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UN: Annan Accepts Sakharov Prize, Praises Multilateralism But Criticizes EU Record On Immigration

  • Ahto Lobjakas

Kofi Annan, the UN secretary-general, today received the European Parliament's Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought. The award celebrates the work of the UN staff in promoting human rights, fundamental freedoms and fighting oppression, often at the cost of their own lives. It also underscores a growing rapprochement between the European Union and the United Nations in recent years. In his acceptance speech, however, Annan chose to highlight what he sees as one of the EU's weak points -- immigration. RFE/RL's Brussels correspondent, Ahto Lobjakas, was at the ceremony at the European Parliament.

Brussels, 29 January 2004 (RFE/RL) -- First and foremost, this year's Sakharov Prize was awarded to the United Nations to commemorate the lives of 22 UN staffers killed in a bombing in Baghdad last August, including top UN envoy Sergio Vieira de Mello.

Pat Cox, the president of the European Parliament, began his speech by paying homage to the victims of the attack and offering condolences to the relatives and friends of the victims present at the occasion.

Accepting the prize, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan dedicated it to the memory of the victims. "I am deeply touched that you have honored my friend and colleague, Sergio Vieira de Mello, and the many other UN staff who lost their lives in working for peace in the world. I am proud to accept the Sakharov Prize in memory of them."

"A closed Europe [for migrants] would be a meaner, poorer, weaker, older Europe. An open Europe will be a fairer, richer, stronger, younger Europe, provided you manage migration well."
The speeches that accompanied the ceremony, however, inevitably addressed broader agendas. The lion's share of Cox's speech celebrated the core values of the European Union, in particular its commitment to "effective multilateralism" in crisis prevention and resolution.

Although it was never mentioned by name, the United States appeared to be the foil of much of Cox's analysis. He praised the United Nations as the embodiment of the values the EU seeks to promote on the world stage.

"Mr. Secretary-General, this house (the European Parliament) strongly believes in the value and work of the United Nations, its charter, and in multilateralism. We're resolved to make our positive contribution to make sure that in meeting the challenges and the duties of the 21st century, multilateralism can and shall be effective."

Cox then explicitly addressed what are seen as the main global policy goals of the United States, pointedly outlining alternative visions. "We support the fight against global terrorism, but we also insist on recognizing the duty to fight against global poverty. As regards weapons of mass destruction, we stand firmly on the side of nonproliferation, but our instinctive European response is for engagement and not for isolation."

Cox came closest to directly criticizing the United States when he said the EU would prefer the "due process of the International Criminal Court [ICC] every day to the absence of process in Guantanamo Bay." The United States remains firmly opposed to allowing the ICC remit to cover U.S. citizens.

In his acceptance speech, Annan repaid the compliments, echoing Cox's choice of words. "You have perceived the path of peace through multilateralism and today, the European Union is a shining light of tolerance, human rights, and international cooperation. After the first of May this year, that light will shine even brighter. When you enlarge to 25 members, you will cross a divide between East and West that once seemed unbridgeable. Enlargement is the greatest force for peace on the European continent."

However, the remainder of Annan's address was aimed squarely at the EU's failings in handling immigration. Annan repeatedly hinted that the EU's highly restrictive approach to both legal and illegal immigration could violate international rules, as well as less formal UN guidelines.

The UN secretary-general called for an overhaul of the EU's asylum system, lengthily detailing the woes afflicting illegal immigrants in Europe. He also said the EU needs much broader vision when addressing immigration, to harness the benefits of the phenomenon -- "instead of vainly trying to stop it."

"Sometimes the breadth of the agenda has been lost amidst shrill debate about clamping down on illegal immigration, as though that were the major purpose of migration policy. The public has been fed images of floods of unwelcome entrants and of threats to their societies and identities. In the process, immigrants have sometimes been stigmatized, vilified, even dehumanized. In the process, an essential truth has been lost. The vast majority of immigrants are industrious, courageous, and determined. They don't want a free ride."

Urging Europe and the rest of the developed world to learn to value contributions made by immigrants, Annan quoted the Swiss writer Max Frisch, who noted in the 1960s that Europe wants workers, but gets people.

Applying this to the present day, Annan noted it is essential for the functioning of "healthy, humane democracies" that they cannot extract the labor of immigrants and ignore other aspects of their humanity by denying most immigrants asylum rights and eventual integration.

Borrowing, possibly unwittingly, from U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld -- who once described much of Western Europe as "Old Europe" -- Annan suggested immigrants are needed to rejuvenate the continent in more than a strictly economic sense. "A closed Europe [for migrants] would be a meaner, poorer, weaker, older Europe. An open Europe will be a fairer, richer, stronger, younger Europe, provided you manage migration well."
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