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Western Press Review: Antiwar Protests, Libya's Human Rights Record, And Martin Luther King Jr.

Prague, 20 January 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Western press commentators and editorial writers today focus on the anti-Iraq-war protests, Libya's new role in safeguarding human rights, the sometimes difficult relationship between France and Germany, and the Martin Luther King Day holiday in the United States.


"The New York Times," in an editorial, looks at this weekend's antiwar protests in the United States. It commends the protesters and writes, "A largely missing ingredient in the nascent debate about invading Iraq showed up on the streets of major cities over the weekend as crowds of peaceable protesters marched in a demand to be heard."

The editorial says the protesters represent "what appears to be a large segment of the American public that remains unconvinced that the Iraqi threat warrants the use of military force at this juncture."

The paper warns that if the protests continue and grow, then "Mr. Bush and his war cabinet would be wise to see the demonstrators as a clear sign that noticeable numbers of Americans no longer feel obliged to salute the administration's plans because of the shock of 11 September and that many harbor serious doubts about his march toward war."


The "Los Angeles Times" takes up the issue of Libya this week assuming the chairmanship of the UN Commission on Human Rights in Geneva, the world's foremost human rights body.

In an editorial, it writes: "It sounds like a punch line [to a joke], but unfortunately it isn't. As of today, Najat Hajjaji, who represents Moammar Ghadafi's Libya, is chairwoman of the United Nations Human Rights Commission."

The paper adds: "Perhaps Libya's contact with the UN body will improve human rights for Libyans. But in the future, the United Nations should add a requirement that the commission leader's nation possess a decent record of respecting human rights."

The paper notes that the "United Nations itself in the mid-1990s accused Libyan security forces of executing people considered opponents of the regime." And "it was only two years ago that a Scottish appeals court upheld the life sentence of a Libyan agent found guilty of placing a bomb aboard a Pan Am plane that crashed over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988, killing 270 people."

It concludes: "Hajjaji is the wrong person for the job because she represents a country whose record on human rights is seriously flawed. The United Nations owes it to the commission's other members to reassess its method of choosing leaders."


"The New York Times," in an editorial, picks up the theme of nuclear nonproliferation, pointing to the present danger in North Korea and Iraq. It says the two cases highlight the need for a more comprehensive approach to the spread of nuclear weapons.

"Failure to address this problem more intelligently could mean waking up 10 years from now to discover a half-dozen or more new states with nuclear weapons, including some in the world's most volatile and economically sensitive regions."

The editorial says the Bush administration seems more interested in weakening than reinforcing the two main international agreements intended to rein in nuclear weapons building: the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. "Neither [treaty] is perfect, but they are useful tools that could be made more effective through strong U.S. support."

The paper says that while the administration's responses to Iraq and North Korea have differed, one unifying thread is the effort to mobilize international pressure for both countries' nuclear disarmament. "President [Bush] could make a far more powerful case in this and future crises if he made America once again a strong and consistent supporter of international arms control treaties."


"The Irish Times" today looks at the often precarious nature of Franco-German relations on the eve of the 40th anniversary this week of the Elysee Treaty, which institutionalized the modern relationship between the two.

Correspondent Derek Scally writes from Berlin, "Like a long-term marriage, [the relationship between France and Germany] has experienced its ups and downs; recently it has been more of the latter." He continues: "But, as any marriage counsellor will tell you, the key to rescuing a foundering marriage is to want to save it. That's what the French and German leaders hope to do [when] they mark the signing of the Elysee Treaty by signing a declaration of their own, presenting a joint vision of the future of Europe."

Scally says, however, the two nations still remain far apart culturally -- and often harbor distorted and dated views of the other.

He writes that while Germans tend to love France for its culture, food, and confidence, "for some Germans, French self-confidence and national pride tread a fine line and often tip over into the cliche of French arrogance."

Scally writes that the French, on the other hand, cannot understand Germans' persisting and pervasive guilt over World War II. "This guilt causes an imbalance in the Franco-German axis and affects how the French see their neighbors."

The thrust of the article is that any agreement will have a hard time overcoming these preconceptions.


