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Western Press Review: The Czech Benes Decrees, Iranian Aid To Afghanistan, Rethinking Unilateralism

Prague, 28 February 2002 (RFE/RL) -- In the Western media today, commentators discuss the expulsion of Sudeten Germans from Czechoslovakia under the Benes decrees; unilateral U.S. actions against terrorism and the role of the UN Security Council; and rebuilding Afghanistan with help from Iran. Among other topics addressed are the EU's Convention on the Future of Europe and the latest peace initiative for the Middle East, proposed by Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia.


In the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung," commentator Berthold Kohler discusses the expulsion of Sudeten Germans from Czechoslovakia under a mandate issued by then-Czechoslovak President Eduard Benes. Under the 1945-46 Benes Decrees, 2.5 million Germans were deported and their property confiscated following World War II.

Kohler notes the European Parliament is now turning its attention to this Czech law, and "at least wants to know what the situation is in more detail," he writes. Once again, says Kohler, the European Parliament is addressing a problem that "the governments of [EU] member states or the European Commission would have preferred to overlook for pragmatic or other reasons."

Kohler notes that three times during the course of the Czech Republic's negotiations with the European Union, the European Parliament called on Prague to annul the decrees. "Prague did not react because it did not believe it would have to do so," he writes. "Neither the commission nor the German government was worried about the prospect of having to incorporate into EU law legislation that both violates the ban on discrimination and is incompatible with European legal norms."

To date, he says, the EU has acted as if it could ignore the fact that one of its candidates for membership maintains a law that "intended and permitted" ethnic cleansing.


In a joint contribution to "The New York Times," Brandeis University Near Eastern and Judaic studies professor Olga Davidson and former Iranian Ambassador to the UN Mohammad Mahallati say that Iran is "one of the best hopes for a prosperous Afghanistan [and] also the least appreciated."

They note that Iranians speak the same language as much of the Afghan population and share a literary culture. Iran has also committed $500 million over the next five years to help Afghanistan, and in past years has given shelter to more than 3 million Afghan refugees.

"Many Afghan refugees are permanently settled now in Iran," say the authors. "But others wish to return home. [Together,] these people form a ready-made network for cooperation between the two countries."

In addition, Afghanistan "desperately needs to build school systems, and Iranians -- in particular Iranian women, who are highly educated by regional standards -- could help in that task. With access to education, women could become the next generation of doctors, engineers, lawyers, teachers, and members of parliament in Afghanistan, as [in] Iran," they write.

Iran can be a positive force in reconstructing Afghanistan, and its help should not be overlooked for political or other reasons. Davidson and Mahallati say that the U.S. "needs more than just a military legacy in the Islamic world." Leadership "in economic and humanitarian development will help reduce terrorism," they conclude.


In the "International Herald Tribune," Gareth Evans of the Brussels-based International Crisis Group says a new phenomenon is emerging from recent shifts in U.S. foreign policy -- what he calls "war [being] waged for self-defense purposes," as permitted under the UN Charter in response to attack.

Evans says the U.S. campaign against the Taliban regime in Afghanistan was a "justifiable response of this kind," and "not seriously controversial." He continues, "[what] will be extremely controversial, however, is any extension of that self-defense reasoning to justify war waged unilaterally against other countries perceived to be a threat to the United States or its allies." Evans calls this a "new U.S. doctrine that assesses defense needs in terms of others' capability, not in terms of the actual threat they pose."

He says the prospect of U.S.-led military action in Iraq is "very real." But while he says it is "not unreasonable" to consider Iraq a threat to international security, "the way to deal with the whole issue is through the United Nations Security Council, which exists, and is fully mandated, to deal with precisely such threats."

He suggests that Security Council members should now "support an ultimatum demanding the return of fully empowered weapons inspectors, and be prepared to follow it through."


An article by Michael Meyer in the 4 March edition of "Newsweek" magazine looks at the Convention on the Future of Europe, scheduled to begin today in Brussels. Meyer says the participants are gathering "to ponder weighty questions: What is Europe? Should its guiding vision be a 'superstate' that counterbalances a hyperpowerful United [States]? Or should it be a more traditional club of nation-states [that] comes together, to a greater or lesser degree, depending on the issue?"

Meyer says member nations agree that Europe must become more accountable to its people. But how to achieve this, he adds, is the question. "Should there be direct elections of a European president, a bicameral European legislature? And how should power be shared among [members]?" Meyer cites analysts as saying the convention's agenda might be so wide-ranging as to lose focus and end up debating abstract questions of principle rather than the concrete problems of EU enlargement.

Will creating a European constitution make Europe whole? "Only if its leaders share a common vision -- and the will is there," Meyer writes. Europeans may need to be more united, he says, "but neither good luck nor providence will bring it. It will take inspired work on what Europe already is, not noble rhetoric about what it ought to be."


An editorial comment in Britain's "Financial Times" considers the EU Convention on the Future of Europe, meeting today in Brussels. Much of the debate is expected to center on what EU mechanisms will make the union more representative of its member states' populations, how to accommodate enlargement, and how to make the EU a more substantial force in world affairs.

Issues of EU jurisdiction versus national sovereignty will also be addressed. The "FT" says member governments "have grown increasingly reluctant to hand over power to institutions they no longer trust. At the same time, they want to work together on common problems that cannot necessarily be solved through centrally issued legislation." But "neither a return to intergovernmentalism nor the creation of a federal government autonomous from the member states provides the solution," the paper writes.

