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RIGHTS: “War on Terror Is Sending People Into the Hands of Terrorists”

Moyiga Nduru

JOHANNESBURG, Jun 8 2006 (IPS) - Political repression and the war on terror are expected to be amongst issues discussed at the five-day CIVICUS World Assembly that begins in the Scottish city of Glasgow on Jun. 21.

“We’ll be looking at civil society activists who are in prison. We believe there are several hundred of them across the world. We will be highlighting 14 of them,” Kumi Naidoo, CIVICUS secretary general, told IPS Thursday.

“We’ll also look at the war on terror and how it is undermining democratic space…The war on terror is undermining the tenets of democracy by subjecting (people) to detentions and profiling,” he said.

“The war on terror is sending people into the hands of the terrorists.”

U.S. President George Bush declared war on terror after the bombings in New York and Washington in September 2001 by al Qaeda operatives. Human rights groups such as Amnesty International believe that since then hundreds of suspects have been detained, particularly in Asia and the Middle East.

About 1,200 delegates are expected to attend the Glasgow meeting, including some 200 from Africa. The theme of the conference is ‘Acting Together For A Just World’ – the same theme that CIVICUS adopted for its last World Assembly, held in Botswana in 2004.

“After Botswana, the CIVICUS board felt that we should keep that theme. It’s not time-bound,” Naidoo explained.

However, change is coming in the form of an altered schedule for the assembly, to be held annually now instead of every two years.

CIVICUS is a non-governmental organisation (NGO) based in Johannesburg that seeks to ensure the right of citizens to have a say in the affairs of their countries – whether these concern politics, economics or culture. (The word “civicus” is Latin for “of the town” or “of the community”.)

Representatives of civil society groups interviewed by IPS also hope that issues such as the AIDS pandemic, poverty and corruption will be thoroughly debated at the World Assembly.

“Poverty is a threat to development; it affects a lot of things. For example, if you have poverty in the country…it breeds other things like crime and civil strife,” said Barbara Kalima-Phiri, programme manager for the Pretoria-based Southern African Regional Poverty Network.

Over 300 million people live on less than a dollar a day in Africa, she added.

For Peter Kagwanja, director of the Southern African Project of the International Crisis Group – a think tank headquartered in Brussels – the matter of security needs attention.

“Peace and security are prerequisites for development. They are preconditions for the continent’s revival,” he told IPS.

Several African countries are in the grip of conflict at present, including Somalia, Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Cote d’Ivoire and Chad.

And, the seeds of future violence risk being sown in others.

“There is no active conflict in Southern Africa. But we have cases of misgovernance like Zimbabwe, which has the potential for conflict,” said Kagwanja.

“We have Angola, which has emerged from conflict but which has not yet fully recovered: its stability is in question. You need elections and democracy to sustain it. You also need development…”

Kagwanja urged civil society to help maintain the peace in Southern Africa.

But Margaret Legum, director of the Cape Town-based South African New Economics Network, an NGO, sounds a note of caution about the ultimate effectiveness of civil society.

“Civil societies support equalities and decent societies, but they find it difficult to influence governments. Civil societies are financially weak compared to the corporate sector,” she told IPS.

“The thing that most depresses me is that governments are impotent in the face of corporate sectors, which are able to move their money around the world,” Legum noted. “All governments are afraid of big businesses. They fear that the big businesses will take away their money.”

But, “Governments should become courageous. They should pass laws to prevent big businesses from moving money out of the country,” she added.

A highlight of the Glasgow conference will be the launching of an NGO accountability charter and codes. Eleven NGOs, including Oxfam and Transparency International, will take part in the event.

“We’ll say these are the standard by which the public should judge us,” Naidoo said.

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