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2003 & Beyond: Human Rights Remained Under Attack, But Hopeful Signs Did Emerge

Torture, terrorism, arbitrary executions, civilians deliberately targeted in conflicts, governments eroding rights in the name of national security, or using the war on terrorism as an excuse to crack down on dissent. In terms of human rights, 2003 has been pretty bleak. But observers saw some bright spots, too -- and they're hopeful some of these positive signals will emerge even stronger next year.

Prague, 19 December 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Many of the issues that troubled human rights activists this year were nothing new -- they began shortly after the U.S. launched its war on terrorism following the attacks of 11 September 2001.

The continued detention by the United States of terrorist suspects at Guantanamo Bay without basic legal rights. Rights curbed in the name of national security. Central Asian repression committed under the euphemism of fighting terrorism. "In many ways, yes, the period from 11 September [2001] up until today has been very similar," says John Egenaes of Amnesty International, the global human rights campaigner. He says the three main human rights trends in 2003 were connected to the U.S.-led war on terrorism -- just as they were the year before.

First were what he calls directly connected violations. Both the United States and the United Kingdom, for example, continue to detain terrorist suspects indefinitely without trial -- the United States at its base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, the United Kingdom in mainland prisons. Not the most horrific human rights abuses, perhaps, but observers say the detentions send a dangerous signal that it's OK to push aside international law.

Then there are what Egenaes calls the "old repressions," dressed up in the language of the war on terrorism: "China and their repression of Uighurs of western China that had been an ongoing repression for many years but is now dressed up to be part of the same war on terror. The same is happening in Russia with the war in Chechnya, where once again it's a conflict that has been going on for some time but is now dressed up in this rhetoric."

Then there are the violations pushed off the agenda as the war on terrorism -- and in 2003, the war in Iraq -- attracted most of the attention.

Bertrand Ramcharan, the acting UN high commissioner for human rights, cites one example of this -- the 35 or so reports UN special rapporteurs write every year for the UN Commission on Human Rights, such as an August report condemning the Myanmar Army for rape and torture, among other abuses: "They sometimes make gruesome reading, and they may get attention in the countries that are mentioned -- perhaps they get attention in the Commission on Human Rights. But it bothers me that the shocking violations that are reported are ignored, by and large, and they're not given the publicity that they need."

If it was a bad year all around for human rights, some argue it was also a bad year for the UN commission itself -- the world's top human rights body. Its annual session was chaired by Libya, not known as one of the world's great human rights champions. And its members read like a "who's who" of violators -- Algeria, Zimbabwe, Cuba, and China. Doesn't it have a credibility problem?

"We have this very old political dilemma -- what is it that makes a body effective? Does it become effective by throwing out of its membership those who have problems? Or might a body retain some relevance by retaining some countries that have problems within its membership? There are no easy answers, but I'd say that yes, to Jane and Joe Public, I can understand they are troubled by this phenomenon of countries accused of gross violations being members of the commission. At the same time, in the real world, we have no choice but to work with the countries that have problems. There are difficult issues there, and I wrote a chapter of a book on the Commission. It said the commission mirrors the world 'warts and all,'" Ramcharan says.

But what of the news event of the year -- the war in Iraq?

Human Rights Watch has been critical of both the U.S.-led coalition and the army of the former Iraqi regime for causing unnecessary civilian deaths through inadequate precision -- or, in the case of the Iraqi military, by putting them deliberately in harm's way.

But Saddam Hussein is now gone, and as Human Rights Watch's Steve Crawshaw notes, that fact offers hope that the plight of ordinary Iraqis will improve: "The fact Saddam Hussein is no longer there ought to be a possibility of enormous steps forward, and it does give a large number of opportunities for changes for the better. What is worrying -- and this is a pattern we saw very clearly after the war in Afghanistan in 2001 -- is that potential opportunities are squandered by the failure to see society in the round, [and by the tendency] to see the military victory as the only real victory that counts and not really ensuring long-term justice."

Observers say 2003 had other bright spots.

The world's first permanent war crimes court came into being with the inaugural session of the International Criminal Court. It's expected to begin its first prosecutions next year, probably related to the war in Congo.

Crawshaw says the court's establishment sends an important message to the dictators of the future: "It sends an important message. In the past, people felt no one would be able to come and get them, and I think that leaders who feel their regime is able to torture and kill with impunity, somewhere in the back of their mind may now have the sense that one of these days the International Criminal Court may catch up with me. That should be seen as a great step forward. Unfortunately, the U.S. government is very suspicious of the court, it doesn't like the court, but it is getting stronger, and that's an important step."

Egenaes cites other positive developments this year. There was more and more criticism in the United States and United Kingdom, he says, of the trade-off between rights and security. The international community is finally beginning to address some old conflicts in Africa. And he says international law is coming back into fashion.

"I believe that the whole system of international law and international justice has taken a blow over the last couple of years, but I do believe it's coming back. For instance, with the arrest of Saddam Hussein, we've seen that most commentators have been calling for a fair trial and a punishment that stops before death, though we have the opposite also, of course. And we've see that people have been calling for justice rather than vengeance for someone who committed some of the worst crimes comprehensible. I do believe that is a positive trend," Egenaes says.