We must stand up for human rights

The attacks in the USA on 11 September 2001 amounted to an international tragedy. The victims included US citizens as well as Asians, Latin Americans and Europeans, Muslims as well as Christians and Jews. The identity of the perpetrators has yet to be fully determined but there is evidence to suggest that they come from several different countries. Grief and outrage at the atrocity have affected people all over the world. This global tragedy demands a global response - based on global values of human rights and justice.

As the world braces itself for a 'robust reaction', world leaders are speaking the language of war. It is at times like these that we must be alert to the risks posed to human rights. The voice of the defenders of human rights must not be drowned out by the clarion call to arms. We insist that states respect human rights and international humanitarian law at all times, under all circumstances.

Already we have seen a wave of racist attacks directed at people because of their appearance or religion. The threat perception is encouraging an environment of racism and xenophobia. In north America, Europe and elsewhere, Muslims, Arabs and Sikhs have been shot, stabbed and beaten. Mosques have been firebombed. Shops have been looted. Schools have been forced to close because of intimidation and harassment.

Governments must take strong action against racist attacks directed at the Muslim, Asian and Middle Eastern populations in their countries, whether they are citizens or foreigners. You cannot claim to speak in the name of freedom if all those on your territory do not feel equally protected.

Governments are using the 'war on terrorism' to introduce draconian measures to limit civil liberties. The US and EU governments are considering provisions that would allow them to detain immigrants indefinitely, even if they have not been charged with any offence. Such measures are unlikely to deter attacks but they are likely to stifle dissent and curtail basic freedoms. For this reason, they must be resisted.

In reaching a balance between security and individual freedom, the internationally recognized safeguards to protect human rights must not be sacrificed. Even in the most extreme crisis, Governments do not have a completely free hand. Even if they are at war, they must abide by the basic rules that protect civilians' lives.

The human toll of this crisis must not fall on those who are the most vulnerable - refugees and asylum seekers who are themselves fleeing repression and terror. Some governments are exploiting the climate of public fear to tighten up asylum laws and policies. Australia and the European Union are rushing through measures that will undermine the rights of refugees and cause more human misery.

A humanitarian crisis of epic proportions is developing on the borders of Afghanistan as Iran and Pakistan turn away famine-stricken Afghan Women's rights's rightss rights's rights's rights's rights, Children's rights and men fleeing in fear of military attacks. We need to act now to prevent a repeat of the calamity we saw at Blace as refugees fled Kosovo. The international community must insist that Afghan refugees are allowed to enter neighbouring countries. The international community must also share the cost and responsibility of hosting them.

The victims of the 11 September attacks, like all victims, deserve justice, not revenge. But how should that justice be delivered?

Governments are fast defining their options in terms of force. Our concern as human rights activists must be to insist that justice is rendered according to the rule of law. Both the pursuit and any subsequent trial of the suspects must be in accordance with internationally recognized standards governing the use of force and fair trial procedures. The death penalty should not be imposed.

The 11 September attacks highlight once again the need for a system of international justice. Some atrocities demand international accountability. In some circumstances, international cooperation to bring suspected perpetrators to justice can be more easily forthcoming through an international tribunal. Unfortunately, many governments including the USA have not ratified the International Criminal Court and resisted, during the drafting of the Rome Statute, broadening its jurisdiction. As the need for international cooperation to address transnational crimes become evident, the US Government should consider supporting the establishment of the court.

All victims, whether they are killed under the eyes of the world's media or perish in a remote conflict, have the right to justice. The response to the 11 September tragedy must not create new victims or be used as a pretext for an attack on human rights. Instead, it should lead governments to build an effective system of international justice that could end impunity for all perpetrators of gross human rights abuses, whether committed in the USA or the Middle East, in Chechnya or Sierra Leone.

Irene Khan Amnesty International Secretary General

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