light to the Mugabes of the world to go after their opponents under the cover of what the U.S. and the U.K. are doing" to fight terror.

The chairman of the Security Council's counterterrorism committee, British Ambassador Jeremy Greenstock, has agreed to Ndiaye's request that he add a human rights specialist to the committee's advisors, who already include specialists on money laundering and intelligence gathering. But the council's priority is to combat terrorism.

"The counterterrorism committee is not going to be the tool to resolve human rights problems around the world," said a European official at the committee who asked not to be named.

The U.N.'s own human rights advocates are limited to an advisory role in Security Council proceedings, noted Ndiaye, the New York deputy of Mary Robinson, the Geneva-based U.N. high commissioner for human rights. She in turn reports to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

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