Saturday, March 20, 2004


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By William Fisher

Two recent events illustrate the unfortunate penchant of Arab regimes to shoot themselves in the foot. On March 16, Saudi Arabia detained several prominent reformers. A week earlier, Syrian police broke up a peaceful demonstration by some 20 human rights activists seeking political and economic reforms.

Why are these kinds of events so damaging to Middle East Arab governments? Because they undermine the credibility of many promises -- and a few actions – these governments have taken to bring greater transparency and political participation to their citizens.

Arab governments are virtually unanimous in their condemnation of the Middle East Initiative proposed by President George W. Bush to ‘democratize’ the region. They view the policy as a neo-colonial attempt to impose ‘American-style’ democracy on the area, and contend – with some justification – that democracy cannot be imposed externally and must be homegrown and suited to each country’s history and culture.

While talk of ‘reform’ fills the Middle East and North Africa, some Arab states have taken the first baby steps toward beginning to protect their citizens’ civil and political liberties. Saudi Arabia is one of these. The Kingdom’s first independent human rights organization recently won Royal approval; the government has promised municipal elections, opened a reform dialogue with leading intellectuals – several of whom were among those arrested last week – and introduced changes to its education and religions institutions, which promote an austere version of Sunni Islam and are blamed by Western critics for creating a fertile environment for militants.

Syria has done far less. President Bashir Assad, who took office when his father died in 2000, has taken limited steps to loosen Syria from the totalitarian system he inherited. He released hundreds of political detainees and initially allowed political discussion groups to hold small gatherings indoors. But in 2001, Assad began to clamp down on pro-democracy activists, raiding their meetings and jailing two lawmakers and other activists. They were convicted on a charge of trying illegally to change the constitution.

The protest by the 20 Syrian activists was against the continued use of the so-called Emergency Laws in force since 1963. The measures allow Syrian authorities to restrict the right to freedom of expression by permitting the censorship of correspondence, communications and information media. They also allow for the establishment of special courts for the trial of state security and political cases without recourse to ordinary court procedures and guarantees, and give the government sweeping powers to arrest and detain citizens with charge, trial or legal representation. The Syrian response was to have police disperse the 20 protesters, angrily tell reporters to leave, and take several protestors into custody.

The Saudi incident was triggered by a petition to Crown Prince Abdullah, the de facto ruler of the Kingdom, urging the government to provide a timetable for the implementation of reforms. The police arrested eight of the petitioners because, according to the official Saudi Press Agency, the signatories’ actions “do not serve national unity or the cohesion of society based on Islamic Sharia law.''

President Assad’s knee-jerk reaction against this tiny protest is a backward step that should be condemned by Arab leaders who recognize the need to move forward by instituting their own reforms. The Saudi action, said one academic with ties among the detainees, “will make people lose trust in the government and their promises. It contradicts 100 percent what they have been promising.'' Crown Prince Abdullah vowed that his country will press ahead with reforms but rejected any ``reckless adventure,'' saying change will be measured and studied. Syria has not commented on the arrests.

But the reactions of both governments are more likely to strengthen human rights activism and give advocates the gift of international media attention. Syria’s actions can only bolster US resolve to impose sanctions on the country.

In their over-reactions, the leaders of Saudi Arabia and Syria have, yet again, shot their countries in the foot. They have invited condemnation by internationally respected groups such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International and, sadly, given aid and comfort to the Bush Administration’s doomed Greater Middle East Initiative.


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By William Fisher

Though it may be hard to believe in our post-9/11 world, there was a time when US foreign policy was less shrill, less arrogant, and less partisan, and when policy makers understood that democracy could not be imposed from outside.

In the ‘old days’, Democratic President Harry S. Truman forged a partnership with congressional leaders like Republican Senator Arthur Vandenberg to advance American interests in the perilous years following World War II. That partnership resulted in, among other initiatives, the Marshall Plan. It was Senator Vandenberg who first said, “politics stops at the water's edge.”

America has seen virtually none of this since the fall of the Soviet Union. The US foreign policy dialog has been strident and insensitive. The Executive Branch of government has steadily usurped the traditional authority of the Congress to, for example, declare war. This is very different from authorizing the President to take the nation to war. The result has often been a debate on details rather than core substance. The Marshall Plan contained no ‘one size fits all’ rhetoric about bringing democracy to Europe, in contrast to President Bush’s Greater Middle East Initiative.

Perhaps it is time the US re-learned the lessons of its own history. One way to begin to achieve this is through the choice of Colin Powell’s successor as Secretary of State. It is well know that Secretary Powell has differed with President Bush on many foreign policy issues. But his military background appears to have made him the ultimate team player, even to the point of advocating for Administration positions about which he has doubts.

