Human rights advocates fear effects of terrorism fight

U.N. commission hears concerns about abuse

March 24, 2002|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

GENEVA - One year ago, terrorism was barely noted by officials from the 53 countries who gather here annually for the Commission on Human Rights. But as the main United Nations rights body opened its review this year, terrorism was reshaping the debate.

That worries rights campaigners, some of whom say that invoking the specter of terrorism allows countries with questionable records to escape condemnation.

"One cannot pick and choose countries where abuses will be allowed to go ignored simply because they're being committed by allies in the fight against terrorism," said Irene Kahn, secretary-general of Amnesty International. "If this happens, the whole notion of human rights as a global standard is damaged."

A debate over terrorism and human rights was broached at the opening session this week, when Mary Robinson, the U.N. human rights commissioner, noted that "international human rights are at some risk of being undermined" in the aftermath of Sept. 11. Measures to thwart terrorism risk violating fundamental rights such as a fair trial, she said.

Many European countries have emphasized that counterterrorism measures should not undercut basic rights.

"There is no trade-off between effective action and the protection of human rights," Anna Lindh, Sweden's foreign minister, told the commission. "On the contrary, respect for human rights, democracy and social justice contribute to global stability and prevent acts of terrorism."

The United States, voted off the commission last year and attending as an observer, took public issue with the contention that fighting terrorism is tied to correcting problems like poverty and discrimination. Both Robinson and Ruud Lubbers, the U.N. high commissioner for refugees, have questioned whether the battle against terrorism can be won without more economic development.

The ambivalence of many countries surfaced when an effort to have a special one-day session to examine the question of terrorism and human rights died for lack of support. Rights campaigners believe the session could have addressed whether the rights issue is fading in international importance as countries create "shadow" justice systems with measures that restrict traditional rights.

Along with other organizations, Amnesty International has been critical of the U.S. plan to try detainees in military tribunals; it reported last week that about 1,100 people had been detained in the United States without charges. An independent report released Friday by the group also accused China of using anti-terrorism as an excuse to crack down on its Muslim Uighur minority.

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