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Western Press Review: From 'Detainees Versus POWs' Debate To Temelin

Prague, 17 January 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Several Western media commentaries today look at the imprisonment of Taliban and Al-Qaeda "detainees" at the U.S. military base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Concerns have been raised by human rights groups that they are not being treated according to the stipulations of the Geneva Convention.

Other discussion centers on preserving stability in Afghanistan; Russian-Polish relations; Eastern European attitudes toward missile defense; and the ongoing debate between Austria and the Czech Republic over the Temelin nuclear power plant.


In Britain's daily "The Guardian," staff writer Kate Connolly discusses the petition referendum launched on 14 January by Austria's far-right Freedom Party against the Temelin nuclear power plant in the Czech Republic, situated near the Austrian border. The Soviet-era plant has been plagued with technical problems, and several environmental and other groups have expressed concerns about its safety, fearing a Chornobyl-type meltdown. Some Austrian politicians have demanded the closure of the plant and insist that Czech entry into the European Union should depend on such a move.

Connolly says the Freedom Party's Joerg Haider, governor of the Austrian state of Carinthia and known for his nationalist views, has managed to seize upon the Temelin issue and is using it to block EU expansion. She writes, "It would be heartening to think that the [Freedom Party] had suddenly turned over a new leaf, abandoning its anti-immigrant, populist and nationalist policies and embracing instead environmental concerns. [Instead,] there is something quite sinister at play," she says.

"The referendum can easily be interpreted as a rather vicious attempt by Mr. Haider to use the safety concerns as a way of keeping the Czech Republic out of the EU," she writes.

For the Freedom Party, says Connolly, "the fear involved here has far more to do with the 'dangers' European Union expansion to the east might pose for Austria (such as labor migration), rather than the threat of radiation."


An analysis in "Eurasia View" looks at a U.S. State Department report that says opposition to U.S. plans to build a missile-defense system is softening in Russia, as well as in Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Belarus -- the other states that inherited weapons from the Soviet nuclear arsenal. The report notes that although no agreement has been reached on missile-defense plans, the Russian leadership is open to negotiations with the U.S. on the issue. The paper says that opinion in Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Belarus is even more tolerant of U.S. missile-defense plans.

The paper notes that some political observers, in Russia and elsewhere, "have expressed concern that an American missile shield would be destabilizing, arguing that it would encourage U.S. unilateralism in the international diplomatic arena." But it says the State Department report "claims only 31 percent of the Russian policy-making elite saw a missile defense shield as an instrument designed to enhance U.S. 'world hegemony.'"

But "Eurasia View" says, "Nevertheless, the survey also indicates that mistrust of American power remains pervasive in the former Soviet Union. In all four countries, the elites would rather respond to American missile-defense plans by allying with Western European nations than by cooperating with Washington. Given Russia's desire to claim the cultural privileges that come with being part of Europe, this sentiment figures to deepen if American missile-defense plans progress."


On the final day of a two-day state visit to Poland by Russian President Vladimir Putin -- the first Russian leader to visit Poland in eight years -- the German daily "Sueddeutsche Zeitung" carries an editorial on Russian-Polish relations.

In advance of the visit, there was much talk of improved relations between the two countries. However, the editorial says the meeting proved a disappointment, as no agreements were signed. No understanding was reached on any of the points of contention between the two nations, such as gas exports, fishing rights, or the recognition of Russia's war crimes in Poland.

Yet it has to be admitted, the editorial continues, that both Putin and Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski take a pragmatic approach, especially with regard to bilateral trade.

"This may contribute to an improvement in the Russian-Polish climate, but is not sufficient," the editorial writes. "For as before, the ballast of history is a point of contention. The bottom line of the visit," it says, "is a slightly warmer climate after a long period of frost."


An editorial in "The Washington Post" looks at the issues surrounding the detainment of Taliban and Al-Qaeda forces at the U.S. military base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The paper says the Pentagon's handling of the prisoners "raises serious questions. One is of forthrightness: [the] military has yet to say whom it is holding and from which nations, or how the prisoners will be processed and handled."

The paper also questions the Pentagon's insistence that the detainees are technically considered "unlawful combatants" and therefore not protected by the Geneva Convention. The paper says, "That is not the case. The Geneva Convention and other international treaties ratified by the United States give the detainees specific rights, rights that the [U.S.] administration should respect."

The paper says, "The first right most of the prisoners have is for a hearing by a tribunal to determine whether or not they are prisoners of war. [According] to most interpretations of the Geneva Convention, in the case of a dispute about status, prisoners must have a hearing before a tribunal. [Until] their status is determined, the United States is bound by international law to treat the prisoners as POWs," it concludes.


In a contribution to the "International Herald Tribune," Bill of Rights advocate and editorial page editor Charles Levendosky of the "Star Tribune" in Caspar, Wyoming, says the United States has entered a phase of its campaign against terrorism in which its actions will be judged by a high humanitarian standard.

Regarding the captured Taliban and Al-Qaeda forces at Guantanamo Bay, Levendosky says, "What the United States does to them, and how, will be watched by the world."

