Published on Sunday, September 8, 2002 by the Associated Press
U.N. Rights Chief Blasts Terror War
by Clare Nullis
Departing U.N. human rights chief Mary Robinson, in a bleak assessment of the state of human rights, accused governments of hiding behind the ongoing war on terrorism to trample civil liberties and crush troublesome opponents.
"Suddenly the T-word is used all the time," Robinson said, referring to terrorism. "And that's the problem."
The United States, Russia and China were among the nations she said were ignoring civil rights in the name of combating international terrorist groups.
"Everything is justified by that T-word," the 58-year-old former Irish president said in an interview with The Associated Press. "I hope that countries will put human rights back on the agenda because it tended to slip after September 11."
Robinson argued the Bush administration set the tone by holding detainees from Afghanistan without charge at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. She also criticized Washington's opposition to the new International Criminal Court.
"The world needs leadership in human rights and the United States could give great leadership. It's not giving it at the moment, unfortunately," said Robinson, who leaves her post Wednesday.
When Robinson took other governments to task for abuses in the post-Sept. 11 era, they often cited the United States as an example in arguing that human rights standards have changed, she said.
"And I've had to say the standards have not changed," Robinson said.
"The United States must be seen to fully uphold international human rights and humanitarian standards. The attacks on New York didn't just kill many innocent people -- they were an attack on freedom and democracy, and we must uphold these standards. And we can do that and effectively combat terrorism."
Robinson said a number of countries were using the excuse of fighting terrorism to clamp down on legitimate opposition and curtail freedom of expression. She singled out Russian military operations in the restive republic of Chechnya and China's clampdowns on Muslim Uigurs and in Tibet.
It was Robinson's willingness to use her office as U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights to criticize such big powers that made her a darling of activists like Amnesty International. But it ultimately caused her downfall.
Robinson initially wanted to quit last year at the end of her four-year term, saying she was frustrated by a lack of funding. She was persuaded by U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan to stay an additional year, then she let it be known she was willing to remain in office until 2005.
That offer was declined, diplomats have said, because of U.S. annoyance at her criticism of the Guantanamo detention camp and her perceived anti-Israel stance, and anger in Moscow over her persistent clamoring for an inquiry into the suppression of Chechen rebels.
"I do most of the work constructively, diplomatically ... but there are times when there must be a voice in the United Nations for the victims of violations," Robinson said.
One of Robinson's last visits was to China, where she said she had mixed feelings.
On the one hand, she said, China has made big strides in technical programs to educate police, prison officers and judges about human rights treaties.
"But on the side of the reality of human rights, I'm very worried," she said, citing recent arrests of labor leaders to quell unrest, the detention of a well-known AIDS activist and the continuing widespread use of the death penalty.
Despite her gloomy overall assessment, Robinson said she took heart from her perception that human rights are being increasingly accepted as a fundamental part of development.
Asked what she considered the worst human rights violation, she said, "Extreme poverty." She said the United States, in particular, needs to show more recognition of economic and social rights.
Robinson said she felt no bitterness at being eased out, saying she will be campaigning for a "more ethical globalization and a fairer world." She also wants to use her contacts to tap universities and foundations for more resources to promote human rights in developing countries.
Robinson said she was confident that her successor, Sergio Vieira de Mello, a Brazilian diplomat who headed the interim U.N. administration in East Timor, is capable and committed.
And she offers him one bit of advice given to her by an Irish poet friend: "If you become too popular in that job, you're probably not doing a good job."
© 2002 The Associated Press