The editorial continues: "[it] is also essential to restore the EU's legitimacy in the eyes of its citizens. Greater efficiency is not enough. Open decision making, more accountable EU and national executives, and simpler treaties and procedures would help." The paper suggests that the convention should "conduct an open and informed debate." It says, "Only if the delegates can avoid a sterile debate between federalism and intergovernmentalism is there any chance of a consensus."


In France's "Liberation," Jean Quatremer says the future-of-Europe convention opening today is the biggest and most innovative institutional revamping in the EU's history. What lies ahead is for the EU to put its common institutions in order, determine the relationship between Brussels and the member states, and introduce more democracy -- and thus legitimacy -- into its institutions, he writes.

Quatremer says the 105 delegates will have one year to reach a consensus on a text, or -- in the worst-case scenario -- to come up with a series of options. But the process is still greeted with suspicion by the most Euroskeptic capitals, he says. Both London and Paris are afraid of "not being able to control the assembly," says Quatremer.

The final agreement will have to be written very skillfully in order to be accepted by all, says Quatremer. It must be one that addresses the interests of both small and large member nations, which deepens the union without subverting the states, and "which allows Europe to play a role on the world scene without obliging Ireland to send troops abroad," he writes. "The risks of failure are obvious," he says. If the convention is incapable of reaching a consensus, it will leave "all the cards in the hands of the governments."


An editorial in Britain's "The Independent" says the EU's "tangle of laws and regulations" needs to be formulated "into a few simple rules," with the main aim to make Europe more representative of its citizens. The paper suggests that "the best way of ensuring that Europe is brought closer to its people is to provide for a stronger European Parliament. Until that is done, there is very little chance of a truly pan-European party system developing and, with that, a European level of debate. More sessions of the European Council should be open to the cameras and the public. And, most importantly, there should be a much stronger formal commitment to the principle of subsidiarity, with more decision making devolved to national, regional, and local levels."


In "The Wall Street Journal Europe," staff columnist Robert Pollock says that forceful incentives are the best way to deal with hostile regimes and their leaders. He says that "a U.S.-led decade of appeasement" led to what he calls "terrorists" being "installed in the governments of Palestine, Northern Ireland, and Sierra Leone, and butchers like Saddam Hussein, Slobodan Milosevic, and Kim Jong Il [using] negotiations as cover for the pursuit of aggressive aims."

Pollock continues: "[While] history affords numerous examples of force successfully solving the problem of terrorists, rebels, or rogue states, there are scarcely any examples of agreements with undefeated belligerents that stand the test of time. Even in cases where there are legitimate complaints of injustice -- say the Israeli occupation of the West Bank -- governments would be best advised not to negotiate under fire. Saudi Arabia's latest proposal to normalize Arab relations with Israel [would] amount to just one more tenuous deal reached at gunpoint."

But, he says, "terrorists do respond to incentives." If the world's governments can seem to mean it when they say they will not negotiate, "they should have less to fear in the future. No more peace processes, please," he concludes.


An editorial in "The New York Times" today says the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush and the government of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon should support suggestions put forth by Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah for a Middle East peace settlement. Abdullah proposes a normalization of relations between all Arab states and Israel in exchange for an Israeli withdrawal from occupied territories to the borders laid out before the 1967 war.

"With the Oslo agreements in tatters and Yasser Arafat now embracing Prince Abdullah's proposal, the Saudi leader's remarks are the closest thing to a peace plan now circulating." But even if there is eventual widespread support for the Saudi initiative, the editorial says, "many formidable obstacles remain. The most difficult is to contain the violence that has taken hold during the past 17 months. [It] is hard to talk about peace and diplomatic normalization with deadly hatreds on daily display."

The editorial continues: "Assuming the violence can be reduced enough for negotiations to begin, peace talks along the lines Prince Abdullah suggests would be sure to set off bitter arguments in Israel about withdrawing Jewish settlers. [A] substantial evacuation of West Bank settlements would be required." The editorial suggests that Israel's Sharon should "declare his willingness to begin discussions on the basis of the prince's suggestions, leaving crucial territorial and security details to be worked out by Israeli and Palestinian negotiators."


In the "Sueddeutsche Zeitung," Thorsten Schmitz also comments on the latest Saudi Arabian proposal for a settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Schmitz says Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah's plan came as such a surprise to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon that he needed a week to make an official reply. Whereas the U.S. and EU regard the plan as a "genuine option" for ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Sharon feels pressured by the initiative, considering the opposition he is bound to encounter from Israeli ultraorthodox parties.

The suggestion in itself is nothing new, Schmitz says, but it is novel in the sense that it was put forward by Saudi Arabia, which fears an uprising in Arab states. "The more intense the escalation of violence in the Middle East, the more difficult for the moderate Arab states to convince their people of the need to cooperate with the U.S."

At the forthcoming March meeting of the Arab League countries in Beirut, Schmitz says Abdullah's plan should counterbalance the U.S.'s unilateral support of Israel against the Palestinian intifada. Schmitz says it is clear that sooner or later Israel will have to withdraw its settlers from the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Even in Israel, there is a growing tendency to condemn Sharon's military strategy. Opposition leaders in Israel are reacting positively to the Saudi plan. Schmitz writes, "They are observing Sharon's sinking ship and are trying hard to trim the Labor Party for new elections."

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