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Western Press Review: Europe's Roma, NATO Expansion, The Taliban's Afghanistan

By Dora Slaba/Khatya Chhor

Prague, 4 September 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Commentary in the Western press today examines the situation of the Romany population in Eastern Europe and the continuing discrimination that members of this group face; the upcoming World Trade Organization conference in Doha, Qatar; and NATO's eastward enlargement. Two editorials address the situation in Afghanistan, as the arrest of eight foreign aid workers last month and the ongoing transfer of 400 Afghan refugees to Papua New Guinea draws Western attention once again to the difficulties faced by those living under the Taliban. Others analysis looks at the ongoing Middle East conflict.


In a contribution to the "Chicago Tribune," Salim Muwakkil -- a senior editor with the news magazine "In These Times" -- says that we live in an age of "historical reckoning," in which many groups have begun to enumerate -- and perhaps seek reparations for -- grievances done to them in the past. But if it were possible to list those who had suffered the most -- in what the author calls an "ouch contest" -- Muwakkil says, "one group would win, hands down: The Romany (derisively called Gypsy) people. No other group has been persecuted, derided or exploited more relentlessly and more universally than this nomadic group of historical pariahs. [Lacking] a country of their own and deprived of housing, schooling and cultural capital, Romanies became nomadic outsiders, widely detested."

Muwakkil remarks that the plight of the Roma is still particularly grim in Eastern Europe, where, he says, "they are publicly persecuted, ghettoized and routinely assaulted. The International Romani Union (a newly formed non-governmental organization) recently appealed to the UN Commission on Human Rights to help stem anti-Romany violence in the Czech Republic, Bulgaria and Kosovo."

"Romanies," he writes, "remain relegated to the Gypsy caravans of our imagination and disdained as eternal outsiders; the indisputable winners of the 'ouch contest.'"


In the "Financial Times," the former director-general of the WTO, Peter Sutherland, considers the prospects of new multilateral trade negotiations set to begin in Doha, Qatar, in November. This conference seeks to do what the 1999 meetings in Seattle failed to achieve. The consequences of a second failure, he writes, "could be disastrous. [One] failed ministerial meeting could be regarded as an accident, a second would be a true disaster and perhaps fatal for the WTO's credibility."

Sutherland goes on to say that the WTO acts as a facilitator, not a cure. It is a part of the answer to the challenges facing the world, both rich and poor. He writes: "Without a fully operational and fully relevant trading system, economic recovery will take a longer time coming, solutions for the problems of the world's poorest countries will be frustrated and the many benefits global trade can bring will be denied."

The WTO can offer opportunities, Sutherland says. But he adds: "[This] is not to say the WTO cannot be improved in favor of poorer nations. I find it scandalous that two years after a solid program [was] tabled by developing countries in Geneva, almost nothing tangible -- bar some welcome market access benefits for the poorest among them -- has been agreed in response. It is just not good enough for industrialized nations to proclaim a 'development round' when they have responded so woefully to the issues that developing countries want addressed right now...."

He continues: "Endless soothing words about a 'development round' have no credibility if the promoters cannot demonstrate good faith up front; governments in poor nations can recognize empty political spin."


An analysis of Russian President Vladimir Putin's official visit to Finland in the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" comments on the wreath-laying on the grave of Carl Gustav Emil Mannerheim, who led the Finnish resistance against Soviet troops in 1939. The paper writes, "This gesture is regarded as a stride toward a rapprochement between the neighbors and is yet another symbol marking the end of the 'Cold War.'"


The issue of Finland's attitude toward NATO membership is discussed in the "Neue Zuercher Zeitung." President Putin is reported as saying that he leaves the decision regarding joining NATO entirely to Finland's discretion, but that he sees "no reason for NATO expansion."

Analyst Lothar Ruel explains the pragmatic thinking underlying the attitudes of NATO members in various circumstances past and present. With regard to the Baltics, it is not only a question of what he calls the "political explosiveness with regard to Moscow, but also a litmus test of the alliance's consensus in making critical political decisions."

There is actually as yet no agreement between the alliance members on enlargement. Ruel says that the most crucial issue is the conflicting interests of the Europeans' desire for security and America's reluctance to upset relations with Russia.