The choice of his successor is a key element of a return to a far more informed and civil foreign policy. I would suggest that, if George Bush is reelected, he should appoint Democratic Senator Joseph Biden to run the State Department. If John Kerry wins the presidency, his Secretary of State should be Republican Senator Richard Lugar or fellow Republican Senator Chuck Hagel. This is not just because these leaders happen to be from the opposite party. It is because they are all experts in foreign affairs and diplomacy who might just be able to restore some consensus to American foreign policy.

Dick Lugar is an unwavering advocate of US leadership in the world, strong national security, free trade and economic growth. He is the author of the Lugar Doctrine and co-sponsor of the Nunn-Lugar program, developed to ensure that weapons of mass destruction are accounted, contained and destroyed.

Chuck Hagel has been a member of the Foreign Relations committee since his election to the Senate in 1996, and is currently the second ranking Republican on the committee. He is Chairman of the Subcommittee on International Economic Policy, Export and Trade Promotion. He also sits on the Subcommittee on East Asian and Pacific Affairs and the Subcommittee on European Affairs, and serves as the Co-chairman of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China.

Joe Biden, the Ranking Member of the Foreign Relations Committee, is the Democratic Party's chief spokesman on national security and foreign policy issues. One of the most respected voices on national security and civil liberties, he has earned national and international recognition as a policy innovator, effective legislator and party spokesman on a wide range of key issues.

All three men voted for most of the Bush foreign policy initiatives. But all have relentlessly questioned, publicly, the way some of these measures have been implemented. Any of them would have the strength and the integrity to stand up to the President and to foster consistency and transparency in policymaking and policy implementation.

It’s a pity that party politics prevents Messrs. Bush and Kerry from announcing these appointments now. Any of them would go a long way toward restoring US credibility in the international community.



By William Fisher

Is it possible that President Bush’s Greater Middle East Initiative to bring democracy to the area – roundly condemned by most Arab governments – is actually having some positive impact on democratic reform in this troubled neighborhood?

Reform-talk is nothing new in the Middle East and North Africa. The rhetoric of reform has been heard throughout the region for many years, though there are few tangible gains to show for it. But both the pace and the decibel level of discussion appear to have increased since the US plan to ‘democratize’ the region was leaked to a London newspaper.

The Middle East initiative is aimed at the arc of countries extending from Morocco to Pakistan and urges them to undertake major political and economic reforms, especially those that would advance women, and guarantee human rights. The Bush administration had planned to present its proposals at the G8 summit of industrial nations in June, but has now abandoned this action in the face of widespread Arab criticism.

Much of the Arab world’s reaction to the plan is summed up by Syrian Vice President Abdel-Halim Khaddam. The plan, he said, was “reminiscent of past colonial scheming. This initiative reminds us of the situation before World War I, when major powers were seeking a way to fragment the region and divide it among themselves,” he told reporters. “No one can impose anything on Arabs … Arabs can choose for themselves.” Other Arab critics question whether the plan was presented properly. ”It seems to have been announced in the (Bush) administration’s typical high-handed way, without serious prior consultations. So this cannot be presented as a genuinely cooperative enterprise….” Critics say the US plan demonstrates its lack of sensitivity to the social and cultural differences between America and the Arab world.

Faced with flat-out rejection from some of its closest allies, the United States has belatedly said the plan is only a suggestion. US Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Marc Grossman said the best ideas for reform will come from the region.

Thus reform is likely to be high on the agenda of the Arab League when it meets in Tunis later this month. This comes as something of a surprise because little achievement was expected from the forthcoming Arab League Summit. For example, because of the deep differences among member states, none of the League’s 22 members have ever ratified the organization’s 1994 Declaration of Human Rights. Moreover, many of the countries in the Arab Middle East and North Africa have autocratic regimes that operate under so-called Emergency Laws that give their governments sweeping powers to strip citizens of their human and political rights.

Yet there is some evidence that some Arab countries are taking reform seriously. Here are some of the more recent: Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Morocco have formed human rights committees, attached to their governments but promising independent action. Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak has talked of a wide-ranging reform agenda, starting with a promise to stop jailing journalists, though the country’s Emergency Law remains very much in force. Saudi Arabia’s crown prince has created an Advisory Working Group to study the major challenges facing the kingdom, including the implementation of municipal elections, with full voting rights granted to women. Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan have committed to radical modernization of their education systems, with special emphasis on women’s right to education. The Algerian Government has created a ‘mechanism’ to try to discover what happened to the thousands of ‘disappeared’ citizens. Saudi Arabia’s first elections will take place in 14 municipalities in October – in which women will vote for the first time – and Saudi analysts say they should lead to general elections.

