Today's date:
  Summer 2004

US Torture Sets Back Cause of Human Rights in Arab World

Boutros Boutros-Ghali is the former secretary-general of the United Nations. His comments are adapted from a conversation with NPQ on May 6.

Paris—There are three results from the revelations of abuse of Iraqi prisoners by American forces in Iraq. First, the image of the United States has become very negative, especially in the Arab world.

Second, they damage the role of organizations all around the world that deal with the protection of human rights and humanitarian law in the time of war. I am the president of the Egyptian Commission on Human Rights. It will be more difficult for me now to say, “Look, the international community is demanding that we clean up the human rights situation, to take care of this or that.” The response will be: “The superpower is not respecting human rights in Iraq or Guantanamo,” so the pressure is off. Different governments all over the world will say that security is more important than the protection of human rights, that in the case of terrorist action we can ignore human rights.

Third, these photos are a gift to Al Qaeda and to other terrorist groups that will be formed in the future, all over the world.

To be dynamic, terrorism needs a war. Terrorism has grown as a result of the wars in Afghanistan, Bosnia and Chechnya. Terrorists were trained in these places. They obtained arms there. These wars helped them find recruits and mobilize young terrorists.

We have the continuing Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And we have the war inside Iraq. The terrorists need this war. Nothing is more important to them. The day you have no more war in Iraq and Chechnya or confrontation in Palestine, then terrorism will wither.

The aim of the international community after 9/11 was to fight terrorism. Through the war in Iraq we aren’t fighting terrorism but stimulating it.

While the revelations have certainly complicated the efforts of those who seek democratization in the Arab world, as the US has been pushing, I personally believe we must not exaggerate the negative impact. Historically, the US has done many good things, from its role in World War I and II and the Marshall Plan to giving birth to both the League of Nations and the United Nations.

Having said that, I doubt that Arab public opinion agrees with me because of the subjective attitude taken by the US in favor of the Israelis over the Palestinians. Everybody agrees there is only one mediator in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: the US. Yet, for 50 years the US has not resolved this conflict. That is because it is not an objective mediator. As result, the whole world sees the Arabs and Muslims as the underdog.

The fact that there has been no solution to the Palestinian problems complicates everything else in the region.

ON THE UN ROLE | What is clear is that the Security Council is no longer divided between those who wanted war and those who didn’t. Now there is a consensus that, together, we must put an end to this war and make peace-building work, that the Iraq transition and reconstruction can’t be allowed to fail and fall into civil war. Everybody understands this, even those who opposed the US invasion.

The UN has great experience with many of the issues Iraq now faces. There is, for example, the classic problem of national reconciliation among divided peoples which the UN has been able to solve on a smaller scale in El Salvador, Mozambique and Cambodia.

The UN also has relevant experience with key problems such as integrating former members of the military or rebel forces within a newly established military. These tasks require diplomacy. They must be done either by the UN or the military coalition.

At present, however, there is a crisis of credibility between the Iraqi people and the US-led coalition. The only way to overcome that is for the UN participation to be real and not just camouflage or a decoration that hides a continuing American presence. If the perception of the Iraqi people is that there is no difference between the role of the UN and the US, then the UN role will not be very constructive.

SUPERPOWER LIMITS | There are two limits: One, public opinion in the US does not favor the US playing the role of global policeman. Two, whatever the power of the US, it doesn’t have the capacity on its own to cope with Iraq, let alone all the other crises that have emerged simultaneously around the world—war in the south of Sudan and genocide in Darfur, Ivory Coast, Colombia, Georgia. Even if it is outside the framework of the UN, the US needs allies and a multilateral approach for this multitude of problems. Even as the No. 1 global power, it needs others.