Afghanistan: Remarks at the NGLTF’s Annual Creating Change Conference; Terrorism, War and Democracy Plenary


I was born in Pakistan to a Muslim family. I’m a lesbian. And I’m the executive director of the International Gay & Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC). In the last two months I’ve been asked to speak and write about Islam, about Pakistan, Afghanistan, about hate crimes, immigrants, civil liberties-- all in relation to the current bombing of Afghanistan and the tragic events of September 11 and its aftermath. And I find it challenging every time. I speak now not from the sum of my identities, but from my core belief in justice and human rights.

On the morning of September 11 I turned on my television, and like most people, I was horrified at the images of the World Trade Center collapsing. My first thought was for the safety of our staff in New York. IGLHRC has a small office in the Empire State Building, which has since been evacuated many times in response to bomb threats. One staff member told us about looking at the view south from the conference room. He broke down in tears at the sight of the rubble that used to be the World Trade Center. We have all been affected by these gross acts of violence in innumerable ways. At IGLHRC we condemn this act of terrorism in no uncertain terms.

In the course of our work we wrestle with difficult questions of injustice, loss of life, and the breakdown of civil and human rights in many countries. The US is one of many countries that is experiencing violence and conflict. We must think very carefully about our response, even as we try to overcome our fear, anger, and sorrow.

September 11 has opened up a range of issues and concerns, from the rise in violence against Muslim, Arab, and South Asians in the United States, to the threat to our civil liberties and to the rights of immigrants. But no issue is more difficult than the bombing of Afghanistan.


We cannot look away from the difficult questions. As the bombing in Afghanistan continues, we must ask ourselves whether this military campaign is justified.

We can only address this question based on a common understanding of what we want to achieve. First, I assume that we want to protect ourselves and others from further terrorist attacks. Second, I assume that we want to bring those responsible for criminal acts of terrorism to justice. And third, I presume that most of us agree that we are seeking to support local efforts toward democracy and just societies.


So let’s address the first issue: We should ask ourselves, will we be safer after the bombing campaign is over or, rather, will we have exacerbated anti-American sentiment in the Middle East, Asia, and other countries leading to further attacks? By not addressing why there is so much anti-US sentiment are we really getting to the root of the problem?

Much has been written to explain anti-American sentiment abroad. Some have reacted negatively to this concern, as if it signals an implicit justification of the terrorist acts of September 11. But they do not, because there is no justification for this criminal act. The wanton massacre of civilians speaks for itself. An IGLHRC New York staff member recounted his experiences on September 11 -- the planes, the fire, the chaos, the fear for the indiscriminate loss of life. After the US military launched air strikes, he asked himself, "How many people in Kabul and Kandahar must be feeling that same fear today?"

We cannot speculate how many lives have been lost in Afghanistan, but we can safely agree that some 'collateral damage' to use clinical military terms, has already taken place.

To cite one example, between 25 and 35 Afghan civilians died when U.S. bombs and gunfire hit their village, Chowkar-Karez, on the night of October 22, according to Human Rights Watch. None of the witnesses interviewed by Human Rights Watch knew of Taleban or Al-Qaida positions in the area of the attack.

What was the Pentagon's response? I quote: "We hit what we wanted to hit. The people there are dead because we wanted them dead."

Let us remember that harm is not only caused by bombs. We can follow reports by the United Nations and by leading aid organizations that warn us of impending famine and starvation of millions of Afghanis if the bombing continues and urgent aid is not delivered before the onset of winter. At the same time we hear reports about a growing refugee crisis on both sides of the Afghani-Pakistani border. Are we to condemn millions of people, in one of the poorest countries in the world, to death as an after effect of our military action?


We now turn to our second goal and ask: Is this bombing the best way to bring those responsible for September 11 to justice? Civilian deaths will not make us safer, nor will they bring us closer to justice. The human rights principles that guide IGLHRC's work suggest that a different course of action is both possible and effective. We need to strengthen, not weaken, the international mechanisms, where criminals can be brought to justice.

The International Criminal Court is a case in point. The ICC is a permanent tribunal to try individuals responsible for the most serious international crimes. It could bring justice, not revenge, to the September 11 massacre, if it were in place. But, it is not. In 1998 160 countries attended a UN-sponsored conference in Rome to draft a treaty to establish the ICC. The US, together with China, Libya, and Iraq, was one of only seven countries who voted against the ICC. You would assume that that after September 11 the US Senate would rush to ratify the Rome treaty. Unfortunately that is not the case. How can we tell the world that our military action is a measure of last resort when we undermine the very methods that could provide an alternative?


And finally we look at our third question: How do we measure our commitment to human rights, justice and democracy? At the moment, people in Afghanistan are caught in between the horrendous rule of the Taleban on one side and the specter of war with the world’s superpower on the other. We are allied with the enemies of the Taleban, not with advocates of free and open societies. Our new allies in Afghanistan, the Northern Alliance, a re also perpetrators of human rights abuses.

We condemn the Taleban's oppressive regime, particularly towards women and homosexuals. We are guided by groups working for justice in Afghanistan like the Revolutionary Association of Women of Afghanistan. These and other groups are the crucial pieces of the engines of change in Afghanistan, especially in relation to women's issues and sexuality issues. And yet, despite the unbearable impositions of the Taleban regime on women and gays, they too call for other ways of serving justice besides war.

