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27 May, 2007

Amnesty International Reports Pinpoints Causes of Global Fear, Insecurity & Instability

Originally Published: 27 May 2007

Amnesty International’s report for 2007 was published last week. It was hugely gratifying to see that it focussed on many of the subjects explored in this column over the years — from the negative impact of globalisation to the climate of fear and insecurity created by the “war on terror”.

It was no coincidence that Secretary-General Irene Khan’s chose to begin her introduction, very boldly and bluntly, with a narrative about her experience in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and the impact on families on both sides of “the Wall – or more accurately a high iron fence.”

“Built in defiance of international law, and ostensibly to make Israel more secure, the Wall’s main effect has been to cut off the local Palestinian population from their citrus groves and olive orchards. A once prosperous farming community is now impoverished.”

One angry Palestinian farmer cried out to her, “Every day I have to suffer the humiliation of checkpoints, petty obstructions and new restrictions that stop me from getting to my orchard on the other side. If I cannot cultivate my olives, how will I survive?”

Ms Khan went over to the other side, visiting Sderot which had been subjected to rocket attacks from Palestinian groups in Gaza. “We are frightened,” one (Israeli) young woman resident (was quoted as saying). “But we know that there are women like us on the other side who are also suffering, who are also afraid, and who are in a worse situation than us. We feel empathy for them, we want to live in peace with them, but instead our leaders promote our differences and create more distrust. So we live in fear and insecurity.”

Ms Khan wrote: “This brave Israeli woman understood what many world leaders fail to comprehend: that fear destroys our shared understanding and our shared humanity. When we see others as a threat, and are ready to negotiate their human rights for our security, we are playing a zero-sum game.

“(The Israeli woman’s) message is sobering at a time when our world is as polarized as it was at the height of the Cold War, and in many ways far more dangerous. Human rights – those global values, universal principles and common standards that are meant to unite us – are being bartered away in the name of security today as they were then. Like the Cold War times, the agenda is being driven by fear – instigated, encouraged and sustained by unprincipled leaders.”

From that point on, the report is sheer brilliance, giving voice to the intense frustrations and mounting anger felt by billions worldwide with elected leaders, corporate chief executives, “ineffective international organizations” and a whole host of other power-brokers.

Wrote Ms Khan, “In 1941, US President Franklin Roosevelt laid out his vision of a new world order founded on “four freedoms”: freedom of speech and of religion; freedom from fear and from want. He provided inspirational leadership that overcame doubt and unified people. Today far too many leaders are trampling freedom and trumpeting an ever-widening range of fears: fear of being swamped by migrants; fear of “the other” and of losing one’s identity; fear of being blown up by terrorists; fear of “rogue states” with weapons of mass destruction.

“Fear thrives on myopic and cowardly leadership. There are indeed many real causes of fear but the approach being taken by many world leaders is short-sighted, promulgating policies and strategies that erode the rule of law and human rights, increase inequalities, feed racism and xenophobia, divide and damage communities, and sow the seeds for violence and more conflict.

“History shows that it is not through fear but through hope and optimism that progress is achieved. So, why do some leaders promote fear? Because it allows them to consolidate their own power, create false certainties and escape accountability.”

Ms Khan spares no-one, placing some unlikely bedfellows in the same camp.

“The Howard government portrayed desperate asylum-seekers in leaky boats as a threat to Australia’s national security and raised a false alarm of a refugee invasion. This contributed to its election victory in 2001. After the attacks of 11 September 2001, US President George W Bush invoked the fear of terrorism to enhance his executive power, without Congressional oversight or judicial scrutiny.

“President Omar al-Bashir of Sudan whipped up fear among his supporters and in the Arab world that the deployment of UN peacekeepers in Darfur would be a pretext for an Iraq-style, US-led invasion. Meanwhile, his armed forces and militia allies continued to kill, rape and plunder with impunity. President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe played on racial fears to push his own political agenda of grabbing land for his supporters.”

On the economic front, she castigates the consequences of “unbridled capitalism, driven by globalization.”

“Booming markets are creating enormous opportunities for some, but also widening the gap between the “haves” and the “have-nots”. The rewards of globalization are heavily skewed, both across the world and within countries. Latin America is burdened with some of the highest levels of inequality in the world. In India, there have been average growth rates of 8 per cent over the past three years, but more than a quarter of its population still lives below the poverty line.

“These statistics reveal the dark underbelly of globalization. The marginalization of large swathes of humanity should not be treated as the inevitable cost of global prosperity. There is nothing inevitable about policies and decisions that deny individuals their economic and social rights.” In many parts of the world, says Ms Khan, “people are being tipped into poverty and trapped there by corrupt governments and greedy businesses.”

She also discusses how “fear feeds discontent and leads to discrimination, racism, persecution of ethnic and religious minorities and xenophobic attacks.”

“In many western countries, discrimination has been generated by fears of uncontrolled migration and, post-9/11, aggravated by counter-terrorism strategies targeting Arabs, Asians and Muslims. Fear and hostility on one side have led to alienation and anger on the other. Increasing polarization has strengthened the hands of extremists at both ends of the spectrum, reducing the space for tolerance and dissent. Incidents of Islamophobia and anti-Semitism are increasingly evident.”

As for violence against women, “one of the gravest and most common human rights abuses today,” Ms Khan writes. “Billions of dollars are being spent to fight the “war on terror” – but where is the political will or the resources to fight sexual terror against women? There was universal outrage against racial apartheid in South Africa – where is the outrage against gender apartheid in some countries today?”

She says that “The state has the obligation to safeguard a woman’s freedom of choice, not restrict it. To take an example, the veil and headscarf of Muslim women have become a bone of contention between different cultures, the visible symbol of oppression according to one side, and an essential attribute of religious freedom according to the other. It is wrong for women in Saudi Arabia or Iran to be compelled to put on the veil. It is equally wrong for women or girls in Turkey or France to be forbidden by law to wear the headscarf. And it is foolish of western leaders to claim that a piece of clothing is a major barrier to social harmony.”

Ms Khan says the future lies in “promoting principled leadership and enlightened policies” and rejecting the Cold War tradition of each superpower sponsoring its own pool of dictatorships and abusive regimes.”

She lauds the “the courage and commitment of civil society,” noting that the single most significant sign of hope for transforming the human rights landscape is the human rights movement itself – millions of defenders, activists and ordinary people, including members of Amnesty International, who are demanding change. Marches, petitions, virals, blogs, t-shirts and armbands may not seem much by themselves, but by bringing people together they unleash an energy for change that should not be underestimated.”

She concludes, “People power will change the face of human rights in the 21st century. Hope is very much alive.”

Download the full report: http://thereport.amnesty.org/