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Western Press Review: Human Rights, Chechnya, And More

  • Brent McCann

Prague, 8 December 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Western press commentary looks at human rights today in various forms. A New York Times editorial honoring the UN's human rights declaration sets the tone for commentary on Russia's declared intention to destroy all targets in the Chechen capital of Grozny. Other commentary focuses on Turkey's desire to join the European Union, and Swiss banks' handling of Holocaust victims' accounts.

NEW YORK TIMES: The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is one of the most important political legacies of this century

Friday (Dec. 10) marks the 51st anniversary of the UN's adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This document proclaims that recognition of, in its words, "the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world."

In a long editorial today, The New York Times calls this recognition "one of the most important political legacies of this century. ... Despite the persistence of state-sponsored repression and genocidal conflict," the paper says, "the belief that individuals have a claim to basic rights and dignities is being embraced by ordinary citizens on every continent."

Slavery and other rights abuses have persisted for many centuries, the NYT writes. But in this century, it says, "the enormity of the Nazi atrocities forced the world to consider human rights as a concern of international law."

The human rights movement is just over 50 years old and has suffered setbacks in its short life, the editorial says. The Times points out: "In the 1990s, the world has witnessed the horror of genocide in Rwanda and the use of rape and torture as methods of war in the former Yugoslavia. The enforcement of human rights against rogue regimes, and even in nations that have adopted these principles, remains a struggle."

The editorial concludes: "But the impact of the idea is undeniable. Human rights ideals have been accepted by people around the globe, whether they are students seeking democratic reform in China or women demanding equal protection under law in Pakistan. This development could not have been imagined at the start of the millennium or even this century. It offers a promise that could prove as important as the great revolutions of the preceding centuries."

WALL STREET JOURNAL EUROPE: It can be hoped that the pending extinction of Grozny will at least open Western eyes to the nature of Moscow's present leadership

The Wall Street Journal Europe, in its main editorial today, blasts Russia for the brewing human rights catastrophe in Chechnya. It quotes the leaflets the Russians recently dropped on Grozny warning civilians to flee. The leaflets read: "Those staying in the city will be regarded as terrorists and bandits. They will be destroyed by artillery and air force. There will be no more talks. Everyone who fails to leave the city will be destroyed."

Some 40,000 civilians remain in the city, the WSJ says. In its words, "An intent to kill on such a massive scale has not been seen in that part of the world since the days of Stalin; indeed, it recalls the tactics of the Mongol khans who swept through the same area nine centuries ago."

How should the West respond? The Journal says Western money has helped finance Russian corruption and criminality. It says: "The perception of Russia as 'too big to fail' has probably encouraged [Prime Minister Vladimir] Putin's savagery, since it seems that no Russian crime is so great that it can't be patched up at the next meeting of the G-8." The International Monetary Fund proposal to withhold the next tranche of Russia's loan is sensible, the paper says, as "civilized nations should not underwrite barbarism." It may be too late to help the Chechens.

"But," the WSJ concludes, "it can be hoped that the pending extinction of Grozny will at least open Western eyes to the nature of Moscow's present leadership, and remind the world of the part an absence of sound Western leadership has played in bringing it about."

WASHINGTON POST: This is not an acceptable method of war

In another editorial on the war in Chechnya, The Washington Post says the Russian strategy is, in the paper's words, "to level a city and kill everyone in it." The editorial says this is not an acceptable method of war, even in a campaign that may by itself be justifiable.

Though the Russians claim to be ridding themselves of a terrorism problem, the editorial says the true aim seems more to be the eradication of a people.

The Post compares Chechnya to other conflicts which have led to war crimes inquiries. The editorial states: "When Serbian forces used disproportionate force against civilians in Kosovo, an international court of the United Nations indicted Serb leader Slobodan Milosevic for war crimes. When Indonesian forces razed towns and cities in East Timor, the United Nations launched a war crimes inquiry, which is continuing."