I'd like to read the words of a woman from the Revolutionary Association of Women of Afghanistan when she spoke recently of the air raids in Afghanistan in a BBC interview. And I quote, "This is not the solution. It cannot eradicate the real terrorism and as we have clearly seen, our people again are becoming the victims. Right now, thousands of our people are in danger of hunger or starvation, bombings etc. - no one can guarantee their lives. We have been receiving reports from Kabul - bombs have been dropped close to civilian places. This is not the solution for today's Afghanistan. Secondly, no one is sure about the result of these attacks. Who will replace the Taleban if they are removed? That is the biggest concern for everyone in Afghanistan."


IGLHRC takes a clear position against the bombing of Afghanistan because as a human rights organization we do not believe that we can solve one injustice by creating another. In a national climate that supports war, we may be criticized for taking such a position. But our position is guided by human rights principles. We are deeply concerned by the death of innocent civilians in Afghanistan. IGLHRC's concern grows from its commitment to defending the full range of human rights--but also from our experience in working with the vulnerable and stigmatized, including lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people, immigrants, and people living with HIV/AIDS. Vulnerable populations, like LGBT people, tend to become more, not less, vulnerable in times of armed conflict.


This is true at home as much as abroad. When dissent is discouraged in the public arena and civil liberties are compromised, our LGBT communities should have reason to be worried. We may laugh off Jerry Falwell's homophobic comments, blaming us and "the feminists" for the World Trade Center attack. Meanwhile men who have sex with men are still barred from donating blood and gays and lesbians are still expelled from the armed forces. And at the same time new barriers await LGBT immigrants and asylum seekers. We cannot let our civil liberties and human rights become part of this war's collateral damage.

The recently passed USA Patriot Act allow for the indefinite detention of non-citizens who are not terrorists on minor visa violations if they cannot be deported. The law gives the Attorney General and the Secretary of State the power to designate domestic groups as terrorist organizations and deport any non-citizen who belongs to them. According to the ACLU, the law's expanded definition of terrorism is so broad, that non-citizens run the risk of detention and deportation for providing assistance, or even paying membership dues, to groups such as the Vieques protestors or the anti-globalization World Trade Organization protestors.

At the same time, the Justice Department announced Thursday that it will no longer issue a running tally of the number of people detained around the country. As of early this week 1,182 people had been apprehended. We do not know their names, where they are being held or the reason for their arrests. We do know that the Justice Department has decided to listen in on lawyer-client conversations in federal custody, including for those detained but not charged with any crime. And we read with grave concern a Washington Post article suggesting that the FBI is considering the use of force to extract information from those in detention.

We know that an erosion of civil liberties will affect everyone, but those with the least to lose will lose the most. People of color, those who merely "look" like immigrants, and those already marked out by hate will find hate compounded. A policy of government by suspicion simply gives prejudice an official stamp of approval. And other nations may pursue the US example.

We can best defend the United States by defending its freedoms.


We have responsibilities at home. Last month news reports about anti-gay graffiti on a Navy bomb reminded us of the ever-present specter of homophobia in the army and in the media. Our movement did the right thing when it acted quickly to denounce this.

But isn't the bomb itself, where the graffiti was scrawled, also a tool of violence? Shouldn't we be denouncing the bomb as well? Our movement must make these connections, otherwise we perpetuate the violence we condemn.


Never has it been more important for us to view our movement in a global context.

Human rights suffer broadly in times of war. In an effort to build the coalition against terrorism, the US has begun to relax its pressures on other countries that are committing serious human rights abuses. This is not good news.

A case in point is the Cairo 52 case. On the nights of May 10 and 11, 2001, State Security police, accompanied by members of the vice squad, conducted raids against suspected homosexuals in Cairo. 52 of the men are in still in detention, awaiting a verdict by an Emergency State Security Court, a court temporarily established almost two decades ago to deal with terrorism and security threats to the State. Since May we have had continuous reports that they have been beaten and tortured while in prison. Their sentence will be pronounced November 14 and cannot be appealed.

What kind of pressure can we expect from the US government to set them free? What can we expect from the Egyptian government when they get the message that the US is willing to look the other way? How can we argue against the trial being held in a State Emergency Court, a long-standing 'temporary solution' to terrorism, when the US responds to its own terrorist attack with new temporary laws that violate and threaten our civil liberties? What pressure can we exert on Egyptian authorities not to continue torturing the Cairo 52 when our very own FBI is publicly considering the use of torture against suspected terrorists?

And yet, even as the cards are stacked against us, we must act. You must act.

And so I'm going to ask you to do one thing today. You should have on your chair two action alerts that IGLHRC worked on jointly with Al-Fatiha and Amnesty International. One is a letter to Secretary of State Colin Powell and the other is a letter to the Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

Sign these letters and turn them in before you leave this room. Amnesty, IGLHRC, and Al-Fatiha are making one last push before the sentencing next week. We will deliver your letters to the US state department and to the government of Egypt before the final trial date on November 14. Now more than ever international solidarity is needed, for our sake, and that of the 52 men in prison in Egypt.

[See IGLHRC Action Alert November 9, 2001
Free the Cairo 52, Release Teenager in Jail!
Act Now Before November 14 Verdict! ]

I’ll end with one final question. How will we be protected when our foreign policy, and our own leadership devalues human rights protections and the loss of civilian life?