New York Times Editorial
December 28, 2001

The Antiterror Bandwagon

Since the Bush administration announced plans to proceed with military tribunals and other limitations on liberties in the war against terror, foreign leaders have used the American example to justify all manner of repressive acts at home. It is a lamentable — and predictable — response to misguided American leadership in this area.

Russia's president, Vladimir Putin, has repeatedly used the events of Sept. 11 and the campaign against terror to demand a free hand to use scorched-earth policies in what is essentially a domestic separatist conflict in Chechnya. Washington has obliged by muting its criticism. In Egypt, government officials have muzzled the political opposition in the name of fighting terror, policies now praised by the Bush administration.

The misuse of Washington's antiterror campaign, however, is not limited to countries where terror is a problem. Unscrupulous governments and militaries are invoking the threat to tar their opponents or create draconian new laws.

One example is Guatemala. The greatest potential terrorist threat in Guatemala today comes from military and retired military officials. These men have long been behind a policy of intimidation and even murder of activists for human rights and Mayan Indians. Yet in the wake of Sept. 11, this group has acquired enhanced powers. In November, at the urging of the United States, Guatemala established a new antiterror commission, which will be led by a retired military officer. The commissioner will direct a new interagency security committee dominated by military men. President Alfonso Portillo also recently switched Defense Minister Eduardo Arévalo Lacs, a retired general, to the post of interior minister. Mr. Arévalo Lacs has denounced human rights groups as bent on the country's destabilization.

In Zimbabwe, President Robert Mugabe has been even more brazenly opportunistic. Mr. Mugabe — who receives oil and financial help from the Libyan dictator Muammar el-Qaddafi — is desperate to win a fifth term in elections likely to be held in February or March. He has begun to tar as terrorists his democratic political opposition, white farmers who object to the expropriation of their land, foreign and local journalists and even the British government. His government has proposed a new security bill that punishes terrorism and other vague offenses with the death penalty.

Too many leaders in the world are looking for excuses to limit the liberties of their adversaries. It is inevitable that America's new policies would provide powerful new justifications. The Bush administration can limit the damage by demanding high standards of conduct from America's allies and conducting the war on terrorism with minimum damage to civil liberties at home.

Copyright © 2001, New York Times Company. All rights reserved.

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