Two editorials, one in "The Irish Times" and one in the French daily "Le Monde," focus their attention on the situation in Afghanistan. The Western press has been nearly universal in its condemnation of the Taliban regime's restrictive internal policies and its adherence to a particularly narrow and strident form of Islam. The arrest last month of eight foreign aid workers -- as well as their 16 Afghan colleagues -- and the plight of a boat load of mostly Afghan refugees seeking asylum, have once again focused Western attention on those living in a nation of civil strife and material deprivation.


An editorial in "The Irish Times" looks at the plight of more than 400 mostly Afghan refugees, who were rescued from a leaking Indonesian boat by a Norwegian cargo ship and who sought asylum in Australia. They are now being sent to Papua New Guinea for processing amid international controversy before being sent to New Zealand and Nauru.

The paper says that few people have fled their homeland in such numbers as the Afghans. War, civil strife, and a succession of oppressive governments have characterized the years since the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The restrictive policies of the Taliban regime and a devastating draught have compounded these difficulties.

"The Irish Times" says that given these circumstances, Western governments are surprisingly reluctant to help alleviate the Afghans' predicament. As the paper states:

"Complaints about the reign of terror in Afghanistan must ring hollow when Western governments refuse to deal compassionately with those who manage to flee the Taliban. [The] eight foreign aid workers who are going on trial in Kabul accused of preaching Christianity include two Australians. They have been denied consular or family visits for most of their time in detention. Undoubtedly the Taliban will argue that it has acted within its own harsh interpretation of Islamic law. [In denying the refugees asylum], the Australian government says it, too, has been acting within the law. But it is a law that serves a large section of xenophobic voters while failing to meet the needs of those already denied basic human rights."

The paper concludes: "The lack of compassion in both Afghanistan and Australia in recent weeks must be condemned internationally. But Australia must also be judged by Western standards of justice, decency, democracy, and fair play."


A "Le Monde" editorial calls Afghanistan "one of the most destitute countries of the world," a nation that most needs the help of international aid agencies, both public and private. Bled by 22 years of repeated conflict since the Soviet invasion and devoid of any natural wealth except the poppy, the French daily says Afghanistan is among the most unfortunate of nations.

Today, the country labors under five years of rule by the Taliban -- a group of farmers that the paper says is obsessed with social vengeance, which imposes a version of Islam on the country that is so crazed that it does not really have much in common with Islam anymore. They have created a "paranoia without equal," the paper writes. Now, the Taliban's "ministry for the protection of virtue and the prevention of vice" has accused eight NGO aid workers of Christian proselytizing.

"Le Monde" writes: "It is of little importance that they created hospitals and flats, as those that are targeted had done...[of] little importance that the population needs more of these NGOs. What counts is the Taliban's obsession with the 'purity' that is part of their conception of Islam, which must be protected from the stain of a possible Christian influence."

The paper remarks that if the Taliban had wanted to chase out all the much-needed European or North American NGOs from the country, they could not have done better acting otherwise. "In the name of the defense of their 'purity,' they thus isolate the country. One knows from the Khmer Rouge and Cambodia to what madness this obsession can lead."


In "The New York Times," columnist Thomas Friedman suggests deploying NATO or a NATO-like force to assume control over the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Israel cannot continue to occupy the disputed lands, he says, but neither can it leave the territory without leaving behind a power vacuum and a divided, unstable Palestinian state.

Of the Oslo accord peace agreement, Friedman writes: "It didn't work -- because Israel built peace with one hand and greedy, idiotic settlements with the other; and because the Palestinians built peace with one hand and hatred of Jews [with] the other.... Eventually, though, this latest return to [conflict] will exhaust everyone and prompt another attempt at negotiated separation."

Any new agreement, Friedman says, will have to consider that "Arafat alone cannot be trusted by Israelis to maintain the peace along any new border or wall. [As] such, we know that some trusted, neutral force -- other than Mr. Arafat -- has to be enlisted to patrol any border between Israel and the West Bank and Gaza, and that this border needs to be drawn in a way that gives Palestinians a big enough state so they have an incentive to maintain internal security and work with whoever is guarding the wall. This is where NATO could play a critical role."

Friedman acknowledges that this is not a perfect solution, but perhaps it could be what he calls the "least bad" solution. He writes: "Israel indefinitely occupying the West Bank would be awful. Israel simply quitting part of it, and leaving behind a roiling mess, would be worse. Some variation of this NATO approach could be the least bad. Think about it."