Remarks by Jonathan Fanton to the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations About Terrorism and Civil Society
February 28, 2002 | Speech

In his letter inviting me to join this panel, Marshall Bouton wrote, "we want to look at how the weaknesses of civil society in certain countries helps breed terrorism and what can be done to strengthen civil society in those same nations." Civil Society by which we mean a robust set of non-governmental organizations free to associate, to oppose government policies and to advocate alternative paths to economic and social development does not thrive in authoritarian regimes. So when we speak of civil society we are also talking about democratic aspirations and building a culture that respects human rights. Where the three elements come together — democracy, civil society and a respect for human rights — terrorism has a hard time finding sympathizers let alone recruits. The reverse is also true: authoritarian regimes, sometimes wrongly praised for infusing stability and supported for that purpose  — are more likely to create the conditions that give rise to terrorism.

As you may know, I am an American historian. What I know outside the U.S. comes largely from twenty years of work with Human Rights Watch where my focus was East and Central Europe and the former Soviet Union, including Central Asia. And, as President of MacArthur, I have learned first hand the critical role of civil society in three countries undergoing democratic transition: Mexico, Russia and Nigeria. MacArthur has an office in each and supports civil society groups working on the environment, population, education and human rights.

In a recent New York Times op ed piece, Michael Ignatieff asked a provocative and disturbing question: is the human rights era ending or at least in sharp recession, a victim of the U.S.-led war on terrorism? He wrote:

"The new element in determining American foreign policy is what assets bases, intelligence and diplomatic leverage — it can bring to bear against Al Qaeda.

Some veterans of the human rights campaigns of the cold war refuse to admit that the climate is any worse now than it was then. But in the Reagan years, the movement merely risked being unpopular. In the Bush era it risks irrelevance."

Despite Washingtons tendency to subordinate human rights in fighting terrorism, human rights concerns are hardly irrelevant in the Bush era. I cite as one example the lengths to which this administration went to avoid civilian casualties in Afghanistan. But Ignatieff does identify an ongoing tension that challenges the human rights movement to sharpen its arguments.

I believe that fighting terrorism and respecting human rights are not mutually incompatible goals. Indeed, just the reverse is true. It is the body of international and humanitarian law — the philosophical foundation of the human rights movement — that establishes the principle that civilians are never a legitimate target of war for any cause.

Kenneth Roth, Executive Director of Human Rights Watch, put it this way, and I quote: "The fight against terrorism should be seen only in part as a matter of security. It is also a matter of values. Police, intelligence units, even armies all have a role to play in meeting particular terrorist threats. But terrorism emanates as well from the realm of public morality. It is essential to understand the mores that would countenance such mass murder as a legitimate political tool. Building a stronger human rights culture a culture in which any disregard for civilian life is condemned rather than condoned is essential in the long run for defeating terrorism."

The U.S. and its allies must strengthen the culture for human rights, democracy and civil society through opposition to authoritarian regimes and by example.

This position is not inconsistent with strengthening our security and rooting out terrorist networks, which are both vital tasks. I would advocate, for example, aggressive physical and electronic surveillance of suspects, heightened intelligence sharing, vigorous prosecution of offenders under the myriad existing laws, and shutting down the bases that terrorists use to launch attacks on civilians. But I do not think security measures alone will get the job done. So I see it as a very pragmatic response to say that we need both better security and affirmative steps to build democracy and a human rights culture.

I would ask whether the United States has done enough in the Middle East and North Africa to support the growth of civil society, democracy and human rights. Take Saudi Arabia, home of Osama bin Laden and fifteen of the nineteen September 11 hijackers, a society that suppresses dissent and condones discrimination against women. Or Egypt, home of the accused ring leader and other al Qaeda leaders, which is also inhospitable to political opposition.

Citing the need for Egypts partnership in pursuing a Middle East peace or in recognition of our dependence on Saudi oil, the U.S. has far too long given a free pass to those two countries to pursue oppressive policies.

Here is what we said in the Human Rights Watch annual report:

"In societies where basic freedoms flourish, citizens could have pressed their government to respond to grievances, on threat of being publicly scorned and voted out of power. But in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and many of the other countries where Osama bin Laden strikes a chord of resentment, governments restrict debate about how to address society's ills. They close off avenues for peaceful political change. They leave people with the desperate choice of tolerating the status quo, exile, or violence. Frequently, as political options are closed off, the voices of non-violent dissent are upstaged by a politics of radical opposition."