"The New York Times" marks the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday today in the United States and notes this is only the 17th time that America has celebrated the holiday, in remembrance of the black civil rights leader who was assassinated in 1968.

The paper says: "Perhaps in a hundred years, this will be just another holiday, a day commemorating a man who changed the world in ways that will be taken for granted. But there is no taking those changes for granted yet, for civil rights are still a patchwork."

The paper, in making the case that racial discrimination still exists in the U.S., notes that "perhaps someday" it will seem astonishing that one set of humans suppressed another set of humans because of skin color.

The editorial concludes: "Of all the holidays in the calendar, perhaps only this one still rings with the activism its namesake embodied in his own life. It's an activism that every American can take to heart, for the simple reason that the progress of American freedom will not be complete until every American is equally free."


Britain's "The Independent" newspaper looks at the weapons inspections now going on in Iraq. The paper posits that if the inspections do not soon uncover a "smoking gun" -- in other words, firm proof of an active nuclear, biological or chemical weapons program -- the UN will face a difficult choice. It must then decide what the purpose of its inspection regime is. On this question, the paper says, "a chasm is opening up between Mr. [Hans] Blix [the chief weapons inspector], and [U.S.] President [George W.] Bush."

The paper says: "For Mr. Bush, the purpose of inspection is to say 'yes' or 'no' to invasion, with the outcome heavily prejudged. For Mr. Blix, on the other hand, speaking yesterday as he arrived in Baghdad, inspection is a 'process' that is the 'peaceful alternative' to war."

The paper says Blix's view is "surely the position around which the world should unite. Whatever Saddam's intentions, ambitions and evasions, he would find it virtually impossible to build a nuclear device while the white jeeps and helicopters of the UN inspectors have free access anywhere in his country. Chemical and biological weapons manufacture may be slightly easier, but still difficult."

The editorial concludes that "containing Saddam indefinitely would hardly be a happy outcome.... But maintaining an aggressive inspection regime for the foreseeable future is preferable to war."


A humorous editorial in today's "Sueddeutsche Zeitung" discusses Germany's vacillating attitude toward participation in a war with Iraq. "Gone are the days when the country was under the spell of a hit pop song -- 'Ein Bisschen Frieden' -- calling for a 'little peace.'" The paper says these days -- given Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's Iraq policies -- a song called "A Little War" might be more appropriate.

The paper notes that despite an election promise last year by Schroeder that the government would not participate in a war in Iraq, it now seems inevitable that Germany will contribute in some way.

The paper writes that ultimately it is in Germany's interests to contribute. It will have to protect U.S. installations on its territory. And it is inevitable that Germany must use planes for medical purposes to save the wounded.

As war becomes ever more imminent, the commentary concludes, the credibility of German government promises become ever weaker.


The British paper "The Guardian" takes British Prime Minister Tony Blair to task for his apparent inability to decide when to hold a referendum on the U.K. adopting the euro.

The official word on whether a referendum will be held this year is not expected until June, but the paper says the decision by the Blair government is likely to be "not yet."

This is typical for Blair, the paper says: "Not this year but next, is the line. So it has been with the euro ever since Tony Blair became Labour [Party] leader: 'Lord, make me virtuous, but not yet.' Adopting the euro has always been something to which Mr. Blair is passionately committed, but it is always going to happen tomorrow, and tomorrow never comes."

The paper says this delay has economic and political costs for the U.K.: "The fact is that joining the euro is overwhelmingly in the national interest: economically, politically and culturally. Joining will in itself solve most of the problems of convergence about which the Treasury is fussing. And not joining is expensive. Every year that euro-zone companies accrue the economies of scale of the consolidating single market is a year of relative disadvantage to British companies."

Ultimately, the paper hints that the euro referendum is a character issue for the British prime minister: "There is never going to be an ideal time to hold a referendum, and there is always a risk that it will go against joining. But a brave leader who believes it to be in his country's interest cannot take the easy option every year."

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

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    Mark Baker

    Mark Baker is a freelance journalist and travel writer based in Prague. He has written guidebooks and articles for Lonely Planet, Frommer’s, and Fodor’s, and his articles have also appeared in National Geographic Traveler and The Wall Street Journal, among other publications.