While these events might be seen as baby steps toward comprehensive reform, as the Beirut newspaper The Daily Star points out, “For a part of the world that has resisted change for decades while breeding poverty, religious extremism and terrorism, that is already progress of a sort.”

But many obstacles threaten to derail progress toward homegrown reform. For many years, the Arab League has been considered reactionary, virtually irrelevant because of the deep divisions among its member states, and totally preoccupied with the Israeli-Palestinian issue. It has often been accused of using this explosive issue to justify its inaction in other areas. The importance of the issue to Middle East Arabs was again underscored by Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa. ``As far as the Greater Middle East Initiative is concerned, ” he said recently, “it should not be confined to developing the societies but also to achieving stability in the region. This stability cannot be achieved without a fair, correct and balanced treatment of the Palestinian cause and the Iraqi issue.'' In countries like Saudi Arabia, fundamentalist clergy are creating multiple obstructions. A number of governments in the region, including Egypt and Syria, are continuing to use the threat of terrorism to justify their continuation of draconian Emergency Laws. And America’s Iraqi adventure further clouds the Arab perception of America’s track record in the area.

According to a recent editorial in the Jordan Times, “The continuation of conflicts in the Middle East, especially the Arab-Israeli deadlock and the Iraqi occupation, leads to radicalization of the entire region and makes the endeavors to reform it that much more difficult. The rise of political violence and even terrorism is directly linked to these festering conflicts and without security and stability, no political and economic reforms can be pursued with much success…the real reason why these conflicts exist in the first place is the absence of reforms. Had the countries directly or indirectly affected by these conflicts undergone meaningful reforms decades ago, the conflicts in question may not have reached their present stage of urgency. “

So at the level of realpolitik, there seems to be no viable alternative to accepting homegrown reforms, however slow and frustrating. The role of the United States, the European Community, and all others who enjoy the fruits of democracy, can only be as partners and helpers – not as prescriptors.

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Wednesday, March 03, 2004


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By William Fisher

There has never been a shortage of foolishness in government. But America’s post 9/11 color-coded terror index has to be high on the most-foolish list. Here’s why:

One of America’s new Homeland Security gurus testified before Congress the other day that there are three things the US public should do when terror alerts go from, say, yellow to orange. They are: (1) be vigilant (2) be prepared (3) go about enjoying life as usual. But the spokesman for this new mega-department was a tad short on details. For example:

What are we supposed to be ‘vigilant’ about? Strangers hanging about our neighborhoods? Unattended boxes in the company mailroom? A student from Egypt moving into the apartment next to yours?

What are we supposed to be prepared for? Attacks using biological, chemical or, heaven forefend, nuclear weapons? A dirty bomb in a suitcase? And just how are we supposed to prepare ourselves for these different kinds of calamities? Build underground shelters like some of us did in the 1950s Cold War days? Stock up on canned goods and water to put in the cellar? Make sure our first aid kits are up-to-date?

Finally, once our color coded anxiety has sent us all rushing around in search of prescriptions for Prozac, we are counseled to go about our normal lives (“or the terrorists will win”). Right!

American reactions to terror alert codes vary, but by and large the country has responded with underwhelming indifference. My own admittedly unscientific survey of friends and colleagues elicited these comments:

“I would only pay attention if I heard there was a red alert (an attack in progress)”, said a social worker. “I can’t live my life in a perpetually freaked out condition,” commented a college student. A mother of two said, “I have stopped watching the news on television. These color alerts are meaningless.” According to a businessman who travels overseas frequently: “I postponed some business trips after 9/11, but got back in the air a month later. I read the State Department’s travel advisories before I fly and don’t pay any attention to the color of the threat level.” A dentist said on the eve of a vacation, “If I paid attention to the color of the day, I’d never go anywhere.” Another friend said, “I commute to New York City every day from New Jersey, which means I have to drive over the George Washington Bridge. I remember doing that the day the threat level was raised from yellow to orange, and I didn’t even see any increased police presence at all.” Said an economist colleague: “I am weary of threat levels that don’t tell you what they’re based on or anything specific you can do about them.”

The reasons for these attitudes are not all that difficult to figure out. First, the public cannot be expected to maintain mega levels of anxiety over extended periods while “going about their lives as usual.” Second, people in the general public are clueless about what they should actually do in almost any emergency, let alone a biological or chemical attack. Third, first aid kits and stored canned goods and water would be totally useless against the kinds of attacks Homeland Security is talking about.

