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Sunday, Jan. 18, 2004

Authoritarian threat grows


LONDON -- The real threat from terrorists is being used as a pretext for growing authoritarian tendencies in democratic countries. On the grounds that every possible step must be taken to prevent terrorist attacks, suspects are being imprisoned without trial or access to lawyers, and Draconian controls are being put into place to control and monitor travelers. Public safety must be a priority, but proper safeguards to protect our societies from abuse of power by the executive are also needed.

It is not adequate to argue that U.S. President George W. Bush, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and and Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, for instance, are "honorable men" who can be trusted. (Those readers who have seen or read Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar" remember the reference to an "honorable man").

Even if our present leaders can be trusted, it is by no means certain that their successors or their aides can be relied on. Too frequently the public is told that secret intelligence suggests a serious threat exists but that, to protect valuable sources, the intelligence cannot be published and that the public should trust their leaders to evaluate the intelligence.

Unfortunately, the public in Britain, the United States and elsewhere has found that intelligence is often unreliable and has frequently been exaggerated or misinterpreted, as with the war in Iraq, by politicians to support their agenda.

At Christmas 2003, the Archbishop of Canterbury questioned the British government's holding without trial, under emergency powers legislation, foreigners who for one reason or another could not be sent back to their home country. He thought, as did many British citizens, that their cases should be reviewed by independent tribunals, that defense lawyers should be appointed and that appropriate evidence should be produced (or withheld only by a judge's ruling).

David Blunkett, the British home secretary, has been openly critical of judges who have questioned his use of official powers and, in his advocacy of Draconian emergency powers legislation, has shown increasing authoritarian tendencies. This has led some observers to describe him as a closet "fascist." Emergency legislation needs to be carefully monitored by Parliament and the independence of the judiciary upheld.

The large number of internees at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba -- who have access neither to legal counsel nor to the evidence against them, and are being held incommunicado in Spartan conditions "outside U.S. territory" -- are in an even worse position than the fewer number of foreign internees in Britain. The U.S. administration is accused by liberal-minded observers of infringing the basic tenets of the American Constitution.

There is no way that absolute security against suicide terrorists can be secured. Protection of the public, of course, requires sensible precautions, especially at airports. But the latest steps taken by the Americans to control travel by demanding biometric passports, fingerprints and, in many cases, expensive visas, as well as petty measures to prevent passengers from queuing for lavatories on aircraft in U.S. airspace smack of paranoia and of bureaucracy run riot.

For the vast majority of travelers who are obviously not connected in any way with terrorism, these measures are a "bridge too far." They make travelers guilty until proven innocent -- contrary to the basic principles of Anglo-Saxon law. If these measures are not to lead to a huge decrease in tourist and other travel to the U.S. plus retaliatory measures against American travelers, the U.S. administration would be wise to do much more to show why these steps are needed in the case of the vast majority of travelers. It will also need to mitigate damage by cutting visa costs, speeding up procedures and ensuring that travelers to America are treated with greater courtesy and consideration by officials.

Some observers see a similar authoritarian tendency in the present Japanese government, including a worrisome streak of nationalism in the Koizumi regime. Why, they ask, did Koizumi once again pay an official visit at the new year to Tokyo's Yasukuni Shrine, the memorial for Japan's war dead? He must have known that there would be another backlash from South Korea and China.

Accordingly, it must be assumed that he did not care about foreign opinion and preferred to pay tribute to a nationalist element at home. Or does he really believe that the war criminals, who are among those enshrined at Yasukuni, were in fact Japanese patriots? Is democracy so well entrenched in Japan that we need not worry about any recrudescence of ultranationalism and authoritarianism? Unfortunately, this is not yet certain.

Moreover, Japan's record on human rights for prisoners remains open to question as has been made clear by the recently published prison diary of Joji Yamamoto, a former Democratic Party Diet Member who was sent to prison for misuse of his secretary's salary.

We must do all we can to prevent terrorist attacks, but if we adopt measures that are disproportionate to the threat and that undermine our fundamental freedoms, we play into the hands of the terrorists. They want us to go to extremes to meet their threats as this shows that they have forced us on to the defensive. It also provides opportunities to foster anti-Western and antidemocratic movements.

Terrorism is never justified, but we need to give much higher priority to removing the real grievances of the oppressed and the impoverished peoples of the world. This means much more must be done to bring about an early peace that ensures that the rights of both the Israelis and the Palestinians are preserved. In Iraq, meanwhile, coalition forces need to be much more sensitive to Iraqi feelings and rights.

Aid agencies need more funds to relieve famine, provide clean water and help to educate children in developing countries. We must ensure not only that voluntary gifts are encouraged but also that our governments give higher priority to development aid. Such aid need not be at the expense of improving welfare at home.

Above all we must do all we can to prevent our governments from succumbing to the temptation of believing that the end justifies the means.

Hugh Cortazzi, a former British career diplomat, served as ambassador to Japan from 1980 to 1984.


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