We are ruled by fear

Observations on Amnesty International

Fear has become a major weapon of oppression that is leading to a dangerously divided world, warns Amnesty International in its latest annual report. The global human rights watchdog also accuses Britain of serious human rights abuses including complicity in torture.

"The politics of fear" is being used, not only by terror groups, militias and dictatorships but, increasingly, by democratic governments, says Amnesty.

In a profoundly depressing catalogue of human rights abuses around the world, a new and disturbing element is the erosion of freedoms in democratic countries, following widespread introduction of anti-terrorism legislation. Governments throughout western Europe have also exploited public concerns about uncontrolled migration to justify tough measures against asylum-seekers and refugees, claims the report.

On the eve of the report's launch, Amnesty's UK director, Kate Allen, told the New Statesman: "The 21st century has proved a disaster for human rights, with fear increasingly used as a weapon of oppression or control. This is evident not only in regimes such as Russia and China but in democracies such as the US, Australia and Britain."

Europe as a region, including the European Union, comes in for serious criticism over its failure to uphold the rights of minorities. And the UK receives a stinging rebuke for its continuing erosion of fundamental rights and its attempts to weaken the independence of the judiciary.

"Measures taken by the [UK] authorities with the stated aim of countering terrorism led to serious human rights violations, and concern was widespread about the impact of these measures on Muslims and other minority communities," says the report. In the words of Amnesty's secretary general, Irene Khan: "No right is sacrosanct and no person is safe."

The report condemns the UK government's use of "national security" as justification for deporting asylum-seekers from Britain to countries where there was a likelihood they would be tortured, and notes its concern at leaked reports implicating 160 police officers in allegations of torture at Wormwood Scrubs.

The UK government is criticised for failing to initiate an independent inquiry into "renditions" - the illegal transfer of prisoners to third countries for questioning outside judicial process. Also condemned are the forced entry (based on erroneous intelligence) into the east London home of Mohammed Abdul Kahar and his subsequent shooting; and the failure to prosecute any individual for the fatal shooting on the London Underground of Jean Charles de Menezes in 2005.

"Counter-terrorism measures in Britain and other democracies are leading to an atmosphere of fear," said Allen. "We see this in the use of control orders, the loss of legal protections for people arrested and measures such as holding people without charge for a year.

"Since 9/11, led by the United States, the trajectory of human rights has been downward," she said. Abuses in democracies are not comparable with the systematic disregard of human rights in countries such as Russia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Chechnya and Lebanon, said Allen. "This is the daily work of Amnesty. But when democracies start talking of torture or abusing free speech, this infects everything. The message from democracies is powerful."

For example, when Allen met Nepal's despotic King Gyanendra in 2005 to protest at his imprisonment of journalists and members of parliament, his counter to claims of abuses in his country was to cite what was happening in Guantanamo.

"It is astonishing to learn that in the United States, politicians are now openly discussing using torture for gathering information," said Allen. "We entered the 21st century looking as if we'd learned the really difficult lessons of Rwanda and with optimism about the International Criminal Court. But the response to 9/11 has taken us back."

The report calls on the United States to abandon its "pick-and-choose" approach to the United Nations and on Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to "assert himself to show leadership as a champion of human rights".

But the European Union is far from receiving a clean bill of health. The EU's failure to confront the US over its conduct of the war on terror comes in for criticism, along with its "institutional minimalist approach to human rights". "There was a failure of leadership in many countries to challenge racist and xenophobic ideas," the report says of EU members.

Amnesty declares itself unimpressed with the EU's self-congratulatory rhetoric on rights, particularly its continued use of human rights as a "prime symbol" of the "readiness" of other European countries to join the union. The report notes that the EU's status as a "beacon" is looking increasingly ambivalent.

Amnesty also laments the weakness of the UN and other, similar organisations that operate on a global level. Strengthening properly functioning systems of rule of law at national level would require revitalising these international institutions.

The UN Security Council has shown itself too "impotent and weak-willed" to address human rights crises such as Darfur, Allen says: "There is an inability at that level to put human rights at the forefront. The Sudanese government can run rings around the UN." The failure was equally evident over Lebanon, where lives were lost after "it took weeks to call for a ceasefire".

"The human rights meltdown can only be tackled through global solidarity and respect for international law," said Khan.

"Report 2007: state of the world's human rights". www.amnesty.org

This article first appeared in the 28 May 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Gaza: The jailed state