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RICHARD FALK: Unless we do this what had started out as a just war comparable in some ways to World War II will degenerate into a new and maybe more difficult version of the Vietnam War.
KEITH PORTER: This week on Common Ground, debating the war on terrorism.
T. KUMAR: If everyone is asking for fair treatment of anyone in the world, we should also provide that to who is under our control—in this case Al Qaeda.
MCHUGH: Common Ground is a program on world
affairs and the people who shape events. It’s produced by the Stanley
PORTER: And I’m
MCHUGH: Will there be a national
debate on how to proceed? Common Ground’s
RICHARD FALK: I think the initial reactions to September 11 here led to such a feeling of shock and vulnerability that there was a turning toward trust in the President and patriotism in the nation that, in effect, was summarized by the slogan, “United We Stand.” And I think that was understandable and even appropriate because the direction of response does, did seem to be reasonable and well presented by the Bush administration.
CLIFF BROCKMAN: Professor Richard Falk writes frequently on globalization, human rights, and issues of war and peace.
FALK: Now we’re in a new phase. The shock effect has worn off. The period of mourning is over. And the proposed post-Afghanistan extensions of the war seem dangerous, unpopular to other governments, including our close allies, and ones that risk American lives and deserve to be very widely debated before they’re embarked upon. Unless we do this, it seems to me, what had started out as a just war comparable in some ways to World War II will degenerate into a new and maybe more difficult version of the Vietnam War, where the country was very split and Americans were asked to risk their lives for purposes that many of us in this society believed to be unnecessary and unwise.
BROCKMAN: You’re critical of the Democrats for not challenging the President in this regard for a wider debate. Wouldn’t it be politically difficult for them to do that?
FALK: As I have tried to suggest, I think in the first weeks after the attacks that kind of deference and that kind of support was justifiable. But I, I believe we’re a strong enough society that we benefit from debate and discussion and that the opposition party is crucial to maintaining the vitality of our democracy. And if it keeps quiet or is too passive on issues of peace and security then we have to question whether that party is really serving the interests of the American people. I think they have a responsibility that goes beyond looking at the popularity polls to raise the issues that affect the future of our country, the future of the world—particularly when they are matters of war and peace.
BROCKMAN: Our next phase would appear to be going to, possibly going to war against Iraq.
FALK: I oppose the extension of the war to Iraq. I think Iraq is a state that can be deterred, as the Soviet Union was deterred throughout the long period of the Cold War. It is not like the Al Qaeda terrorist network, which is dominated by a visionary and suicidal kind of ideology that cannot be deterred. We have the means to hold Iraq responsible for anything that it does beyond its borders. The only wars that it has embarked upon was the war against Iran, which was undertaken with encouragement from Washington, and the war against Kuwait, which was also ambiguously handled diplomatically by Washington at the time.
Saddam Hussein is a brutal leader and had done very bad things to his own people, especially the Kurdish minority. But he’s been prudent in relation to his neighbors. He has generally shown that he wants to survive as a leader and that he wants to keep Iraq as a unified sovereign state. And any leader would know that initiating any kind of action beyond his borders would result in the utter devastation and destruction of Iraq. So I believe that deterrence is sufficient, that recourse to war lacks a legal or moral mandate, and that those that are advocating war at this time are doing a disservice to the American people.
BROCKMAN: You talked about what you think is a dramatic shift, you called it, in US foreign policy because of this war on terrorism. Could you explain that?
FALK: I think that the war on terrorism has given rise to a new approach to the American role in the world. And that new approach is to move from being a very powerful, sole surviving super power to being a country that sets and interprets the rules for the whole system of international relations. And that, in effect, is something that I think policy makers, conservative policy makers in Washington, have put forward somewhat opportunistically, taking advantage of the mood against terrorism to pursue a wider agenda. An agenda that has to do with missile defense of the planet from space, with the weaponization of space, with this preventive war mentality directed at potential possessors of weaponry of mass destruction. And it is intended, it seems to me, to shift the center of global governance from international institutions to Washington and to our government. And it is in my view seeking to establish the first truly global empire under American authority.
