Democracy Goes South

Democracy Goes South



In the aftermath of Sept. 11, The Bush Administration’s rationale for why it all happened was: “They” (left undefined) hated “American democracy.” With the U.S. going into its second year of “the war against terrorism,” that democracy stuff has gone south awful fast.

At home, Attorney General John Ashcroft has pretty much shredded those sections of the Constitution having to do with legal protections and the presumption of innocence. Jose Padilla and Yaser Esam Hamdi, both American citizens, have simply been locked away, possibly forever. No charges have been filed against them, no bail set, and neither are allowed to consult lawyers.

Remember when the Congress had to declare war? No longer. According to Vice-President Dick Cheney, the President doesn’t need Congress because Bush has “inherent presidential power to act” in defense of “vital national interests” that “comes from the Constitution and not Congress.”

George W. agrees. While the President says he thinks people have the right to “express their opinions…Americans needs to know…I’ll be making up my mind on how to best protect our country.” So much for the Constitution. Well, it was a fussy old document anyhow.

While the White House is briskly interring democracy at home, it is busily using the “war on terrorism” to bolster regimes whose general reaction to the word “democracy” is to reach for their Lugers.

This past July, the U.S. State Department weighed in on behalf of the Indonesian government and Exxon Mobil to try to derail an International Labor Rights Fund lawsuit in the province of Aceh by villagers who charge that troops guarding natural gas and oil pumping facilities routinely beat, rape, kidnap and murder the locals.

State Department legal advisor William Taft IV argued that the suit would have an “adverse impact on significant interests of the United States, including…the ongoing struggle against international terrorism.” Exxon Mobil is the world’s largest energy company, and the Aceh fields generate about $1 billion a year for the Indonesian government.

In one of the more bizarre aspects of the whole matter, Taft not only cited “the ongoing war against Al Qaeda and other dangerous terrorist organizations” as reason for dismissing the suit, but added competition from “China,” which he said would be “far less concerned with human rights abuses.” Huh?

A similar suit brought against the Rio Tinto mining company for poisoning areas of Papua New Guinea was dismissed when the State Department told the court that the suit would hurt American interests. The dismissal prompted Milt Rosenthal of the Lawyers’ Committee for Human Rights to charge that “The war on terrorism is now going to be used as a cover for all kinds of corporate malfeasance.”

Right on cue, Unocal, presently being sued for using forced labor to build a pipeline in Myanmar, asked the court to dismiss the suit on the same grounds. The arguments in the Exxon Mobil case are “equally applicable” to Unocal, company’s lawyers argue, and the suit would have “a chilling effect on investment and efforts to induce the home country to improve human rights.”

The Bush Administration is also using “the war on terrorism” to restart military aid to Indonesia, relying on the time worn canard that U.S. training will make the Indonesian military more sensitive to human rights. Given the track record of that organization—butchering 600,000 of its own citizens in 1965; murdering 200,000 East Timorese from 1975 to 1999; killing 6000 residents of Aceh, 2000 in the last year alone; suppressing an indigenous movement in Papua New Guinea—that will be a neat trick.

The Indonesians look at military ties as an opportunity to get more efficient at the business of killing people it doesn’t like, not as a chance to learn about human rights. “The highest priority is to support the effort to maintain our operational readiness,” Lt. Gen. Agus Widjpjo told the Financial Times, “As for human rights: Ask any Indonesian officer,’Do you need that kind of training?’ and he will say no.”

That sentiment is hardly restricted to the military. Early this year, President Magawati Sukarnoputri told military cadets that “you can do your duty without being worried about human rights.” She was right on target. All of the military officers charged with war crimes for the 1999 orgy of murder and destruction in East Timor were acquitted last month. The only person convicted was a civilian, thus perpetuating the myth that the rampage by Indonesian paramilitaries had nothing to do with the Army, when in fact the latter were armed and trained by the former.

No top ranked officers or civilians, even those named by the Indonesian Human Rights Commission, were ever charged with the rampage that killed more than 2,000 Timorese and destroyed 70 percent of the tiny nation’s infrastructure.

In her Aug.1 speech to the National Assembly, Sukarnoputri made it clear what her program would be to end the 26 year old fight by Aceh residents for greater control of the Province’s natural resources: “The government intends to take further actions to restore the peace in Aceh by crushing the armed separatist movement.” The $28 million the White House intends to funnel to the Indonesian police and an army special anti-terrorism unit will help her to do just that.

Throughout the Cold War, the only criteria for getting U.S. support was whether a country was sufficiently anti-Communist. Behind that screen we backed most of the major dictators and military regimes of the 20th Century, including Saddam Hussein. The “war on terrorism” has become the new screen, and behind it awful things are happening from Indonesia to Colombia.


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