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UN: Human Rights Commission To Discuss How to Balance Counterterrorism, Rights (Part 2)

  • Robert McMahon

One of the most sensitive issues facing an already politically charged UN Human Rights Commission is the protection of rights while countering terrorism. Rights experts have reported increasing cases of government crackdowns on opponents under the guise of counterterrorism. The issue has become complicated by some counterterrorism measures adopted by Washington, which critics say empowers other states to loosen their standards.

United Nations, 12 March 2004 (RFE/RL) -- At a time of heightened concern over terrorism, this year's UN Human Rights Commission will wrestle with the issue of whether to monitor the impact of counterterrorism measures on rights.

A UN General Assembly resolution sponsored by Mexico calls for the UN's high commissioner for human rights to submit a study looking into formal ways in which counterterrorism efforts can be monitored to safeguard human rights. It followed a Security Council resolution last year (Resolution 1456) that says states must ensure that any measures to combat terrorism comply with international human rights, refugee and humanitarian laws.

Prominent watchdog group Human Rights Watch says there is expected to be resistance to a formal monitoring measure from commission members Pakistan and India and a number of other states. The United States, Britain, and some other European nations are also reported to be cool to such a measure.

Joanna Weschler of Human Rights Watch acknowledges the challenges facing states trying to cope with terrorism. But she expresses concern that in the post-11 September world, states are too willing to curtail human rights in exchange for security. "Human rights as such -- the human rights culture, the body of international human rights law -- is something that didn't happen overnight," she said. "It took a huge amount of work and effort to create, and it needs to be protected from this current situation, which can pose really the biggest threat ever to it."

At a panel discussion late last year, UN experts appealed for states to balance their counterterrorism efforts with respect for human rights. One participant was the UN special rapporteur for human rights defenders, Hina Jilani of Pakistan. She told the panel that, in a growing number of cases, counterterrorism laws are being employed illegitimately.

"Farmers protesting evictions are being tried in antiterrorist courts. Journalists exposing governmental policies are being called anti-state and being charged with sedition. Human rights activists exposing conditions of detention are being investigated, interrogated, and sometimes even imprisoned," Jilani said.

Some rights activists have expressed concern about the actions of the United States, normally a leading champion of human rights. They say that, in leading wars for regime change in Afghanistan and Iraq, and in pushing for vigorous Security Council resolutions on terrorism, the United States is shielding some states that habitually violate human rights norms.

Human Rights Watch frequently cites Central Asia as an example, due to its new importance as a staging ground for antiterrorist forces in Afghanistan. Human Rights Watch issued a release this week saying that the United States and some European Union members appear "halfhearted" in pressing for the commission to take action on reports of grave violations by Uzbekistan. U.S. officials repeatedly deny such claims.

One rights expert who defends U.S. actions since 11 September 2001 is Michael Ignatieff, who heads the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard University. He told RFE/RL that Washington's willingness to use force to oust repressive regimes should be seen as a boost for human rights. "The world is divided between those who really think the major problem in our world is American power and those who think that actually the problem is what it's always been, which is tyranny, violence, and human rights abuse around the world," he said. "And sometimes I actually think the use of American power can be a solution."

Criticism is most often directed at the United States for its treatment of hundreds of detainees, mostly from the Afghan campaign, who have been held at a naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, without charge for more than two years. U.S. officials say they are foreign combatants who may be legally held without charge while the war on terrorism is being conducted.

In recent days, seven Russian nationals and five Britons have been released from Guantanamo. In most cases, the circumstances of their appearance in Afghanistan in the autumn of 2001 are murky.

Typical is the case of Murat Kurnaz, a 21-year-old Turk who had been living in the German city of Bremen. His mother, Rabiye Kurnaz, has appeared at a number of events in Washington and New York with other relatives of detainees, appealing for justice.

She told RFE/RL on 10 March that she last saw her son in October 2001, when he said he was leaving for Pakistan to study Islam. She said she doesn't understand why he is being held if he hasn't been charged with any crime. "They should really properly prove who is guilty," she said. "The tribunal has the people there simply locked up like animals. I thought America is a democracy, so it should properly treat them. I would like justice."

U.S. officials say the Geneva Conventions on the conduct of war do not cover aspects of the war on terrorism. But they are facing increasing pressure to either release the Guantanamo prisoners or formally charge them. Human rights activists are concerned that other countries will begin copying the U.S. example of detention without charge as they pursue their own counterterrorist campaigns.