December 05, 2003

Terrorism and Hypocrisy in the Commonwealth

From Kate Allen, director of Amnesty International UK:

"It is important that Commonwealth members do not use the "war on terror" as an excuse to erode human rights. Unfortunately, many have introduced legislation allowing them to arrest suspects and detain them without charge, and to deport those they deem a threat. The right to a fair trial has been undermined.

"In India, the Prevention of Terrorism Act has granted the police much wider powers of arrest than previously, and allows them to detain "political suspects" for up to six months without charge or trial. Police in Gujarat are using the legislation to arbitrarily arrest and imprison men from the Muslim community. Almost 400 men were detained between March and May, and there are reports of Muslims being held incommunicado, with incontrovertible evidence of torture. The legislation has provided a convenient vehicle for discrimination and persecution.

"Our own government made the UK the only country in Europe to derogate from the European convention on human rights in order to rush through the 2001 Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Act. It has used it to imprison 14 foreign nationals for up to two years without charging them or bringing them to trial. They face the prospect of remaining in detention indefinitely on the basis of secret evidence that they have not been allowed to see and therefore cannot challenge. These "security measures" are undermining the credibility and viability of basic legal safeguards.

"The clampdown on the right to asylum has seen the Australian government's "Pacific solution" set of policies enable it to hold for months scores of people, who have been recognised as refugees, in detention centres - a policy branded by a UN delegation as "offensive to human dignity". Similarly, the new asylum bill in the UK threatens to criminalise those seeking asylum.

"Despite all Commonwealth members' theoretical commitment to protect individuals' human rights, member states including Jamaica and the Bahamas hand down death sentences, while Nigeria permits punishments that include stoning and flogging. When I was in Uganda in October, where torture is endemic, I heard about a worrying increase in the use of torture by the police, including battering suspects' knees and elbows, precisely to do long-term damage. A commitment to protecting individuals' rights would see President Museveni using the same leadership to eliminate torture as he has been recognised for showing in tackling the Aids epidemic.

"In 1991, members of the Commonwealth signed up to the Harare declaration, which pledged all governments to work for "just and honest government" and to protect "the liberty of the individual under the law [and guarantee] equal rights for all citizens". When the government of Zimbabwe sees the flagrant disregard for basic human rights protection in other countries, the message it gets is that the Commonwealth is not serious about these commitments - and there will be no consequences if you disregard them. The result is that Mugabe believes he is safe to continue his crackdown on all critics of the government. "


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