Can you fight terrorism by becoming a terror state?
A dangerous development in some Western countries
By Kjell Olaf Jensen, President, Norwegian PEN
The point of departure is, of course, the terrorist attacks against the United States on 11th September last year. The point of departure also is that a society, a country or a nation of course has a right to defend itself against such attacks. But not in any way whatsoever.
The United States have taken up this defense by launching what the American president calls “War against terrorism”. These three words have been the major newsline dominating most international news media since 11th September. These three words have been used to cover the Russians’ actions in Chechnya, the Israelis’ actions in Palestine, the Palestinians’ actions in Israel, etc. – and one might easily find arguments condemning one or the other party, or both.
I am not going to do any of this. I want to look – superficially – at some changements in the Western societies after 11th September, where the climate was given at once by the American president’s rather childish slogan, “Those who are not with us, are against us”. A risky slogan, by the way, since it was the USA which created a phenomenon like Osama bin Laden, it was the USA which put a phenomenon like the Taliban in power in Afghanistan, and it was the CIA which produced the explosives that bin Laden and his people used to blow up the American embassies in Nairobi and Daar-es-Salaam some years ago. It was also the USA which last treated bin Laden’s kidney problem at the American military hospital in Dubai in July 2001 (two months before 11th September), where bin Laden received the visit of CIA’s place commander, according to the French newspaper “Le Figaro” on 31st October and 1st November 2001 – these informations have been duly denied by the American embassy in Paris.
After the 11th September, the American Congress voted a law giving the President the authority to issue decrees having the force of law, in cases where the national security was concerned. The decrees which have thus been issued by President Bush, can be found on the Internet pages of Amnesty International, among others. The most (ill-)famous of these decree laws is the one establishing military courts. These courts are given the right to judge “non-citizens” (which means non-US citizens) who are suspected of having harmed, prepared to harm, or meant to harm American political, economical, social, military, or security interests.
Such persons may be arrested by American authorities and put before a court consisting of three military judges. These courts do not put the same strict demands on the strength of the evidence as does the normal, civil judicial system in the USA. They have the power to eventually sentence the accused to death, and only the President of the United States or his Minister of Justice have the authority to transform these sentences. The ordinary system of appeals does not function for these courts. And the trials are to be kept secret; nobody will know that a trial against such and such a person has taken place, or eventually that the person in question has been sentenced and even executed.
This speech which I am now making, may in itself harm the political interests of the USA, and most of us are “non-citizens” according to the American definition of this term. Which means that the fact of making this speech, or of listening to it, theoretically might be defined as a reason for being arrested by the American authorities and brought before a military court next time any of us visit the USA – or maybe even for being kidnapped by the American representatives in our own countries, brought in secret to the USA, put before a secret military court, sentenced even without valid proofs and executed in secret without any possibilities of appeal. (This does not mean that I believe this would be a probable outcome of this conference, it is just meant to illustrate how far-fetched the American security thinking has become. And, by the way: What does “security” mean in this context? Security for whom?)
This far-fetched example shows us, members of the International PEN movement caring about our own and our colleagues’ right to freedom of expression, how vulnerable this right is today. But the situation is far worse.
For briefness’ sake, I shall only mention a few examples from the Scandinavian countries, where we usually take pride in being models of democracy and human rights.
Some months ago, three Swedish citizens of Somali descent were accused of financing the al-Qaida terrorist movement, via an informal banking system which Somali immigrants all over Europe have had to establish to be able to send money to their families at home, since there is no normal banking system functioning in Somalia. The accusation against the three Swedes came from the American authorities, via the EU commission in Brussels. The Swedish authorities reacted by blocking the three persons’ bank accounts, by refusing them any right to take a paid job, by refusing them any right to social security and by making it a criminal act for anybody to give or lend money to these three persons. If you ask how they were supposed to survive, that is a very good question. The reason for these actions was that the Swedish judicial authorities did not judge the proofs against the three suspected persons strong enough to bring the case before a normal Swedish court – in other words, the reason was that a normal court would have acquitted the three persons.
In Norway, one of our district attorneys – who are by definition supposed to be the country’s most solid and knowledgeable judicial experts – wrote an analytical article about the American president’s decree establishing the above-mentioned military courts. He wanted to publish this article in the main serious newspaper in Oslo, and the newspaper also wanted to print his article. Then came an order from the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, forbidding the publication of such an article. The reason given was that the district attorney in question was just spending some months as a councellor to the Norwegian embassy in Washington, and the Ministry could not accept one of their employees publicly expressing views which were contrary to those of the Norwegian government. A public outcry followed, the district attorney finished his period as councellor for the Washington embassy, the Ministry deemed that it then would be acceptable to publish the article, and the newspaper printed it – almost half a year after it had been written, and when there was no longer any news in it.
There also is the case of the Norwegian Ministry of Justice draughting a new set of proposed antiterror laws which the Ministry wanted the Parliament to adopt, but which were first sent out on a round of preliminary hearings. All the hearing instances were outraged at the severe limitations thus proposed for the essential human rights, and at the proposed violations of the major human rights conventions to which Norway is a party. All the hearing instances except one: the Norwegian police authorities, which deemed the proposed laws quite handy. Whereupon the Ministry of Justice, to its honour, quietly dropped the draught in the waste basket.
But the worst is still to come. Within the UN system, the UN’s Sixth Committee, which is in charge of questions concerning human rights, is elaborating a draught convention against terrorism, which is only quite appropriate in the actual international situation. What is less appropriate, is that “strong forces within UN’s Security Council” (meaning the United States of America) are working to ensure that when the measures in this convention against terrorism are in contradiction with articles in any other international conventions, it is the convention against terrorism which shall have the absolute priority. These informations come from Amnesty International and other NGOs. In February this year, I asked Norway’s deputy minister of Foreign Affairs whether they are correct, which he confirmed. I then asked what the Norwegian government could do about this, since Norway would preside UN’s Security Council during the following month, March 2002. The deputy minister answered that the Norwegian government would not do anything about this situation, being assured by our allies (which means the nited States of America) that no problems would arise.
If this scenario is carried through, it will mean that the onvention Against Torture will still be valid – except if anybody is uspected of terrorism. The Convention for Children’s Rights will still be valid – except in cases concerning terrorism. The Convention for Women’s Rights will still be valid – except if terrorism is suspected. The Convention for Civil and Political Rights and the Convention for Social and Economical Rights will only be valid where terrorism is not concerned. And we shall still have the right to freedom of expression, as long as we do not express anything concerning terror or terrorism or touching upon the political, economical, social, military or security interests of some nations, states or governments.
The examples I have given, are of course carefully chosen; and the scenarios I have mentioned, are a series of worst possible cases. But still, they give a picture of what happens when you try to fight terrorism with terrorism’s own means, namely terror – especially when you do not know exactly against whom to direct these means, so that you have to hit a smaller or larger segment of the whole population.
And,most important, I cannot pretend that the part of the world where I live, is not and will never be in the situation described above. The facts described have happened, even if they are only a small part of a larger picture which is called society, and they are examples of how the right to freedom of expression is threatened even today, among all other essential human rights. It is our duty to see to it that these threats are eliminated.