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Western Press Review: Constitutional Controversy, From The EU To Afghanistan; Human Rights In Iran; Kosovo

Prague, 18 December 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Several items in the press today take a look at attempts to negotiate and ratify new constitutions, from Afghanistan to the European Union. We also take a look at some of the persistent troubles in Kosovo, protecting human rights in Iran, and the controversy over wearing "overt" religious symbols in secular institutions in France.


An analysis by "Jane's Intelligence Digest" takes a look at discussions under way in Afghanistan's Loya Jirga, or grand assembly, over a draft constitution. The assembly meeting is providing "a rare opportunity to rebuild and stabilize the political system," says the analysis. The 160-article draft constitution "attempts to strike a balance between the competing interests of various ethnic groups, as well as a range of rival ideologies. [It] ensures the equality of all Afghans, but does not explicitly mention equal rights for women. Most importantly, the new constitution would provide sweeping powers for the president," which could be a "crucial" step toward stabilizing the country.

Nevertheless, there remain "very substantial disagreements over almost every major issue," from the powers granted the president, to the official status of Islam, to the legal rights of women and minorities. So far, Transitional Authority Chairman Hamid Karzai has done well with the political opposition, the analysis says. He has "managed the impressive task of keeping many disparate groups within his government," and key Islamic leaders now seem ready to accept many of the constitution's major provisions. This "apparent willingness of rival groups to compromise reflects a growing recognition among Afghan leaders -- both at central and regional levels -- that the maintenance of political stability is imperative for both their own and the country's survival."


A "Chicago Tribune" editorial also takes a look at recent attempts to draft a new constitution, from Afghanistan to Iraq to the European Union. EU talks last weekend collapsed after nations could not agree on how best to apportion power between large and small states under a draft constitution.

The editorial says at the heart of all of these contentious constitutional discussions "are fundamental questions about power, religion and protection. How do you balance power between big states and small? How powerful should the president be? How much power should reside in the central government? How can the rights of the minority be protected from the will of the majority? Should religion be explicitly mentioned in the constitution?"

The paper says it's "not surprising that such questions would prove vexing to the nation-builders in Iraq and Afghanistan." Much discussion has centered around whether a constitution can successfully bring unity and stability to both nations as they form new democratic governments. But it certainly "says something that even the well-established nations of Europe are frustrated" by constitutional efforts, says the paper. Pervasive rifts and an "overriding sense of mistrust" have plagued EU negotiations. While the goal of European integration was to protect its nations "from the overwhelming economic and political power of the U.S., they seem preoccupied with how to protect themselves from each other."


Writing in the monthly "Le Monde Diplomatique," Jean-Arnault Derens discusses what he calls the "terrible plight of 80,000 Serbs in Kosovo" and the daily violence and retaliatory discrimination that prevails in the UN-administered province. Much of Kosovo's Serbian population lives in ghettos, are restricted from moving freely throughout the territory, and continue to be regarded as war criminals or treated as second-class citizens.

Yet Kosovo's politicians are afraid to speak out against this injustice. "The political price of such a daring move would probably be too high," Derens says. "The embryonic civil society developed in Kosovo in the 1990s is also silent. Since 1999 the rare moves to encourage dialogue between different communities in Kosovo have been made by outsiders and have met with little public response."

Kosovo has been a UN protectorate since the NATO-led bombing of Serbia in 1999, which aimed to put an end to Belgrade's attempted expulsion of the province's ethnic Albanian majority. But corruption scandals, "some of them at the highest level, have damaged the reputation of the international administration." Organized crime continues to rise, signifying "another serious failure by the UN." Now more than ever, Derens says, Kosovo "is at the heart of the European traffic in drugs and people."

The prospect of European membership for Kosovo, discussed at the EU's Thessaloniki summit in June, could "gradually resolve territorial claims and conflicts and mark a new era of peace in the region." But Derens notes that the EU has yet to set a real timetable for Kosovo's integration.


Writing in the "Sueddeutsche Zeitung," Gerd Kroenicke says rarely has there been such a strong reaction in France to a religious matter, following a decision to prohibit the wearing of overt religious symbols -- such as crucifixes, Islamic head coverings, and Jewish skullcaps -- in schools and to regulate them in the workplace.