Finally, and perhaps most important, the terror alert system should never have been directed at the general public. If bureaucrats’ comfort levels are somehow helped by designer colors, they should be used only as tools for first responders – law enforcement, firefighters, EMS specialists.

These professionals, we can only pray, will know what specific actions to take if tragedy strikes. Hopefully, they will be able to communicate with one another on their walkie-talkies, access the same terrorist databases, use compatible computers, and have all the personnel and technology they need.

Congress has not yet seen fit to give them the money they need to really take this job on. And the President’s new budget doesn’t offer much hope that the Feds are really concerned about helping first responders. Meanwhile, financially strapped cities are being forced to close down firehouses and other vital services – the very services the country would need most if terrorists strike again.


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By William Fisher

It’s too bad there’s no Oscar for the most inflammatory website on the Internet. If there were, http:// would be a surefire winner.

Al Minbar means ‘The Pulpit’. So if you’re a radical fundamentalist Imam who finds himself a bit short of vitriol, you can go to this site and find it ‘canned’ and ready for use in your mosque. Today these off-the-shelf khutbahs (sermons) are being used in mosques throughout the Muslim world. According to the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), the Alminbar site, based in Saudi Arabia, reports it is visited by some 3,000 Imams from 62 countries and territories weekly.

The Alminbar site begins, “Welcome to the - the Orator's garden and the Muslim's provision. Here you will find a variety of material to help you prepare for your sermons.” Contents range from “Conditions for Victory, Reasons for Defeat”, to “Advice For The Times Of Trial”, to “The Virtues Of Martyrdom”, to “The true nature of the enmity between the Muslims and the Jews”, to “The Islamic position on Contagion and Pessimism”, to “The War Of Propaganda.” While Islamic fundamentalist sermons are often referred to in the media, few people have actually read what is being said. Suffice it to say the rhetoric makes Jerry Falwell sound like Barbra Streisand. The site’s treatment of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict provides an example.

The establishment of a Palestinian state, says one sermon, “is an old and fruitless plan that aims at keeping the Palestinians engaged, but …the Israelis are not serious in giving the Palestinians the right of a separate state.” It adds: Bringing up these old Israeli ideas increases the suffering of our nation…the Israelis only want to stop our resistance and continue their occupation…It is extremely dangerous to back a call for a Palestinian state according to a plan which deprives the Palestinians from returning to their areas….”

The sermon asks: “How long are we going to be made forcibly subservient? When are we going to rise up against the evil of the enemy? …Who can believe that a small number of these ‘brothers of monkeys and pigs’ (Jews) are making the entire Muslim nation suffer?”

The sermon calls for continued Jihad -- “Jihad is the language of power even if it means small stones and rocks” -- and lays out a four-point plan for rescuing the Palestinians from the Israelis and their fellow conspirators.

First, it declares, Muslims must “be sincere in our intention and know that the only purpose of Jihad is to exalt the supremacy of Allah's religion….” Second, Muslims should “foster patience and piety, since Allah is with those who observe patience and adhere to piety.” Third, Muslims must “intelligently evaluate our strength, bearing in mind that…arrogant pride without reliance on Allah is a cause for defeat….” Fourth, Muslims must “use military arms which utilize state-of-the-art technology.”

The sermon inveighs equally against Christians for collaborating with Jews to retain control of Palestinian lands. Says the sermon: “It is known that the Jews are but a small band…so who was it that protected them? It was their brothers, the Christians who are more Zionists then the Zionists themselves, and more Jews than the Jews. They are the leaders of the New World order. The masters of the world after the period of the cold war as they call it…Jewish hearts in Christian skins….”

The peace process, the sermon concludes, “is nothing but a change to the Zionist plan to control the world and especially the Islamic regions. The plan simply has changed from the idea of establishing the greater state of Israel to another idea because the Jews found themselves forced to change that old idea of the Jewish State. This is because fifty years after establishing the Jewish State, they discovered that they are a community full of contradictions and a strange phenomenon in the middle of surroundings full of enmity.”

The sermon cautions against any dialog with the Israelis: “Negotiations are the introduction to submission and it is benumbing the Muslim nations... The last hour will not come until the Muslims fight against the Jews…As soon as the Muslim Nation raises the banner of Islam and revives its practice of the religion like that of the first generations, the Jews and their supporters will be like dead rats.”

The sermon concludes: “The United States will not protect you…Israel backed the United States to launch this dirty war against Muslims and the Islamic movement world wide. The United States used the most destructive bombs against Afghanistan, and raised close to thirty-seven billion dollars in the war against Islam. The United States vetoes any decision at the United Nations related to helping the Palestinians, so how can we expect the United States to help us and be fair with us? “

The Internet contains numerous Islamic websites that are informative, moderate and reasoned. One of the best is www. The web also contains many Israeli, Jewish and Zionist websites whose contents similarly span the religious and political spectrum from warlike to conciliatory.