BROCKMAN: You really think that that’s where we’re headed?
FALK: I hope not. But I think that the outlook, the combination of policy on the part of many who seem to be exerting a tremendous influence in the Department of Defense and in the National Security Council are pushing us in that direction. But, of course, without that terminology.
BROCKMAN: Earlier this year there was some controversy about how the United States was handling prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. What do you think?
FALK: I think it was a great public relations mistake not to have provided the sort of prison conditions that would not be so vulnerable to severe criticism by human rights organizations. When you put people in cages, blindfold them, take them in manacles from place to place, that creates a kind of image of a vengeful power that is trying to humiliate and abuse those prisoners in its, under its control. And the whole point of international humanitarian law has been to put minimum conditions that all governments have agreed that they would abide by and which help a country like the United States because we have prisoners in various parts of the world. Hostages are taken. We have an interest in saying, at the very least we expect you to treat our prisoners the way we treat your prisoners. Now we can’t really say that anymore. We’ve given up the credibility of our own objections to the way Americans might be abused in conditions of captivity. I think that we’ve actually reacted somewhat to the criticism, and conditions in Guantanamo have been improving. But they again are done not out of respect for international law but as a sort of unilateral gesture on the part of Washington. Which again reinforces the impression that this is a government that is unwilling to accept the framework of international cooperation, but wants to do everything by its own discretion and is in that sense a unilateral actor in the world.
BROCKMAN: Security versus human rights. How do we balance those out? Obviously we’re very concerned as a public that these terrorists could strike again and we need to protect ourselves. And yet how do we make that work with our human rights policies?
FALK: I don’t think any of us have the real answer. It requires prudence and wisdom in a way and a matter of sensitivity and experience. One has to try to identify what are the most serious threats of renewed terrorism, take reasonable precautions, don’t do things that are not suitably related to the legitimate security goals. Be very careful, in other words, not to allow even the appearance of racial and ethnic and religious prejudice to seem to be driving what is done in the name of security. And not to deprive people of their rights in a way that is beyond what is functionally required to protect the society.
BROCKMAN: Professor Richard Falk is
Professor Emeritus at Princeton University. He currently is a Visiting
Professor at the University of California in Santa Barbara. For Common Ground, I’m
PORTER: Critiquing US actions in Afghanistan, next on Common Ground.
T. KUMAR: It’s better to have an investigation and to correct the mistakes that were made.
MCHUGH: Printed transcripts and audio cassettes of this program are available. Listen at the end of the broadcast for details, or visit our Web site at commongroundradio.org. Common Ground is a service of the Stanley Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that conducts a wide range of programs designed to provoke thought and encourage dialogue on world affairs.
PORTER: The renewed conflict in the Middle East is diverting the world’s attention away from Afghanistan and the war against terrorism. But human rights organizations across the globe are hoping the United States doesn’t forget about Afghanistan’s plight.
MCHUGH: T. Kumar is the Asia Director for Amnesty International’s Washington, DC office. He says the war on terrorism is far from over.
T. KUMAR: First of all, civilian casualties. When an air campaign is on, which is what 99 percent of American involvement was, on air, chances of making mistakes are there. And also there were reports about innocent civilians being targeted. Not intentionally. We are not saying they are intentional targets. But for different reasons. One reason: poor intelligence. Number two, the machinery: the aircraft may not have done its job firing at the right place. And number three, of course: personal rivalries among different people. They feed in—and again it comes back to intelligence—they feed in wrong intelligence to punish someone whom, whom they don’t like and the other person may not be pro-Taliban. That person may be actually [be] anti-Taliban. For all these reasons, and also few Americans are on the ground, so the chances of making mistakes are great. So we were concerned about that.
Second, when people were fleeing Afghanistan we wanted to make sure that civilians should be allowed to access safe areas. So these are the major issues that we raised at that time.
MCHUGH: Do we know how many civilians have died?