French President Jacques Chirac emphasized in his televised national address yesterday the need to reaffirm France's secular foundations, calling the move necessary and "not negotiable." Kroenicke says it is another attempt at integrating the Catholic and Muslim populations. But with this measure, he says Chirac "is balancing on a fine edge." If Muslim children are prevented from going to secular schools, this will only be a victory for Islamic fundamentalists. And it may even fuel their ability to prevent girls from receiving an education.

Chirac has taken a gamble in his support for the measure. The majority of members of the teachers' trade union want to prevent "the stigmatization of a section of the population." Yet Kroenicke expresses the hope that "Chirac's decision will clarify the issue," and adds that "the unity and equality of all Frenchmen must not be jeopardized."


On the other hand, a commentary in the "Neue Zuercher Zeitung" condemns French government attempts to introduce centralized rules for wearing religious symbols because it thinks traditional secular values are also being jeopardized. Such a repressive measure is hardly a fitting way to integrate young Muslims into society, the paper says. Creating such a strict divide between state and religion will not persuade them to take part in secular pursuits. Secularism itself is based on tolerance. And when a majority forces its way of life on a minority, it is bound to give rise to the very opposite effect it intended.


Elahe Sharifpour-Hicks, formerly of Human Rights Watch, writes a contribution to the "Los Angeles Times" in which she says reformist leaders in Iran and elsewhere in the Muslim world are not doing enough to advance the cause of human rights in their countries.

Three years ago, Iran's reformist president, Mohammad Khatami, addressed the United Nations. Many expected him to attempt to bridge the gap between Iran and much of the Western world, perhaps ushering in "a new era of understanding."

But Sharifpour-Hicks says, "Instead, [Khatami] spoke in platitudes, [calling] Islam a religion of peace, [recalling] Iran's great humanistic civilization and avoiding any acknowledgment that Iran had fallen far short of these high ideals in its recent history."

But the author says it "misses the point to proclaim [that] Islam is compatible with human rights. Of course it is, if Muslims choose to make it so." The problem in Iran is that the government "cynically exploits Islam to legitimize its authoritarian rule and to discredit those who dare to challenge it."

She says: "If human rights and democracy are to flourish in Iran and the Muslim world, [then] Iranian reform leaders, be they presidents or human rights lawyers, must show greater candor when they are on the global stage and, indeed, wherever they go.

"Merely repeating that Islam and human rights are not contradictory does not bring about progress," she says. "At worst, it provides another opportunity for Iran's leaders to evade accountability for their violations of human rights by agreeing in theory while continuing to violate rights in practice."


An editorial in "The Washington Times" says the failure of EU constitutional talks last week "made glaringly clear how discordant Europe remains on key issues and how much damage France and Germany have caused to their own Euro-integrationist cause."

The fierce fight over apportioning voting rights between large and small states in the EU -- which pitted Poland and Spain against EU population powerhouses France and Germany -- served to emphasize "the deep ambivalence within Europe about the surrender of national sovereignty [and] apprehension over how France and Germany would wield greater power" in the future. Many Europeans were "put off" by Paris and Berlin's recent successful bid to -- once again -- avoid sanctions, despite breaking the budget-deficit rules of the EU stability pact for the past several years.

The collapse of constitutional talks "will buy time for national sovereignty in Europe and, therefore, democracy," the paper says. "For at least the coming months, the European Union's monolithic bureaucracy won't overshadow the continent's representative governments."


Writing in the "Financial Times," columnist Quentin Peel says the "contest for power and a confrontation over cash" at the EU summit last week "bodes ill for the enlarged EU." He says if the union "is going to survive and prosper, it can do so only on the basis of solidarity. The rich must help the poor, as they have done so successfully [in] the cases of Ireland, Greece, Spain and Portugal. All have enjoyed big EU subsidies, which have helped them to catch up. The same benefits must now be offered to the new members."

Such political solidarity is also the answer to the wrangling between larger and smaller states over voting rights and influence within the EU. Divisions can be healed by a shared recognition "that the combined EU provides a net benefit for all, for which it is worth sacrificing a little national sovereignty. Both big and small have to do it," Peel says.

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