World leaders level criticism at U.S. for war on terror

Saturday, January 25, 2003

DAVOS, Switzerland -- The United States faced more criticism at the World Economic Forum on Friday, this time for conducting a war on terrorism that opponents claim targets Muslims and violates human rights.

After weathering complaints about their stance on Iraq, American officials were told they are guilty of racial profiling and should try harder to discover the roots of terrorism.

U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft was first in line, saying the United States expects governments around the world to make preventing terrorism a priority and "desperately needs" help in piecing together information "of acts that are yet to occur."

But Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad said focusing on prevention without addressing the causes of terrorism was wrong. Those responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks "were incensed over something" and the world should try to understand what motivated them, Mahathir said.

Ashcroft retorted that the Sept. 11 attackers engaged in "hostage-taking to kill innocent civilians," adding that "the targets of terrorism are values and the rule of law."

"I'm not willing to say we have to downplay values we believe in to appease the terrorists," he said.

On the opening day of the forum Thursday, several of the 2,300 business, government and other leaders criticized the United States for its threats to go to war against Iraq over its alleged arsenals of mass destruction.

Concern over civil liberties

Kumi Naidoo, secretary-general of the South Africa-based Civicus-World Alliance for Citizen Participation, criticized "the severe curtailment of civil liberties" in democratic countries, including the United States. He cited the "invasion of privacy rights," bans on meetings by certain groups, and travel restrictions for Arabs and others.

"I don't think we've got the balance right," he said. "We are seeing large levels of alienation of ordinary human beings across the spectrum."

Ashcroft responded, "It distresses me to hear the panel talk about communities offended -- and talk about communities as if they're just defined by race. Very frankly I think values define communities much more effectively than race does."

He also disputed the contention that freedom is being sacrificed for security, saying only individuals who violated the law have been detained -- and all have access to lawyers.

The only exceptions are a few enemy combatants and those held as material witnesses because they have information crucial to a judicial proceeding, he said.

"I live in the United States, and when I got taken off a flight last year, the content of my character did not play any role in it," Naidoo replied. The 800-strong audience burst into applause.

Ashcroft responded that people from 147 countries had been screened under the new U.S. border policy.

At another panel, titled "U.S. Foreign Policy: Going it Alone?" Kenneth Roth, executive director of New York-based Human Rights Watch, took on Richard Haass, the U.S. State Department's director of policy planning.

Roth said Americans have violated civil rights in the war on terrorism and criticized Washington for being willing to go it alone in Iraq without U.N. Security Council authorization. Profiling, he said, is generating "outrage."

"We've got to get the balance right" between security and human rights, Haass said. "Give us some time to fix it."

Ashcroft said he was confident that freedom-loving people around the world would rally around the United States in its campaign against terrorism.

"We find ourselves in the midst of an historic struggle for the values of democracy. It's more than a duty. It's more than a privilege. I believe that it is the calling of our time. We must rise to the challenge and we must answer the call."

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