KUMAR: It’s a very difficult estimate, to put a number. But we can, we’re pretty sure the numbers are not low. Because of the way the whole operation was organized. And the way even the current government of Pakis—sorry, Afghanistan—is saying that at least two or three places which they themselves came out saying, “These are innocent civilians.” Anyone, if you know that if these are the attacks on civilians, the numbers are going to be not low.
MCHUGH: We’re not talking hundreds, we’re talking thousands?
KUMAR: We don’t know. It’s very difficult, as I told you. It’s very difficult to say the exact number. But my gut personal feeling it would be very high.
MCHUGH: Now, as you mentioned earlier, Amnesty doesn’t think that these were intentional deaths.
KUMAR: That’s why we are asking them for having an investigation. We always give good faith assessment of a situation. So we don’t want to point fingers at any government, saying that “You are doing it purposely.” Which we believe they did not do it purposely. And we, we strongly believe. But one is believe, second is the reality. We can believe but people on the ground, you know, by the end of the day they are the ones who are paying the price. They may believe that it’s not intentional for the first week, second week. After a month if it happens they may say, “Wait a minute. There is something going on.” For that alone we want US administration to, to have an impartial investigation. And for their own good, not to lose the support of the local population. Even from a pure, narrow, political point of view, it’s better to have an investigation and to, and to correct the mistakes that were made.
MCHUGH: Do you think that will ever happen, though?
KUMAR: It’s very difficult to say. The way the Bush administration is going about the war—the reason obviously it’s so emotionally charged, because of the killing of innocent civilians involved in the World Trade Center—it will be very difficult. Because they have the blank check basically. So the, the extremists within the military who are angry, and we can understand, but they don’t even want to adhere to the basic minimum standards of confrontation. And sadly, this is the one that’s going to create more problems.
You know, human rights and humanitarian situations are helpful for the people. But in the long term it’s helpful to the people who are, who are also involved in the act. Because when you lose the people on the ground, you may be in a situation like Russians were in, in Afghanistan. And it, it could come back. I mean, I wouldn’t rule out that. If this is going to continue and more and more civilians are going to be killed, and then there is a Moslem angle, also they always see that “We have been persecuted by your government because we are Muslims, not because of Afghan,” then that element adds on. Then you are going to find fertile ground. And also it will find it difficult to find Mullah Omar and other Taliban leaders and Al Qaeda leaders because local population, it’s not going to help you. They may not support them. But at the same time they don’t want to help you because they have been hurt.
MCHUGH: Amnesty International has also been fairly critical of the situation in Guantanamo. What are the concerns?
KUMAR: Number one, the way they were transported: hooded, gagged, all the rest of it. We can understand when there is one prisoner who may be unruly, to be controlled. Those are exceptions not the rule. But having a standard policy of locking everyone up when they were transported, itself is, it’s not, it’s not fair. We can argue that these guys belong to the horrible group. But that doesn’t excuse anyone to treat these people in that manner.
Second, the forced shaving of their hair and beard. You know, basically that, number one, forcibly taking something away from them. For whatever reason. You may say it’s for hygienic reason. The second one obviously, there is a religious element to that. Given the religious sensitivity—I am not saying this is Amnesty’s version—any human being, anyone with common sense should know. There is a religious sentiment against beard. So when you take that away you are going to make them difficult to cooperate with you, even from your pure, from a pure investigation point of view, why do you want to put them on that corner?
Number three, the conditions in Guantanamo itself. Now we hear that situation is improving. But initially it was pretty disturbing to allow them to be locked up in that fashion. If everyone is asking for fair treatment of anyone in the world we should also provide that to who is under our control—in this case Al Qaeda. They may be horrible. But they may not be horrible. We are not passing judgment. But we are asking that we should not be killed or we should not be treated like that. So why are we treating them? And also, let the courts, let the law take its own course, if they are guilty. This is like punishing someone before their judgment. That’s why we were disturbed.
MCHUGH: But congressional investigators and members of the International Committee for the Red Cross, say that they don’t see any widespread abuse in Guantanamo.