But the more inflammatory of these sites represent an egregious disservice to the religious faiths they purport to represent. They make peace an ever more distant dream.


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By William Fisher

The Cold War resulted in many strange bedfellows for the United States, including repressive and authoritarian regimes in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and many others. With these countries, the US shared a common enemy: The Soviet Union. Today, the War on Terror is having a similar effect, and for the same reason. This makes it possible for President Bush to engage in Wilsonian pronouncements about democratizing the Middle East, yet welcome to the White House the leader of one of the most authoritarian and repressive of the Arab regimes, President Zine el-Abidine ben Ali of Tunisia.

Last fall, President Bush said the US would no longer accommodate authoritarian Middle East governments simply to achieve security and stability. America, he said, would start putting its power in the service of democratic values throughout the region. He pledged that "when the leaders of reform ask for our help, America will give it.”

But it requires a giant leap of imagination to characterize President ben Ali as a “leader of reform”.

Politically, Tunisia has made negligible progress since Mr. ben Ali seized power in 1987. He has engineered his reelection three times, claiming more than 99 percent of the vote each time. He plans to run for yet another term this October, and recently pushed through constitutional changes to allow him to retain power through 2014.

In the human rights area, Tunisia’s record is similarly dismal. According to Human Rights Watch, the country’s “security forces continue to violate legal guarantees deliberately, a situation apparently for the most part tolerated by the highest state authorities. There are frequent cases of arbitrary arrests without warrant; falsifications of the dates of arrest; detentions which exceed the lawful maximum period; detainees denied their right to call for a medical examination or to have their family informed of the detention. Torture continues to be reported in a general climate of impunity.”

Civil liberties groups also charge that Tunisia uses increasingly sophisticated means to control communications. Fax and telephone lines are believed to be routinely tapped and are regularly cut or diverted. Internet access is arbitrarily blocked and e-mail to selected accounts never arrives. Regular mail may be opened and torn. Press freedom is severely restricted.

So Mr. ben Ali’s White House visit was not about rewarding a ‘leader of reform”. It was the Bush Administration’s same-old same-old. It was Washington’s usual way of acknowledging Tunisia’s support for peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, and Mr. ben Ali’s opposition to Islamic extremism -- which he has loudly proclaimed to justify the repressive actions of his regime.

This is exactly what Mr. Bush told Americans he would no longer tolerate. Has he forgotten so soon?


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By William Fisher

When the kings and heads of state of 22 nations meet for the Arab League Summit in Tunisia later this month, they will be asked to consider several amendments to the 1994 Arab Charter on Human Rights. The amendments strengthen the Charter by affirming every individual's right to life; the right to fair trial; the legal status of crime and punishment; the right to political asylum without extradition; and prohibitions on torture, deportation, and revoking citizenship. They also strengthen workers' rights and refer more explicitly to the equal rights of men and women.

One of the problems facing these modest amendments is that no Arab state has yet ratified the 1994 Charter. Another is that if the amendments are approved, the legislatures of seven member states will have to ratify the revised charter for it to come into force. Despite the virtually incessant talk of ‘reform’ in the region, there is little optimism that this will happen any time soon.

No doubt the Summit’s closing communiqué will proclaim yet again the myth of Arab unity. But the League is as deeply divided over the issue of democratization and human rights as it is over almost every major issue facing the Middle East.

For example, despite the fact that the League was formed in 1945 as a pan-Arab organization to challenge the emergence of Israel, members are far from unanimous even about the Israel-Palestine issue. Egypt and Jordan have made peace with Israel, while most Arab states are still at war. Arab League communiqués profess support for the Palestinian cause, but many League members wish the problem would just go away. The American invasion of Iraq was opposed by most League members, but not by all. Declarations against the war were undermined by the help some member states gave the US-led invasion force, while Saddam's opponents -- mainly Gulf states like Kuwait -- accused the League of siding with the now-ousted Iraqi leader The ‘war on terror’ is being supported actively by some League members, and supported largely in rhetoric by others. Some League members see the United States as the enemy of Islam, others as its ultimate protector – and largest financial donor. These are but a few of the conflicts and contradictions that have made the Arab League all but irrelevant to the future of their neighborhood.