That observation is likely to strike with special force in Uzbekistan, one of our new allies in the war against terrorism. I have been to Uzbekistan seven times, first in 1990, most recently last April. It is a good case in point. Civil society groups have a hard time in Uzbekistan, their leaders harassed and jailed. There are no free elections, no independent media, no political opposition, no independent human rights groups. The Independent Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan, led by the courageous Mikhail Ardzinov, has been trying for over a decade to achieve registration so it can operate openly and lawfully. I have made a personal plea on its behalf to the foreign minister more than once but to no avail as official recognition is withheld citing an ever shifting set of technicalities it fails to meet.

In 1998, I visited Tashkent as part of a Human Rights Watch delegation looking into the problem of students expelled from the universities for practicing the Islamic faith, wearing head dresses, growing beards. I recall vividly a meeting with twenty students expelled from Tashkent State University and the Institute of Eastern Studies.

I asked the students if they were part of a campus organization or had engaged in any political activities. "We have the right to express our ideas," one student responded. "Sometimes we gather and talk about politics and religion just as students do everywhere. But we are not an organization." Another commented: "The government says we are Wahhabists that we are all armed to the teeth, ready to kill but we are not — Wahhabism is only something I hear about on radio and television."

"We have a dictatorship today," one student charged. "There are other countries where people can express their opinions freely but not in Uzbekistan." "If we speak our minds the government calls us fundamentalists," said another. Finally, one bearded man, destined to become a leader, said, "Karimov wants to keep power, playing on fear of fundamentalism in his strategy. But he will make Islam an oppositional political force, a force for protecting our rights."

Since that time the al Qaeda-linked rebel group, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, has gained force just as the students had predicted. It would not surprise me if one or two of them had been driven to the IMU.

Against this backdrop of religious repression and there is much more than just these students the United States government has never cited Uzbekistan as a country of concern for suppression of religious freedom on the annual list compiled under the International Religious Freedom Act.

I have no doubt that Uzbekistan, together with other repressive regimes like Turkmenistan, will produce tomorrows terrorists shielded by ordinary people whose human rights have been denied.

Can strengthening civil society make a difference in fighting terrorism? Does it help to nurture local groups concerned about despoiling the environment, to fund partnerships for Uzbek universities with Western counterparts, to give technical advice to independent but non-political newspapers? Yes it does. Is it useful for international NGO's to have offices in Tashkent, Human Rights Watch, the Eurasia Foundation, Open Society Institute, the Red Cross, and the Institute for War and Peace Reporting? No doubt.

But let us face the cold reality that allowing symbolic space for weak civil society does not inexorably lead to a more open and democratic society. We have been pursuing the civil society route for over a decade in Uzbekistan and conditions are more repressive today than they were five years ago.

A few civil society groups fortified by the presence of international NGOs is no substitute for a free press, an independent electronic media or a robust opposition party.

By now we should know that dictators like Karimov respond to power not well-intended exhortation. What the World Bank and the IMF do matters. U.S. and Western economic pressure is critical. Even the largely symbolic act of being on the U.S. religious freedom watch list can help.

Private groups like the Council on Foreign Relations also have a role to play. I recall an unfortunate event at the New York Council several years ago at which President Karimov spoke unchallenged to a group of Council members eager to do business in Central Asia. That warm reception undercut the Human Rights Watch message that international business is wary of stability that comes at the price of human rights repression. Being informed about internal conditions in Uzbekistan and asking challenging questions would have been helpful that night.

I have spoken about an imbalance in the Wests response to terrorism too much weight on security and military means and an under-investment in persuading authoritarian societies to pursue a more open and democratic path.

Now is the time to correct the imbalance for sure by nurturing civil society groups in countries which are fertile ground for terrorists and their supporters. But also by mobilizing economic and political pressure on those same societies to open to the free market and democracy.

Now is not the time to issue free passes in exchange for air bases or energy. Now is not the time to set bad examples by compromising civil liberties and respect for international standards at home.

I am by nature an optimist I feel good about the way our democratic system has worked in this difficult period lots of vigorous discussion about anti-terrorism regulations, the treatment of Taliban and al Qaeda prisoners, and the conduct of the war in Afghanistan. That discussion here and around the world has muted our governments one dimensional first instincts and demonstrated, I think, that human rights principles are by now deeply rooted and remarkably resilient.

The next step is to strengthen the implementation of these principles through a mix of building civil society and applying political and economic pressure to authoritarian regimes that are fertile ground for terrorists. That would constitute a more effective approach to fighting terrorism than the present course.

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