Levendosky notes that U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld called the Afghan prisoners "unlawful combatants" and added that "unlawful combatants do not have any rights under the Geneva Convention." Levendosky writes: "Mr. Rumsfeld is absolutely wrong. [Under] the Geneva Conventions, captive Taliban soldiers [must] be considered prisoners of war and are entitled to treatment commensurate with their military status."

Levendosky says the conventions also stipulate Al-Qaeda soldiers must too be treated as POWs "until a determination of their status is made by a competent independent tribunal."

Levendosky writes: "The Geneva Conventions require that all captured fighters be treated humanely. They cannot be subjected to torture, corporal punishment or degrading treatment. The chain-link cages set up as temporary cells for the prisoners at Guantanamo Bay cannot be considered humane," he says.

Levendosky writes: "How the United States acts now will reveal its soul. Does America truly stand for fairness and justice?"


In "The Wall Street Journal Europe," columnist Matthew Kaminski questions whether real improvements have been made in international law enforcement since the September attacks on the U.S. He asks, "Is the intense law-enforcement cooperation between the U.S. and EU and among EU countries themselves bound to peter out as memories of September fade? Or did the last four months bring about a lasting change in the way government agencies pursue terrorists?" he asks.

Kaminski says the U.S. and the EU "want their electorates to believe the lessons were learned and applied." He notes that the EU has agreed on a common definition of terrorism and criminalized terrorism in member countries. This makes it easier for member countries to work together, Kaminski says.

Now, he says, the EU must address "its basic predicament: The union eliminated its internal borders but has no police and few formal ways to work together. And what's more, EU countries vary widely in their approach to counter-terrorism," he says. But Kaminski adds that "new laws and protocols, while useful, are hardly the best way to fight a war against terrorist cells in Europe."

The "real new danger," he concludes, might be that the perceptions of a common and imminent threat in the weeks after the 11 September attacks may return to apathy as time goes on.


In Britain's "The Guardian," the paper's economics correspondent, Charlotte Denny, discusses the "price of peace" in Afghanistan. She says the real test will come at the Afghan donors conference on 21-22 January, when the UN and the World Bank will call upon nations to start pledging aid. The two organizations estimate that Afghanistan needs at least $5 billion over the next two and a half years, and $15 billion over the next decade, she says.

Denny expresses doubt that the United States, now that the combat phase is drawing to a close, will be willing to donate the necessary money to Afghan reconstruction efforts. She says the U.S. administration "has little sympathy for international aid efforts. [Given] the choice, the White House would rather provide tax cuts for Americans than schools, roads and hospitals for Afghans," she says.

Another concern, says Denny, is that the country "could not absorb that amount of money even if [donor nations] provided it." The interim government of Hamid Karzai "is starting from scratch," she says. "There is little basic infrastructure, or any way of delivering vital services to the population."

Denny says Afghans "could easily become cynical if they don't see some improvements soon. Winning the war is starting to look easy by comparison with winning the peace," she concludes.


In a contribution to the "International Herald Tribune," U.S.-based economist and native Afghan Wali Osman suggests that lingering tribal mentalities may undermine Afghanistan's economic development.

As he puts it: "A modern economy produces higher standards of living only if the underlying institutions provide for safety and flexibility, guaranteed by law. It also requires the mind-set that the best production, consumption and distribution decisions are based on free markets. These conditions run counter to a tribal mind-set that finds its organizing principles in warrior prowess and the dispensation of favors from the top down."

Osman says the best economy Afghanistan can develop in the short term will "be based on agriculture, light industry and perhaps some tourism as security improves." But he says the first step is to disarm the population and warlords. "Long experience has shown that warlords do not become statesmen," he says.

The second step is to set up a federal system under which the tribes begin working with the national government. Third, says Osman, a construction plan is needed "that starts with schools, roads, airports, communication systems, power plants, canals and other infrastructure."

Eventually, Osman says, Afghanistan must "adapt the U.S. political and economic system so that it allows the tribal structure to become a modern pluralistic society that can join the global economy. An effective security force is essential to make this plan work," Osman adds.


In this month's "Le Monde Diplomatique," Pierre Abramovici writes a historical analysis of Washington's previous dealings with the Taliban regime, and examines some of the links between U.S. oil and diplomatic interests.

Abramovici says that in the 1990s, the U.S. began to establish a presence in the Central Asian republics to gain access to their oil and gas reserves. By 1999, U.S. oil company Unocal scored a contract to build a pipeline across Afghanistan. But Abramovici says that, first, "stability had to be restored to Afghanistan."

The Taliban were seen as a less-than-perfect alternative to the country's years of civil war. Nevertheless, Unocal invited a Taliban delegation to the U.S., says Abramovici. "Anything goes where oil and gas are involved," he notes with sarcasm.

Even in 2000, Abramovici says, "although Washington denied it, the Taliban, internationally condemned for policies towards women, attitudes to human rights and protection of [suspected terrorist Osama] bin Laden, were still in talks with the U.S."

Abramovici goes on to conclude that the agreement reached in Bonn in December for the establishment of an interim Afghan administration under Hamid Karzai was not really a breakthrough, nor a surprise. Abramovici says that after being appointed head of the new government, it emerged that "during the negotiations over the Afghan oil pipeline, Karzai had been a consultant for Unocal."

(RFE/RL's Dora Slaba contributed to this report.)