Yet the importance of the human rights amendments should not be underestimated. The proposed amendments are for the first time based on the recommendations of independent Arab human rights experts. Even if the amendments are ratified, they will amount to ‘human rights lite’ because the amended Charter will still fall far short of constituting a viable regional framework. For example, the League’s Human Rights Committee rejected independent some of their experts’ recommendations relating to fair trials, compensation for unlawful detention, and free elections. Furthermore, Arab governments will still retain wide latitude to suspend the Charter's provisions to protect "the national security and economy, public order" or at times of "public emergency." The Charter also lacks any enforcement mechanisms, unlike those of other regional groups such as the European Union (EU), the Organization of American States (OAS), and the Organization of African Unity (OAU). Yet ratification of the amendments could represent an important step toward democratization from within.

The Middle East is rife these days with talk of reform and some countries have indeed taken the first baby steps in that direction. Most governments in the region have taken a negative view of President Bush’s efforts to ‘democratize’ the Middle East and North Africa, viewing the initiative as being ‘imposed from outside’. The new human rights amendments, however, have come from Arabs for Arabs. Their ratification would signify the region’s seriousness to advance this necessary objective.


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By William Fisher

Critics of The US State Department’s recently released Human Rights Report for 2003 are charging that the Report fails to address human rights abuses in the United States. Some believe that this omission exposes a current American double standard, and raises the question of whether the US has the credibility to launch its Greater Middle East Initiative.

The Initiative, expected to be proposed at the G8 summit in June, is a key element of President Bush’s effort to ‘democratize’ the Middle East. It has been widely criticized by Arab governments in the region as a neo-colonialist effort to impose an American model of democracy on a group of widely differing sovereign states. Now, some Arab spokesmen – as well as a number of US human rights groups – are asking whether the pot should be allowed to call the kettle black.

The double-standard accusation stems from measures taken by the US in the ‘war on terror’ since 9/11. It includes the Government’s enforcement of some of the provisions of the Patriot Act, particularly sneak-and-peek search and surveillance, indefinite detention of US citizens without charge or access to lawyers, rounding up of hundreds of Muslims on suspicion of immigration violations, rules announced by the Pentagon for its upcoming Military Tribunals, and treatment of detainees at Guantanamo Bay.

Detention of US citizens is seen by human rights groups as a particularly egregious breach of Constitutional protections. Two citizens, Jose Padilla and Yasser Esam Hamdi, have been classified as enemy combatants and held incommunicado in US military brigs for nearly two years. While the Administration had previously insisted that national security would be harmed if the military’s interrogation of Hamdi and Padilla were interrupted by visits from lawyers, it recently decided that this danger no longer existed, and granted the men access to their attorneys. At the same time, the Administration is taking their case to the Supreme Court, where it will claim that there are no legal limits to its power over terrorist suspects. The Court is being asked to rule on whether US citizens can be subject to unconstrained executive authority.

However, even in granting the two men access to counsel, the Pentagon emphasizes that it is doing so “as a matter of discretion and military authority.” It contends that neither domestic nor international law compels such access. According to Jamie Fellner, Director of the US Program for Human Rights Watch, “under the restrictive rules imposed by the Pentagon, the legal visits are nothing more than an empty façade… Although the two men can see and speak with their lawyers, they cannot consult with them in any meaningful way.”

The reason, Fellner says, is that “under the Pentagon’s rules, the meetings between lawyers and these particular clients are not confidential. Rather than the customary attorney-client privilege, which protects the secrecy of discussions between lawyers and the people they represent, these meetings are completely open to the military. Indeed, a military official is present at each meeting, and everything is videotaped and audio-recorded….” Complicating matters further, under the Pentagon’s restrictions, every word Hamdi says to his lawyer is classified. After holding a ninety-minute meeting under these restrictions, Frank Dunham, Hamdi’s lawyer, says he still does not know his client’s version of the facts – and cannot ask with military representatives present.

The Pentagon indicated to Dunham that anything Hamdi revealed would not be used against him in a criminal prosecution. But Hamdi is not being prosecuted—and anything he says could affect the military’s determination as to whether his continued detention is warranted. The Pentagon’s rules cripple Dunham’s ability to build a case for Hamdi’s release from detention.

The Pentagon has also refused to allow three leading human rights groups to attend and observe military commission trials of detainees at Guantanamo Bay
In a letter to US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Amnesty International, Human Rights First (formerly the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights) and Human Rights Watch, protested their exclusion from the proceedings and urged the US government to rethink its position. In its written response, the Department of Defense refused to allow Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International to attend the military commissions on the basis of “limited courtroom seating and other logistical issues.”

“These space constraints are being used as a pretext to keep out groups who have been critical of the commissions,” said Elisa Massimino, Washington Director of Human Rights First. “The Pentagon used its promise that the trials would be open to the public to reassure people that the trials would be fair. But now it appears ‘open’ doesn't really mean open. It means ‘open only to hand-picked press and not to anyone who’s been critical.’”

