'The War On Terror Is Not Working'

Attorney General John Ashcroft called a press conference Wednesday "to announce developments in the war on terror." Intelligence from multiple sources, he said, indicates that "Al Qaeda intends to attempt an attack on the United States in the next few months." When and where the attacks are planned is not known. But how the U.S. and other governments conduct the war on terror groups like Al Qaeda is the subject, in part, of a new study released by Amnesty International.

In its 2004 annual survey of global human rights, coincidentally released on the same day as the Ashcroft announcement, the watchdog group includes its most detailed analysis yet of terrorist-group activity. The human-rights advocacy nonprofit documented the doings of 177 terrorist organizations--or, as they describe them, "armed groups"--in 65 countries over four years. The findings were simultaneously predictable and counterintuitive: while human-rights abuses were committed by 69 percent of these groups, Amnesty concludes that governments combating them perpetrated many of the same violations--torture, sexual abuse, rape.

The annual report also finds that more than half (54 percent) of identified terror groups have killed civilians over the last four years. Twenty percent of the groups committed rape and other sexual violence--but so did 28 percent of governments. One in five armed groups used child soldiers. And with reports that the still-unfolding Abu Ghraib prison scandal in Iraq may have involved more abuse (and consent from higher levels) than already made public, Amnesty concludes that governments in 36 percent of the countries where armed groups were present used torture; more than a quarter (28 percent) used incommunicado detention. At the same time, government-sponsored abuse is often justified as integral to initiatives in the U.S.-led "war on terror," according to Amnesty executive director William F. Schulz.

What constitutes torture and what amount of it, if any, can be justifiably used in combating terror? Is Abu Ghraib an anomaly, or indicative of more widespread abuse? Why did Amnesty decide to include these terror groups in its report now? Schulz recently spoke with NEWSWEEK's Brian Braiker about these and other questions. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: How does Amnesty define "armed groups?"

William F. Schulz: Amnesty tries not to get into the political debate about who is or who is not a terrorist; that's why we use the phrase "armed groups" or "armed opposition groups." These are nonstate actors who are utilizing force of arms usually against civilian populations as well as against military targets.

You say in your report that certain governments lend credibility to armed groups in the way that they combat them. How is that?

What we have tried to track here are the number of governments which have responded to these armed groups with human-rights violations themselves. We've counted 56 governments, for example, that have killed civilians as part of their effort to respond to the threat of armed groups, 49 governments whose troops have engaged in some form of sexual abuse or rape [and] 64 governments that have utilized torture in response to these kind of armed threats. Our point here is that governments, in their response to these threats from armed groups, have resorted to many of the very same tactics that the armed groups themselves have undertaken. But in the case of the government, it's under the guise of fighting the war on terror or fighting an armed threat. By violating human rights themselves, those governments lend a degree of credibility to the use of those kinds of tactics in the first place.

And this is not just against Islamic fundamentalist groups, right? You're talking about groups like Basque separatists and the Irish Republican Army and so on.

Oh, absolutely. It refers to all of the armed groups we've been able to track, which is probably a conservative figure. Our estimate here is that at least a third of the population of the world live in countries in which armed groups operate actively.

You say that the only way to establish true security is to build it on a solid human-rights foundation. Many of these groups just don't appear to care about human rights. They seem to have declared war on a free and open society. How then do you recommend fighting that mentality?

That's right, but every armed group, every terrorist group, depends upon a much larger population to support it, to sympathize, to provide a ready pool of future recruits, to provide some safe haven for the terrorist cell itself to live, to provide financial support. No terrorist group can operate without a retinue, without a popular following some place in the world. Those individuals are not the bomb throwers themselves. They are the ones we need to convince to opt for a human-rights-respecting path. When the United States--itself leading the war on terror--shreds the rule of law, it makes it far, far more difficult to dry up that pool of recruits, to persuade those would-be supporters of terrorism that their better option is to follow a peaceful, human-rights-respecting route.

What do you recommend to U.S. and other troops in Afghanistan and Iraq now combating local resistance to their occupation? Is force never the best option?

Amnesty International is not a pacifist group, and we are not suggesting use of force is inappropriate in responding to armed groups. But using force alone in fighting the war on terror is like repairing a television set with nothing but a hammer. In addition to the use of force you need other forms of persuasion and other insights and greater wisdom. In Afghanistan, while of course there will be need for security there that can only be provided by military presence, there's also a need to build a civil society. There's a need to demonstrate to the larger percentage of the Afghan population that their interests are better served by pursuing a peaceful course that includes a civil society, democratic elections, a free press--all of the guarantees of economic welfare and political stability that come with a fully developed society. That can't happen by force alone.

Why did Amnesty decide to do this study on armed groups now?

The right to security is every bit as important a right as the right to liberty. Article Three of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights ensures that we have a right to be safe in our homes. So armed groups are committing some of the most serious violations in the world. When governments reply with violations of their own, you have the most sustained attack on human rights in the last 50 years. The second reason is because the growth of these armed groups demonstrates that the war on terror is not working. The way in which the war on terror is being conducted is in fact not making us safer but has resulted in a proliferation of armed groups. Since 9/11, terrorist activities--activities by armed groups--have generally increased. The number of armed groups we ourselves have tracked has grown by some 14 to 16 percent.

What went wrong at Abu Ghraib and what can the U.S. do to repair the damage?

Just as we had ghost detainees apparently at Abu Ghraib, we had a ghost torture policy when it came to what the United States was actually doing--not just at Abu Ghraib but in Afghanistan and with Al Qaeda detainees. We in the human-rights movement met with top officials at the Pentagon and the White House over a year ago to raise concerns about the treatment of Al Qaeda detainees and Afghan prisoners in U.S. custody. Many of those who were responsible for the violations against Afghan detainees were transferred to Iraq and apparently transferred their policies, as well. We were assured at the time that the United States eschewed all kinds of treatment of detainees from torture to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. That, obviously, was not true.

Are you suggesting that the abuse was policy?

That's why I say there was a ghost policy. The public face was reputable, but the systemic policy seems to have been transferred from one place to another. Of course torture goes way back in U.S. history. When I read of the use of water-boarding against one of the Al Qaeda suspects--the process of submerging someone's head underwater until they feel that they're drowning--I was reminded of the so-called water cure in the war in the Philippines at the turn of the 20th century, when U.S. forces would put bamboo shafts down the throats of their victims and pour as much dirty water as they could into their stomachs. This kind of mistreatment has a long and unfortunately disreputable reputation in the annals of American occupations. And therefore it really should come as no surprise to us that these things are continuing.

Has the official U.S. response to Abu Ghraib been appropriate in your opinion?

Naturally we applaud the condemnation of these acts. I think it's too early to tell whether there will be a full and thorough investigation and accounting and whether those at the highest level who are responsible for this--whoever that might be--will be held accountable. The history of the United States in that respect is not good: we pointed out over a year ago that those who were responsible for the deaths of two detainees in Afghanistan have apparently not yet been prosecuted. If those who are responsible are brought to justice and the truth is revealed about all of these cases that have not yet been resolved, if the practice of mixing detention responsibilities with interrogation responsibilities is changed, if there is a clear new design of the interrogation methods, if Amnesty International and the Red Cross are given access to all the detention centers, then these measures would obviously signal a new direction and we would applaud that.