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UN: Human Rights Chief Steps Down, Warning Of Post-11 September Rights Crackdown

  • Breffni O'Rourke

The United Nations high commissioner for human rights, Mary Robinson, is stepping down today after five years in office. It's not by chance that she has scheduled her resignation for 11 September, the one-year anniversary of terrorist attacks on the United States. Her departing message to the world is that the human rights climate has worsened since those attacks. She says governments are using the fight against terrorism as a cover to reduce civil liberties.

Prague, 11 September 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Mary Robinson, the United Nations human rights chief, is a mild-mannered Irishwoman who might go unnoticed in a crowd. But whereas the crowd will normally swim with the prevailing tide, Robinson stands against the current like a rock, if she feels a matter of principle is at stake.

She steps down today, at the completion of her term, and after the UN declined her offer to remain in office a further year. The precise date of her departure, 11 September, is not by chance. She says that since the terrorist attacks on the United States a year ago, civil liberties have come under threat in many countries. She says governments are using the international campaign against terrorism as an excuse to curtail citizens' legitimate rights.

She is calling on the world community to reinstate the previous balance, and for the United States to take a leadership role.

In media interviews in the last few days, Robinson has said the U.S. administration of President George W. Bush has set the tone for the world by disregarding international conventions in its handling of prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.

In addition, during the last year, the U.S. Congress has given sweeping new powers to law-enforcement agencies which allow them far greater access to citizens' private lives than before.

Robinson says other countries are also cutting back on various freedoms. Among other things, she criticizes the way Russia is conducting its war in Chechnya and China's crackdown in Tibet and on its Muslim Uighur population.

Her voice has often seemed a lonely one, and she has managed to offend many governments. Reports say the reason that Robinson's UN term is not being extended for a year is because her accusations irritated officials in the upper echelons of power.

The London-based human rights group Amnesty International paid tribute to Robinson's work at the UN. Spokesman Kamal Samari said the high commissioner's post, to be filled by Sergio Vieira de Mello of Brazil, has gained prominence because of Robinson's dedication and hard work. "She was certainly a tremendous human rights commissioner, who contributed to putting human rights issues on the top of the political agenda. Unfortunately, her office did not receive the support it needed to fulfill her mission. Despite that, her contribution is certainly something which the new high commissioner can build on," Samari said.

Samari also painted a gloomy picture of how far rights protection has deteriorated over the past year. "We have seen the well-established democracies, which contributed to the foundation of the human rights mechanism and the human rights treaties, taking the lead to undermine those same universal values," Samari said.

But there is increasing support for Robinson's perceptions. At a human rights conference in Warsaw this week, the current chairman of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Antonio Martins da Cruz, said the global campaign against terrorism must respect fundamental human rights.

Conference spokesman Jens-Hagen Eschenbaecher said several of the OSCE's 55 member states, particularly governments in Central Asia, have hindered the development of basic human rights under the guise of trying to prevent terrorism.

Expanding on this, the director of the OSCE's Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights in Warsaw, Gerard Stoudmann, said, "Generally speaking, in Central Asia, where we have had very frequent violations of human rights on a routine basis, the advantageous geographical position of Central Asia in the war on terrorism has resulted in much more muted criticism of the human rights situation in these countries."

Stoudmann described this as a regrettable precedent but said things can be improved. "The remedy to this is very simple: We have to stick to our fundamental values, and we have to convince every country in the OSCE and beyond that, when fighting terrorism, we are also fighting for our values, for civil liberties, for fundamental freedoms, and that we mean it, we believe in them," Stoudmann said.

In Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan, Human Rights Watch representative Matilda Bogner said the rights situation in that country has not worsened since 11 September. It was bad before that, she said, and remains bad. But she outlined what has changed. "The difference now, after September 11 in Uzbekistan, is that the United States is a lot closer to the Uzbek authorities, and a lot more money is flowing into Uzbekistan from the U.S. And the U.S. is not really using its new leverage to ensure that there are improvements in human rights, the U.S. is pretty much closing its eyes," Bogner said.

Officials in the United States have strenuously denied that the government is relaxing its commitment to human rights.

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