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Czech Republic: Forum 2000 -- Terrorism, Sovereignty, And Human Rights After 11 September

  • Jolyon Naegele

In the global war on terrorism, can new international security needs override traditional principles of state sovereignty? RFE/RL correspondent Jolyon Naegele reports this issue this was a recurring theme at discussions yesterday on the final day of this year's Forum 2000 meeting in Prague.

Prague, 18 October 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Czech President Vaclav Havel's fifth annual -- and final -- Forum 2000 gathering of Nobel laureates and leading intellectuals gathered yesterday for a last day of discussions. Throughout the day, one recurrent topic was the inter-relationships of state sovereignty, terrorism, and human rights in the wake of the 11 September attacks.

Russian human rights activist and Duma deputy Sergei Kovalyev said, "The state prevails over law, and this is the source of many of the shortcomings of the current political order" -- among them, he said, the "isolation and [closed] nature of the states."

"We have to have the courage to recognize that today in Afghanistan, the international community stands before an insolvable contradiction. We have to punish the crime of 11 September, but we cannot punish it without creating victims among the civilian population of Afghanistan. Moreover, we must admit that neither the bombing of the Taliban nor the arrest of [Osama] bin Laden would stop terrorism. These clearly are not adequately effective measures."

Kovalyev said the world political system of today is in urgent need of reform. He called for the establishment of a supranational body that would be governed only by law, not by the political interest of one or another party, and that would have the right to apply adequate sanctions to defend law anywhere in the world.

In a similar vein, the Green deputy speaker of Germany's Bundestag, Antje Vollmer, called for establishing a court that would serve as a refuge both for oppressed minorities and for countries in question. She said an international court for minorities, like the International Court of Justice in The Hague, could decide on the legitimacy of protection claims and be "a place of civic and civilized settlement between ethnic minorities and state sovereignty."

But Vollmer conceded that the notion of human rights in many instances is not clear-cut: "After 1989, human rights were understood as a general recipe to be used against state despotism. It is my belief though, that human rights can't be used as a universal idea for resolving ethnic conflicts without having obtained a more clear definition."

Turkish human rights activist Akin Birdal, like most speakers at the Forum 2000 gathering, noted the impact of the 11 September attacks and their effect on human rights: "If human rights are to be written anew after 11 September, they should be written for humanity, freedom, democracy, and justice. We all share the same responsibility. We are all responsible for the current state of the world. It is like a swing -- one side is always up while the other one is down. We want to know what the consequences of this will be. I think we should focus on specific solutions. That should make our road smoother and maybe it could also be a barrier to tragedy."

Veteran Kosovar human rights activist and editor in chief of the Pristina daily "Koha Ditore," Veton Surroi, describes Afghanistan as "a full, vicious circle of human rights violations" and says the U.S. response to the 11 September attacks is justified: "What we have seen on 11 September with terrorism is a human rights violation with implications to become a human rights violation of a global scale. When terrorists can hit Washington and New York the way they have done, they can hit -- through biological warfare or any other form -- populations anywhere in the world. Terrorism then becomes one of the main instigators, or one of the main tools, of one of the main ideologies of human rights violations today. And for me, who has lived through NATO bombs in Kosovo, I can understand the U.S. intervention as actually an intervention that is directed at the end of the full circle in protecting human rights. War against terrorism today is war to protect human rights today and tomorrow."

Surroi drew parallels between the Taliban's Afghanistan and Slobodan Milosevic's Yugoslavia: "Now where is the similarity? In the sense that the state -- the present state of Afghanistan, if you can call it a state -- built its thought upon fanaticism. And for someone who has lived for many years under Milosevic's rule, I can see Milosevic's Serbian nationalism exploiting Serbian national feelings the way political Islam today is exploiting Islam as such, as a religion. And in that sense, the Taliban for me understandably is the Islamic counterpart to Milosevic."

As Surroi put it, a "state that builds itself on fanaticism gets fanaticism as its sovereign right [rather than the] state as its sovereign right." He said the result is that the state loses its ability to function and thus loses its sovereignty.

Belarusian opposition activist Vincuk Viacorka warned the gathering that his country is likely to suffer as a result of the new, warmer relationship between the West and Russia. He said, "[Russian President Vladimir] Putin is a very necessary person now for the Euro-Atlantic community." With the West eager to see Putin as its ally, and with Putin eager to shore up popular support at home with promises of restoring a "Greater Russia," Viacorka says, "the Belarus issue is in danger and there is a risk of it being marginalized. The easiest choice for many countries [would be] to turn a blind eye on Belarus."

Viacorka says Belarus needs a favorable international environment to solve its domestic political problems. Otherwise, he says, Western indifference would mean a silent informal recognition of the current regime of Alyaksandr Lukashenka.

Adam Michnik, editor in chief of Poland's leading daily, "Gazeta Wyborcza," responded to a widespread though by no means prevalent attitude in many transitional societies that the 11 September attacks gave the U.S. what it deserved.

He said: "I am reminded of what the Soviet press wrote in 1939 when Hitler attacked Poland. At the time the Soviet press wrote that Poland got what it deserved. I see this anti-Americanism as something very negative; something not based on profound thought but a reminder of Soviet propaganda, of the Soviet way of thinking."

Michnik, echoing the views of most participants in the Forum 2000 conference concluded: "Unless we reject terror, then at one point terrorism may eliminate all the values that we have lived for and for which we feel are worth living."

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