The rights groups acknowledge that the size of the courtroom, or any overflow room with video access, is a limiting factor in any trial. However, they charge that space factors are being used “as a pretext to exclude a whole category of observers with internationally recognized expertise in trial monitoring. Even acknowledging the unique difficulties caused by holding the commissions at the US naval base in Cuba -- a problem of the Bush administration’s own making -- the government should not be allowed to select observers in an effort to control coverage of these internationally significant trials. “

“The US, in the State Department’s Reports on Human Rights, annually criticizes other governments for failing to accommodate trial monitors,” said Alex Arriaga, director of government relations at Amnesty International USA. “Allowing media coverage while pleading insufficient space for human rights groups smacks of fear of informed criticism, and will only fuel the perception that tribunals will be show trials.”


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By William Fisher

If you think WMD is the only information being manipulated by the Bush Administration, have a look at what they’re doing to taxpayer-funded science.

A report commissioned by Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA) charges that the Bush Administration has routinely edited reports, deleted reports, ignored reports, hidden reports on shelves, provided inaccurate responses to Congress, altered web sites, issued erroneous international communications, and gagged scientists. More than 60 Nobel laureates, winners of the National Medal of Science, heads of leading universities and biomedical research institutes, and former presidential science advisers, have called on Congress to investigate. Here are some examples:

Abstinence education, where the Administration has changed sex education performance measures to produce the appearance that scientific evidence supports abstinence-only programs. President Bush has consistently supported the view that sex education should teach “abstinence only” and not include information on other ways to avoid sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy. Until recently, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) initiative called “Programs That Work” identified sex education programs that have been found to be effective in scientific studies and provided this information through its web site. In 2002, all five “Programs That Work” provided comprehensive sex education to teenagers, and none were “abstinence-only.” CDC has now ended this initiative and erased information about these proven sex education programs from its web site.

Condom use, HIV / AIDS Policies and Research, where information about condom use and efficacy was deleted from CDC web site. The CDC replaced a comprehensive fact sheet on condoms with one that emphasizes condom failure rates and the effectiveness of abstinence. A revised fact sheet begins by emphasizing condom failure rates and the effectiveness of abstinence.

Stem Cell Research, where, in banning federal funding for research on new stem cell lines, President Bush stated that “more than 60 genetically diverse" lines were available for potential research. Soon thereafter, HHS Secretary Thompson acknowledged that the correct number was only about 24 to 25. Still later, NIH Director Dr. Elias Zerhouni told Congress that only 11 stem cell lines were widely available to researchers.

Global warming, where reports by the Environmental Protection Agency on the risks of climate change were suppressed; The White House added so many hedges to the climate change section of the EPA's report card on the environment last spring that former administrator Christie Whitman deleted the section rather than publish one that was so scientifically inaccurate.

Missile defense, where Defense Department officials presented misleading information on whether a functional system could be quickly deployed. Under Secretary of Defense Edward Aldridge told a Senate panel that by the end of 2004, the system would be 90% effective in intercepting missiles from the Korean peninsula. In April 2003, the General Accounting Office found the President’s plan unworkable and even dangerous. Under Secretary Aldridge’s claim of 90% effectiveness “is not supported by any publicly available evidence, and it appears not to comport with the Pentagon’s own classified estimates.”

Wetlands policy, where comments from scientists at the Fish and Wildlife Service on the destructive impacts of proposed regulatory changes were withheld. Scientists at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, part of the Interior Department, had prepared such an analysis showing that the new Corps proposal would “encourage the destruction of stream channels and lead to increased loss of aquatic functions.” Interior Secretary Norton, however, failed to submit the scientists’ comments to the Corps. The Corps subsequently issued rules that weakened key wetland protections.

Abortion and breast cancer, where social conservatives campaigned to require women to be “counseled” about an alleged risk of breast cancer from abortions, the National Cancer Institute revised its web site to suggest that studies of equal weight conflicted on the question. In fact, there is scientific consensus that no such link exists.

The Waxman Report also charges that the Bush Administration is manipulating Scientific Advisory Committees to advance its political and ideological agenda. Examples include:

Appointing unqualified persons with industry ties. After dropping three national experts in lead poisoning from the Advisory Committee on Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention, the Department of Health and Human Services appointed several individuals with ties to the lead industry, including a lead industry consultant who had testified that a lead level seven times the current limit is safe for children’s brains.

