Human rights and due process are essential [Archives:2004/729/Community]

April 15 2004

Excerpts from the interview

Q: What motivated you to support Amnesty International at the conference in Sana'a?
A: I supported Amnesty International at this particular conference because when I was captured in 1987, I was captured on suspicion. The kidnappers suspected I was involved in something I wasn't involved in, but that was their suspicion. I was blindfolded, taken to a secret location, chained to the wall, and I slept on the floor. I was also interrogated, beaten on the soles of my feet with cables and I suffered a mock execution in which they put a gun to my head.
I had no contact with the outside world. I had no contact with my family, and my family didn't know where I was over those years. So there was no communication, and I was kept totally alone. That was an experience in which I was denied all human rights. That is similar to the experience of the people who have been taken to Guantanamo Bay and Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan.
They have been taken on suspicion and have been denied legal process. Their families don't know where they are. We don't know what treatment they've received, but we know some have been treated rather roughly. Their future is not determined. We are told some are going to face the death penalty. Now that is virtually a hostage taking situation. What is the difference?

Q: What you want to see is that the prisoners are granted due process and human rights?
A: The argument is that these people are dangerous. The US administration went so far as to say that they are some of the worst of the worst and the biggest criminals of all. If that is the case, you must have due process. You must bring evidence, and you must charge them, in any given situation.
So what I'm saying is that my situation was very much like theirs. I can understand what they are going through. I make no presumption at all about these men, about their guilt or innocence. All I say is that we must follow due process. If we do not follow the rule of internationally-agreed law, which is the internationally agreed human rights law, we will get into a very confusing situation.
I, myself, was denied human rights, and I have sympathy for anybody else who is denied human rights. I do not presume that people are necessarily guilty until they are proven and found guilty by proper due process. When people are denied that, I have sympathy for them and their families because I make no assumption whether they are guilty or innocent until they have actually been through due process. That is because I suffered in the same way.
I do not hold any bitterness because I believe from a personal point of view that if you hold bitterness against people, it does you more harm than it does them. It destroys you. So, I am perfectly prepared to put the past behind me. The people in Lebanon have had to put their past behind them and rebuild for the future, just as I have had to do. We cannot go on nursing grievances forever. We must take constructive steps forward. And Beirut is beginning to take constructive steps forward on a nationwide basis, just as we must do on an individual basis.

Q: What is your response to Washington when they say that the prisoners at Guantanamo Bay have no rights to lawyers because they are enemy combatants?
A: The argument used by the Americans is that this is a state of war. And they will say that the terrorists, the so-called terrorists all over the world, have declared war on the United States. Therefore, the United States is justified in declaring war on terrorists and applying extraordinary measures. First of all, it is disputed that this is war. The Americans have given a very new definition to war. Terrorism is a tactic. How can you declare a war on a tactic? It is a tactic designed to terrorize people. So, there is an ambiguity about declaring war on terrorism. Secondly, the assumption is that Al-Qaeda is an organized movement, totally organized, totally structured around the world with one leader, Osama bin Laden, but it is not like that. It is not like that at all. There may be informal linkages in certain places and no linkages in other places. How do you declare war on that sort of amorphous group of people? Thirdly, and more importantly, with terrorism, which is no doubt a scourge of our age, if the new situation in the world demands different legislation, then you cannot have that legislation made by one person alone, one president alone or one nation alone. It must be made through international agreement. That means you must have an international forum for making that particular agreement. That has been sidestepped totally.

Q: Do you believe that there might be negative consequences coming from holding prisoners in Guantanamo Bay without due process?
A: I think this continued detention of people without due process in Guantanamo Bay is a really grave scandal because it means that America and others in association with America are adopting the tactics of the terrorists and have allowed the terrorists to rob them of their human rights. Human rights are now being denied. The other thing we're finding is that because America has taken to detention without due process and trial, other nations are using this as an excuse. They can say, “We can do it because Americans do it.” America doesn't have a moral leg to stand on. If tomorrow, for example, Americans were taken in China and subject to the same sort of treatment, America wouldn't have a moral leg to stand on to make any comment at all about what China has done. It is a very bad example to the rest of the world.
Someone once said to me, “When you have this type of trial behind closed doors, it spells the death of democracy.” And in fact it does spell the death of democracy if you do that. It is vital that we have transparency in these matters. We must not allow the very real dangers of terrorism, and we mustn't allow those dangers to actually be robbers of human rights and our heritage which has long been fought for.
Already we see tremendous anomalies. For instance, those British detainees who have been released have been given favorable treatment because Britain is an ally. You cannot say, “Oh, I'm going to release this group of people because we are going to release them to friends of ours, and we are going to keep the others because those countries are not so friendly.” You cannot do that within the law, and that is not the way law should be exercised. You have got to bring them before the proper judicial process.

