Published on Monday, June 10, 2002 by the Inter Press Service
U.N. Official Seeks Scrutiny of Anti-Terrorism Measures
by Thalif Deen
UNITED NATIONS -- The highest ranking UN human rights official is calling for an independent expert or a new international body to monitor the impact of anti-terrorism measures on human rights worldwide.
"My office is flooded with calls from human rights defenders around the world, drawing attention to new restrictions and oppressive measures," said Mary Robinson, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and a former president of Ireland.
Robinson, who is leaving her job in September this year, said several governments -- which she declined to name -- have instituted repressive measures in the name of fighting terrorism.
"It is essential that actions taken by member states to combat terrorism be in conformity with international human rights standards," she said.
Robinson said she regretted there is no international institution to assess whether measures taken by member states to combat terrorism violate human rights standards that those states have accepted.
She said a new Counter Terrorism Committee created by the UN Security Council late last year does not believe it has a mandate to monitor these issues.
"The great concern now is that where mature democracies blur the lines or set a bad example, undemocratic regimes consider they are given a green light to pursue repressive policies, secure in the belief that any excesses will be ignored," she added.
Several nations, particularly the United States, Britain, Germany and Canada, along with countries such as Egypt, Russia and Uzbekistan, have introduced far-reaching antiterrorism measures, some of which analysts, activists, and officials here have deemed in violation of basic human rights.
These include detention of non-citizens, tightening of immigration laws, electronic surveillance without court order, deportation of those overstaying their visas, and monitoring of mail and communications between prisoners and attorneys.
According to Robinson, the new restrictive measures also cover privacy rights, fair trial, the right to seek asylum, political participation, freedom of expression and peaceful assembly.
She said the post-Sep.11 environment "is reinforcing a fortress mentality within Europe" as controls are tightened and there is a coarsening of debate and of language used in speaking of asylum seekers and immigrants.
Joanna Weschler of the New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) told IPS that at the April session of the UN Commission on Human Rights in Geneva, there was an attempt to initiate a resolution to monitor these new restrictive measures.
The proposed resolution, co-sponsored by Mexico and several European nations, was withdrawn at the closing stages of the session because of what she termed "unacceptable" amendments attached to it.
Although the resolution fell short of calling for the appointment of an independent expert to oversee these new antiterrorism measures, it was supported by human rights activists and non-governmental organizations, including HRW, Weschler said.
She also said that one of the reasons for the non-adoption of the resolution was opposition by member states including the United States, India, Pakistan, Algeria, and Saudi Arabia.
Robinson said that although there were "strong statements" during the Commission meeting, "there were troubling signs as well."
"The Commission chose not to take specific action or undertake any new initiatives to monitor the impact of antiterrorism measures on human rights," she added.
Last month, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan warned the 189 member states that there should be no trade-off between the fight against terrorism and the protection of human rights.
Although Annan refused to identify countries by name, he said that the antiterrorism measures now being adopted by some countries should "not unduly curtail human rights or give others a pretext to do so."
Since Sep. 11, the United States has detained more than 1,000 people, largely Muslims or those of Middle Eastern origin, in its ongoing investigation of the terrorist attacks.
Several human rights organizations have complained that the government's refusal to disclose the identities of many of those detained or to specify charges, are violations of basic human rights.
In January, HRW said that the U.S.-led anti-terrorist campaign "is inspiring opportunistic attacks on civil liberties around the world." Some countries such as Russia, Uzbekistan and Egypt, are using the war against terrorism to justify abusive military campaigns or crackdowns on domestic political opponents, it said.
"In the U.S. and Western Europe, measures designed to combat terrorism are threatening long-held human rights principles," HRW said.
In its annual report released in London last month, Amnesty International (AI) criticized the United States and Britain for undermining human rights in the fight against terrorism.
AI also listed several "significant human rights failings" by the United States, including authorization of military tribunals to try alleged terrorists; selective application of Geneva Convention guarantees for Taliban and al-Qaeda prisoners held at the UN naval base in Guantanamo Bay; and indefinite detention of foreigners held without charge or access to lawyers.
Copyright 2002 IPS