U.S. in Danger of Repressing Human Rights in Ways for Which It Has Criticized Other Countries

Release Date: November 21, 2001

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- In its efforts to prevent a repeat of the tragic events of Sept. 11, the United State is moving perilously close to creating in our own nation a police state where human rights are denied, according to a professor in the University at Buffalo Law School who is a human rights expert.

While domestic and international law provide safeguards to prevent the government from impermissible intrusions into the lives of individuals, scores of people rounded up by law enforcement officials in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks remain in custody. Some have been cleared of any charges, but not released. Others are being held on "frivolous" charges, such as overstaying their visas, says Makau Mutua, professor of law and co-director of UB's Human Rights Center.

And the detention of people who may have information about the Sept. 11 attacks is expected to continue with the recent announcement that the Justice Department wants to question more than 5,000 male foreigners who came to the U.S. from Middle Eastern and other countries where al-Qaeda operatives may be plotting new attacks. Although the attorney general has denied it, this action targets Arabs and Muslims, says Mutua.

In addition, President Bush has declared an "extraordinary emergency" that empowers him to order military trials for suspected international terrorists and their collaborators, bypassing the American criminal justice system, its rules of evidence and its constitutional guarantees. Such trials would not satisfy American constitutional and international human rights standards. They smack of a secrecy that is deficient of due process protections, he said.

These are troubling developments in the human rights arena, according to Mutua.

"I am concerned about the security of innocents," he said. "I understand the need for the government to investigate, track down and bring to justice the people responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks, but those efforts must be done within the law and the confines of the constitution and

international law. That basic fact is fundamental and cannot be negotiated, because once you start to negotiate human rights, you slide down toward a police state."

Over the past two decades, as well as during most of the Cold War, the U.S. used the rights its citizens enjoyed as part of a democracy to criticize governments that deprived people of basic human rights, Mutua said.

"The United States used human rights violations in repressive states to great effect, to rhetorically legitimize criticism of repressive rule in the former Soviet Union, in Eastern Europe and elsewhere.

"It would be ironic if the U.S. resorted to similar tactics in the face of a threat to security," Mutua said. "It would be unfortunate if the U.S. were to do what it has criticized in other governments. It would be ironic if we began to repress individuals in this country."

Rounding up individuals because they belong to a particular ethnic or religious group is a violation of both domestic and international law, Mutua said. Detaining people simply because they are of Muslim or Arabic descent is a "worrisome trend" that dredges up echoes of the interment of people of Japanese descent in the U.S. during World War II.

And reports in the media that traditional civil liberties might have to be cast aside if investigators are to extract information from jailed suspected associates of Osama bin Laden are "chilling," Mutua said.

There must be a balance between national security and the rights of the individual, he emphasized.

"Clearly, we want to be safe and we want the horrible events of Sept. 11 not to be repeated," Mutua said. "I do want the government to take security measures, but at the same time, I do not want it to create a police state where human rights are abridged and denied."

The U.S. government had a responsibility to show the evidence linking bin Laden to the terrorist attacks in order to secure his surrender.

"That is not to say that justice should not be pursued. The U.S. has an obligation to find the people responsible for these attacks and bring them to justice," Mutua said. "But there are legal ways to do that without adding to the suffering of people here and elsewhere.

"It is playing loose with the law for the richest country in the world to bomb the poorest under these circumstances without showing evidence," he said.

It is unlikely, Mutua said, that if bin Laden were living in an industrialized nation the United States would have responded to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the same manner.

If bin Laden had been living in, for example, New Zealand, the United States would have provided that country with evidence linking him to the attack in its efforts to have him turned over. And even if New Zealand had declined to turn him over in the face of compelling evidence, Mutua said he doubts the U.S. would have bombed that country.

"It was wrong to bomb Afghanistan," he said. "In the past, when attacks of this nature have occurred, the response has been not to bomb, but to negotiate. There were opportunities to involve the United Nations and other states close to Afghanistan in negotiations to persuade the Taliban to turn bin Laden over to a third nation."

People in the U.S. have a tendency to treat people of Muslim descent with suspicion, Mutua said, but all people should be treated as individuals, not as a group that is inherently suspect.

"The government needs to investigate, but when it targets people based on their ethnic background, it sends bad signals to the community and slides the country toward a police state," he said.

"I don't recall white males being treated as a suspect group following the Oklahoma City bombing. It is illegal to treat every individual of Islamic or Muslim descent as a suspect. It's against the law."

People need to begin to take a long-term view of the attacks and the country needs to become more deliberate in its actions once the threat ceases to be imminent because the personal rights of us all are at stake, Mutua said.

"The United States will survive these attacks. I don't think people should overreact. If the government and the people support draconian legislation, they will regret it. Once a government takes rights away, it rarely gives them back."

Media Contact Information

Christine Vidal
Director of News Content
Community Engagement, International Education
Tel: 716-645-4607