Q: Has detaining prisoners affected the war on terror?
A: I believe that it is not successful. First, I believe that it creates tremendous resentment across the Arab nations. Secondly, it means that more youngsters, radical youngsters, will be encouraged to take up a position of terrorism against what they see to be oppressive regimes. So I don't think it is an effective measure.
What has America done in some of its dealings? It has coerced certain states into adopting repressive measures. There has been a certain amount of economic blackmail that says, “If you don't join with us, we will punish you economically.” That is not the way to conduct international relations. It is a shabby, poor way of dealing with other nations. It doesn't have within it the moral content to be long-lasting.
I am not saying we should ignore terrorism. Of course we shouldn't ignore it. Of course we should deal with it. But we should not deal with it unilaterally.

Q: What do you think will be the consequences of the war in Iraq?
A: If you follow due process, you have to have good intelligence. The facts are that if you look back over the whole history of this business since September 11, intelligence has been very faulty, like intelligence regarding Iraq. Even Colin Powell will admit that the great statement he made on TV was full of holes. The intelligence was very poor about weapons of mass destruction, and yet we went in blindly. First, if you take the lid off a repressive regime, you will open a can of worms. That is exactly what happened, and it is exactly what many of us had forecasted before the invasion. Let me make this clear: I have no time for a dictator, I did not support Saddam Hussein and I did not support that regime. But I did not believe that by invasion you were going to resolve the problems of a complex nation like Iraq. As I heard someone say on BBC radio, “I am beginning to believe that Saddam Hussein was a product of Iraq, rather than Iraq being a product of Hussein.” In other words, you get the leader you deserve. Iraq is a complex nation, and it is simplistic to think you can resolve that problem by warfare.
I think there is an appalling lack of understanding of the Arab world in particular. When I was in the occupied territories recently, we were discussing this with a group of Palestinians. One said that the Israelis have an advantage over them because so many of the Israelis are westernized, so many of them speak English, and so many have families in America or other western countries. They have a long history of relating to the West, and they know how to move through the structures of the West. This is not the same for many Arabs, who cannot speak English, whose customs are different, and who don't have the same familiarity with the West at all. So they are regarded as an alien people, and the understanding of the West towards the Arab people is very poor indeed. The stereotype of Arabs being terrorists is a firm stereotype in the West. It is totally disgraceful that that should be the case, but that is the case. It demonstrates the lack of understanding of the Arab mind and the Arab world in the West.
The western concept of democracy cannot be imposed on people by force of arms or done quickly. Democracy has to have time to grow. You have to build your institutions, and you have to educate people into democracy. It is a slow process. You can't spring it on people overnight, particularly if people have lived under a dictator. It is a foolish notion to think that all you have to do is remove the dictator and you will suddenly be able to create a council in Iraq and have a democratic structure. The problems are far too complex for that. And it shows a naive understanding of the complexity of the issues facing those nations. That is very distressing. And it is actually creating a gap between not just the Arab world but also the whole Muslim world and the West.

Q: Do you believe the war on terror should be carried out in a different way?
A: Take Iraq as an example. It was argued rightly or wrongly that Iraq was a fostering ground for terrorism. First of all, we should have allowed weapon inspectors to finish the job in order to get evidence or not. It is now being proven that if they had been allowed to finish the job, we wouldn't have found weapons of mass destruction because they are not there. If still concerned about human rights violations in that country, put human rights inspectors on the ground from the United Nations. If the human rights inspectors had come up and said there were gross violations coming from the President and his cabinet, indict him as a war criminal.
Dealing with terrorism, you cannot deal with it in a unilateral basis. You must deal with it through the international mechanisms that we have, namely through the United Nations. If you require new legislation, it's important to work together through the United Nations. It is in everybody's interest to quell terrorism. It is in very few people's interest to maintain it. It takes longer, but you've got to be able to commit yourself internationally, and the only way to deal with it is through the international mechanisms.
As far as the United Nations goes, it is in many respects a clumsy bureaucracy. There is no doubt that it needs reform. But it will not be reformed by people sniping at it from the outside, like America has done. It cannot be reformed by America refusing to support the International Court of Justice. It can only be reformed by the big, powerful nations actually committing themselves to reform the United Nations. Then the United Nations will be able to look at the problem of terrorism and devise together effective ways to deal with this problem.