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Report Attacks U.S. Human Rights Record

Amnesty International welcomes Hussein's ouster, but it says Bush administration policies have curtailed freedoms at home and abroad.

May 29, 2003|Justin Gest | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The recent war in Iraq has obscured human rights violations worldwide while the Bush administration's campaign against terrorism has given domestic and foreign officials license to deny citizens their freedoms, Amnesty International charged Wednesday.

In its annual report on the state of the world, the human rights advocacy group said that although its members "celebrate" the demise of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's repressive regime, they lament the United States' otherwise worsening record of protecting human rights. Amnesty urged the White House to compensate by building institutions in Iraq that will guard against further threats to individual liberty.

William F. Schulz, executive director of the London-based group's U.S. division, said at a news conference here that the U.S. military victory in Iraq has created a "constant chorus of triumphalism" that has diverted attention from the need to establish the rule of law in the country.

"The administration planned thoroughly for the war but failed to plan adequately for the peace," he said. "Now is the moment for the U.S. to deliver on its promises to the Iraqi people. Iraq must become a nation where human rights are enshrined in law, respected and protected by the new government, and lived and breathed by every Iraqi. How can we measure victory for the people of Iraq?"

White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer dismissed the report's conclusions.

"I think that as the world increasingly sees the brutality, the horrors that Saddam Hussein carried out against his own people, the unearthing of mass graves, that Amnesty International can invest considerable portions of its time and its reputation to discussing Saddam Hussein's tortures and what he has done to the Iraqi people," Fleischer said at a news briefing.

Assistant Secretary of State Lorne Craner echoed Fleischer's sentiment.

"This is the first administration that has ever talked about human rights and democracy in the Middle East," he said. "Before [2001], it was taboo. This Middle East initiative is real money."

Amnesty's 300-page report examines conditions in 151 countries, including Colombia, Ivory Coast, Israel, Congo and China.

At his news conference, Schulz accused the Bush administration of overlooking and even financing human rights violations in certain countries that diplomatically supported U.S. intervention in Iraq.

He cited a pair of $30-million grants that the United States gave Ethiopia and the Philippines to fund and train militaries that Amnesty International reports have "shown no reluctance to bombard residential areas, taking a great toll in human misery and displacing thousands of citizens."

"It is not acceptable to win freedom for one at the expense of another," Schulz said.

But Craner, who said his office's human rights reports typically overlap Amnesty's, said he found Schulz's accusation unfounded and his examples weak.

"That's like linking TV antennae to cancer," he said. "For decades, [U.S. priorities] were about security and oil. Not anymore."

Craner pointed to a bill he said President Bush is backing that remains in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the House Committee on International Relations. The "Millennium Challenge Act," he said, would offer financial incentives to nations that adhered to human rights and anti-poverty standards.

Despite the White House's consistent emphasis on returning Iraq to normality, Schulz said, the U.S. is also using the war on terrorism as an excuse to violate the freedoms of its own citizens.

In particular, he cited the USA Patriot Act, a piece of national security legislation signed by Bush on Oct. 26, 2001, that expanded the powers of law enforcement officials.

Schulz said the Patriot Act "reflects Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft's willingness to sacrifice American principles in the interest of national security. Many of the basic rights set forth in the Declaration of Independence and enshrined in the Constitution are threatened by a Justice Department that has seen fit to set aside guarantees of due process, privacy and free expression."

Amnesty International has made its neutral stance on the war in Iraq clear. But that position differs sharply from its strong reservations about the Clinton administration's handling of the 1999 crisis in the Balkans. In May 2000, Schulz argued that the U.S. should have struck earlier to liberate the oppressed peoples of that region.

On Wednesday, Schulz said that Amnesty's neutrality represents a "difficult paradox" but that it is necessary for the group to remain unbiased. He said the organization recognizes armed intervention as a legitimate means to remove repressive regimes.

Schulz blamed the alleged low priority given human rights by the Bush administration on a "disconnect" between Craner's Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor within the State Department and administration decision-makers. Schulz referred to a problem with the office's "degree of influence."

Craner, however, said he is satisfied with his office's role.

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