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Activists See Loss of Civil Liberties

Amnesty International members say the war on terrorism has taken a toll on human rights.

November 02, 2003|Meg James | Times Staff Writer

Activists gathered in Redondo Beach on Saturday for an Amnesty International conference concluded that they don't have to venture overseas to find human rights abuses.

Instead, they said, there are plenty here at home.

The group's annual western regional conference, which began Friday and ends today at the Crowne Plaza Redondo Beach hotel, discussed different faces of discrimination around the globe -- everything from violence against women and gays to the ravages of AIDS in Africa to U.S. immigration policies and, in some instances, the corporate pursuit of profits.

But one issue in particular captured the attention of many of the more than 400 Amnesty International USA members at the conference: President Bush's war on terrorism.

The administration's actions, leaders of the group contend, have done little to make the world safer from terrorists.

Instead, they said, the government's detention of Muslims after the Sept. 11 attacks, passage of the U.S.A. Patriot Act and the war in Iraq have damaged the country's credibility.

William F. Schulz, executive director of Amnesty International USA, alleged that the Sept. 11 attacks allowed some administration officials to exploit legitimate fears about terrorism to implement long-held goals by scaling back civil liberties and privacy rights, and invading Iraq.

"They have been allowed to violate human rights in the name of protecting them," said Schulz, who lives in New York. "You don't stop terrorism solely from the use of force."

Catrin Schulte-Hillen, program director for Doctors Without Borders, said relief groups such as hers have struggled to distance themselves from the political objectives of governments, including the U.S.

Some administration officials, she said, used her group's decision not to set up an operation in postwar Iraq as evidence of minimal suffering.

Instead, Schulte-Hillen said, her agency simply had concluded that needs were greater in overlooked countries such as Liberia.

One of the keynote speakers, Loretta Ross, flew in from Atlanta. The founder of the National Center for Human Rights Education, a training center for grass-roots activists, she brought a simple message: We're not innocent either.

"We need to challenge the whole concept of American exceptionalism," Ross said. "We think we are above committing human rights violations, and that we have to look overseas, but we haven't fully implemented human rights at home."

Some human rights activists, Ross said, get lathered up about the treatment of prisoners in foreign lands without stopping to lend a hand to the homeless in their own community.

She challenged the group to tap into the discontent of working Americans who feel conflicted by the U.S. involvement in Iraq or burdened by the growing costs of health care.

"We have to be able to reinvent ourselves and be more relevant to regular people," Ross said. "We have to take on the suffering of the American people and say we feel the pain of Enron and the pain of families of the military who are fighting over in Iraq."

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