Appointing unqualified persons with ideological agendas. The Department of Health and Human Services nominated to the FDA’s Reproductive Health Drug Advisory Committee an anti-abortion activist, Dr. David Hager, who recommends that women read the bible for relief of premenstrual symptoms. The appointee’s principal credential appears to be his opposition to the “morning after” birth control pill, RU-486.

Stacking advisory committees. The Department of Health and Human Services replaced 15 of 18 members of the key advisory committee to the National Center on Environmental Health. Several of the new members were long-time industry consultants. The Bush Administration appointed a prominent advocate of abstinence-only programs to the Advisory Committee to the CDC’s Director.

Opposing qualified experts. The Department of Health and Human Services rejected a widely respected expert’s nomination to a grant review panel on workplace safety after it became clear that she supported rules to protect workers from musculoskeletal injuries, rules that the Bush Administration opposes. The head of the panel called the rejection “directly opposed to the philosophy of peer review, which is supposed to be nonpolitical and transparent.”

Are we to believe that all of the above are disconnected and isolated coincidences? Such is the contention of the Bush Administration, though Bush science adviser John H. Marburger does admit to "a disconnect between the administration and the science community."

Thirteen years ago, former President George H.W. Bush stated that “now more than ever, on issues ranging from climate change to AIDS research . . . government relies on the impartial perspective of science for guidance.” It’s time he had a talk with his son.


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By William Fisher

No journalist in Egypt “will ever be imprisoned again for their opinions."

So proclaimed the jubilant chairman of Egypt’s Press Syndicate to the recent General Congress of Journalists. The chairman said that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak had abolished prison sentences for ‘publication offenses’. The President had rejected "any interference that could affect the independence of the Egyptian press or restrict the freedom of expression and opinion".

According to Al-Ahram, one of Egypt’s most prominent newspapers, “shouts rang through the crowd, and the applause lasted for several minutes.”

Little wonder. For years, Egyptian journalists have been campaigning unsuccessfully to end prosecutions for ‘publication offences’.

But how real are these reforms? Journalists were posing that question even before the cheering died down. A columnist for Al-Ahram said: "Although it is a positive step, it is not enough. There are several other crucial steps that need to be taken." She cited the right to establish newspapers, and the lifting of bans imposed on opposition and independent newspapers.

Prominent columnist Fahmy Howeidy argued that, without more vital forms of political reform, any other changes were trivial. Howeidy said there had to be a change in the basic relationship between the government and the press. "Journalists should not work for the government," he said. "They should act as government watchdogs. No newspaper should be a mouthpiece for the government or even for businessmen."

Another journalist -- whose publication has been the subject of repeated censorship by the Government -- told this writer, “To tell you the truth, I'm not terribly optimistic about this move. There are still plenty of things that journalists can do that will land them in jail -- for instance, tarnishing Egypt's image abroad. I'll get excited when they repeal the Emergency Laws….”

Egypt and its journalists have lived under the so-called Emergency Laws since the 1980s. The measures give the government unbridled powers to curtail free speech, arrest and detain ‘suspects’ for long periods without legal representation or specific charges, convict citizens for a wide range of ‘crimes’, including speech, writing or broadcasting that, in the Government’s opinion, brings disrespect to the State. The laws have been fiercely criticized by local and international human rights groups and by the US State Department in its annual human rights reports over a number of years.

The Journalists’ Syndicate’s relationship to the Government is itself suspect. The country’s Prime Minister, Atef Ebeid, recently made a substantial grant to the syndicate’s pension fund, as well as a salary increases for journalists. The government had waved both carrots prior to last July's elections, promising them as ‘perks’ if their candidate won.

Their candidate did not win. Journalists elected its new syndicate chairman last July, the first time in nearly two decades the post was secured by a candidate not allied to the government. The new chairman said that his election “clearly signaled the desire for change, not only among journalists but also throughout society as a whole.”

The Government’s press decision follows several other ‘reform’ initiatives taken by the Mubarak government over the past few months. The president abolished military courts and hard labor prison sentences, and ordered the formation of the National Council for Human Rights. The Council, headed by former United Nations Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Galli, has been widely criticized by human rights groups, principally because its role is strictly advisory role and it has no enforcement authority.

"Via negotiations," the new Press Syndicate chairman said, "we are establishing a respectful relationship between the government and the press. We are not in confrontation with the government…political reform is bound to occur, and only then will the journalistic profession's ailments be cured. If there is political reform then ultimately there should be press reforms. The president's decision is an achievement along [that path]."

This language provides a chilling insight into the state of the press in Egypt – and throughout most of the Middle East and North Africa. The press should not have to ‘negotiate’ with government to secure its freedoms. And the press should be expected to be ‘in confrontation with the government’. Unless it is, it will continue to be unable to create informed public opinion.