UNITED NATIONS - A senior UN official expressed
serious concern Tuesday over the erosion of human rights in the
wake of the Sep. 11 terrorist attacks on the United States.
Mary Robinson, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, told
delegates that some countries - which she refused to identify by
name - are introducing measures in apparent violation of core
human rights safeguards.
Non-violent activities are being considered as terrorism in some
countries while "excessive measures" are being taken to suppress
or restrict individual rights, Robinson said. These restrictive
measures cover rights to privacy, fair trial, asylum, political
participation, freedom of expression, and peaceful assembly.
"We should be mindful of such fundamental principles as the
presumption of innocence, non-discrimination and due process of
law," she said.
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, is a violation of basic human
The attacks apparently were masterminded by Saudi dissident Osama
bin Laden while living in exile in Afghanistan. U.S. officials
have said 19 hijackers, all of whom came from the Middle East,
carried them out.
Last month, the U.S. Congress passed legislation giving sweeping
powers to law enforcement officials, enabling them to conduct wire
taps, intercept e-mail, and monitor phone conversations of
suspected or potential terrorists.
Under the new law, immigrants also can be detained without charges -
but not indefinitely.
The U.S. Senate voted 98 to 1 in favor of the anti-terrorist
legislation while the House of Representatives voted 356 to 66.
Last month, U.S. President George W. Bush said his administration
also plans to tighten immigration controls in order to keep
potential terrorists from reaching the United States. The U.S.
also will crack down on foreign students who overstay their visas.
"We plan on making sure that if a person has applied for a student
visa, he actually goes to a college or university. And therefore,
we are going to start asking a lot of questions that heretofore
have not been asked," he said.
The Canadian government has introduced similarly stringent
Under the new laws, police and immigration authorities will be
given the power to compel testimony during investigations and
nullify the right to remain silent to avoid self-incrimination.
The Canadian government also is tightening its asylum and refugee
policies. Legal immigrants will be identified by a plastic card,
which they will be expected to carry at all times.
Simon Potter, a vice president of the Canadian Bar Association,
said the new laws are unprecedented in Canada.
"This new legislation has causes for concern," Potter said,
"because of the definition of what terrorist activities are, the
provision for preventative arrest, and the provision for forcing
people to testify even if they don't want to."
"It is disturbing to think that the police can arrest you and keep
you until they think you aren't going to be a menace any more," he
Robinson, who said all nations have contributed to common
international human rights standards, urged governments Tuesday to
''defend this common heritage."
"We should be careful to ensure that the right to privacy and the
freedoms of expression, assembly and movement are not
undermined,'' she added.
Robinson also decried the "worrying rise" in racial hatred
following the Sep. 11 terrorist attacks. "This is an issue where
real leadership is very much needed," she said.
She singled out Bush as being among world leaders who spoke out
publicly against racial profiling of Muslims and Arabs following
the terrorist attacks on New York and the Pentagon.
Robinson also said that governments, in their efforts to fight
terrorism, must avoid turning innocent people into victims of
"This requires that government action in this area be guided by
human rights principles", she stressed.
Human rights law wisely strikes a balance between the enjoyment of
freedoms and the legitimate concerns for national security, she
asserted, adding: "It requires that, in the exceptional
circumstances, the principles of necessity and proportionality
must be applied.''
Copyright © 2001 IPS-Inter Press Service