U.N. Rights Chief Blasts Terror War
By CLARE NULLIS
GENEVA (AP - 7 Sept) - 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
"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 ( news - web sites) 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 ( news - web sites) 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 ( news - web sites) 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 ( news - web
sites) for the victims of violations," Robinson said.
One of Robinson's last visits was to China, where she said she had mixed
On the one hand, she said, China has made big strides in technical
programs to educate police, prison officers and judges about human
"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 ( news - web sites) 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 ( news - web sites) diplomat who headed the interim
U.N. administration in East Timor ( news - web sites), is capable and
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."