The editorial finishes with this thought: "Now is the time to begin gathering information on Russia's tactics in Chechnya, and to let Russia's leaders and generals know that no one should be immune from prosecution for such atrocities."

FRANKFURTER ALLGEMEINE ZEITUNG: Russia will not let itself be brow beaten with impunity

In Germany, Werner Adam writes in a commentary in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung: "It seems a new patriotic war has erupted in the North Caucasus not only to utterly subject [Chechnya] but to show the whole world: Russia will not let itself be brow beaten with impunity."

Adam argues that this attitude can be seen in the attitudes of "former prime minister and possible presidential candidate [Yevgeny] Primakov, who wants to weld an axis of Russia-China-India to counterbalance American dominance." Adam notes that "Yeltsin, too, only a few days ago bedridden, is chancing a journey to China to coincide with the storming of Grozny, condoned with understanding by Beijing."

Adam then asks: "What is to be done? Russia could be expelled from the Euro-apparatus, be refused further participation in the G-7 meetings, credit could be blocked and economic sanctions imposed. Hardly anything more would be possible."

SUEDDEUTSCHE ZEITUNG: If Turkey were allowed to become a candidate the effects could only be positive

Turning to Turkey, commentator Wolfgang Koydl in the Sueddeutshe Zeitung argues that making Turkey a European Union candidate is the right thing to do not only for Turkey but for the entire EU. His argument comes just days before the EU is to consider the matter at a summit in Helsinki.

Koydl says that the Greeks, for one, do not appear ready to allow Turkey to join the line for EU membership. But the commentator says more will be gained if Turkey were given the opportunity.

The commentator warns that if Turkey is once again denied the status if a candidate for EU membership: "The consequences of this would be a political earthquake way off the Richter scale."

Koydl continues, "if Turkey were allowed to become a candidate for later entry, the effects could only be positive. One effect would certainly be to swiftly reveal Ankara's opponents in western Europe as out-and-out hypocrites."

Koydl says Turkish candidacy would further human rights. He says: "Only candidate status can ensure the process of change there is given a jump start to enable the forces of good in Turkey to begin to discuss the Kurds, the dropping of territorial claims, democracy and civic rights."

SUEDDEUTSCHE ZEITUNG: Switzerland's banks can only be ashamed of their indifference toward the unimaginable tragedy of the Holocaust

On another human rights theme, commentary coming from the Sueddeutsche Zeitung and the International Herald Tribune today deal with Monday's report by an international auditing committee that Swiss banks did not profit from the fortunes of Holocaust victims.

Contrary to some reports, a commentary in Germany's Sueddeutsche Zeitung says, the international audit committee headed by former US Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker did not find any billion-dollar balances in dormant bank accounts belonging to Holocaust victims or their relatives.

But the banks did not behave nobly, either. Commentator Bernadette Calonego describes the report in this way: "In short, the committee found that the banks had dealt with those affected by Nazi terror with a general lack of sympathy and understanding, and had done so for far too long."

Calonego continues, "Switzerland's banks can only be ashamed of their indifference toward the unimaginable tragedy of the Holocaust, and have rightfully apologized for this."

She concludes, "To allow the investigation to proceed, Swiss banks granted the Volcker committee unrestricted access to their records for three years. That is reason enough to hope that the banks have indeed gained more insight into this chapter of their history."

INTERNATIONAL HERALD TRIBUNE: Swiss leaders have a fresh chance to acknowledge the less attractive features of their country's wartime record

The editorial in the International Herald Tribune, originating from The New York Times, expresses similar sentiment. While the banks apparently did not conspire to loot Nazi-era Jewish bank accounts, they did manage, the paper says, "to lose track of a shockingly large number of these accounts ... and many banks ... cruelly and deceptively turned away family members trying to recover lost assets." In the IHT's words: "With the release of the Volcker report, and another report due later this week on Switzerland's treatment of refugees fleeing Nazism, Swiss leaders have a fresh chance to acknowledge the less attractive features of their country's wartime record and embrace efforts to compensate the victims."