KUMAR: The widespread abuse from congressional angle is more or less focusing on physical torture, beating, not the conditions per se. You go to a situation for a day or two and you see, “Oh, it’s, the weather it’s nice. They get food.” But you should put yourself in their shoes, too, so you see how they feel.
MCHUGH: We hear the words “Geneva Conventions” used quite a bit now when we refer to the war on terrorism. Can you remind our listeners exactly what the Geneva Conventions are?
KUMAR: Fundamentally it is the, Geneva Convention in a nutshell, it’s about what laws and what rules that govern a war. And also, it’s like having a soccer game or basketball game. You have certain rules that govern. It’s the same rules when there’s a conflict, when there’s a war between states. How you treat a captured prisoner from the other side. When you shell or when you bomb a place, you don’t intentionally target civilians. You, you, you should have pretty much good intelligence to single out the military targets. Hospitals should not be targeted. Children should not be targeted. You know, these basic things.
MCHUGH: When you really examine the Geneva Conventions, as you mentioned, they apply in a state-to-state type war situation. And that’s not really what’s going on in the global war on terrorism. Are the Geneva Conventions outdated? Do they need to be updated?
KUMAR: I will say it’s my personal opinion, I will say it’s better to have a look at it. Geneva Conventions came into effect about 50 years ago. Obviously, anything after 50 years have to be looked at. It should not be looked at because of the new war that’s taking place in, in Afghanistan. It should [be] to refine itself with new weaponry that came into effect. And also, new, new methods of war that, like terrorism, guerrilla warfare. It’s all being new. I mean, relatively new. Of course guerrilla warfare was there. The new term for guerrilla warfare is terrorism. Basically that’s what is happening. So it’s always nice to reassess, to see how it should be refined. But one thing we should agree before we start reassessing, is not to water it down. The current rules should stand and rules should be added, not deleted from the current rules. Otherwise we all will be going backwards to have another third war, World War coming up. Because the minute one country or group of countries started to play it by their own rules and ignore the rules of the game, then you are creating a situation where the other side will use whatever they can for survival tactics. Then it’s going to be chaotic and it could be pretty, pretty, pretty dangerous situation. So that’s why Geneva Conventions was created, to create a more harmless or more, more peaceful world, even though countries may fight.
MCHUGH: We know that the war essentially, from a conflict standpoint, is over in Afghanistan. And as the US and its allies swept across Afghanistan we saw footage of liberated towns. But what are the conditions really like now?
KUMAR: The situation is different. I mean, you can always find people celebrating. Obviously, women were treated so harshly. So there is a relief. And also Taliban was, was out of step with reality. They were trying to turn the clock back a couple of thousand, at least a couple of hundred years. There was a relief. But there is also concern that the safety of individuals may not be guaranteed. Like that was guaranteed under Taliban. The current situation is different from different regions of Afghanistan. If you go to Kabul, the capital, I will say it’s pretty okay. Because international forces are there, the parliament is there, and a new administration is there.
The minute you go outside Kabul then you face numerous different problems. In the north, fights among the groups, Northern Alliance, and the abuses—minor abuses but abuses. And the security is not confirmed in non-Kabul areas. In the South the bombing campaign is still going on. Along with other abuses that’s taking place. So the situation is still fluid. Even though there is essential victory. I will say, “Don’t rush to, to immediately decide that everything is over.” Everything is not over.
MCHUGH: What are your prospects for a lasting peace?
KUMAR: I will say that for the lasting peace there are two aspects [that] should be taken into account. This is my personal view. Outside powers, especially neighboring countries, they were the ones who created the trouble there. They should be checked But there are countries who are going to be involved in a positive way. Even neighboring countries. Usually they create that. That’s a reality because it’s, it’s a landlocked country. Afghan is a landlocked country.
The second one is to ensure that, that anyone and everyone who pays attention understands the dynamics of the ethnic and tribal nature of the society. By which there are major four or five ethnic divisions are there. To understand that and to help create a system by which they can live together, not fight with each other. That means strong federalism is something is important to Afghanistan at this time.
MCHUGH: T. Kumar is the Asia Director for Amnesty International’s Washington, DC office.
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