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rights under siege worldwide
Terrorism is a serious threat to our societies and way
of life. We must give top priority to combating it, but if we ignore or
undermine the protection of human rights in the process we shall endanger
the principles of humanity for which we are purportedly fighting.
To gain Russian support over Iraq and Iran, the Americans and the British
have downplayed Russian repression in Chechnya. Because they recognise
the growing power of the Chinese economy, they generally refrain from
criticising the Chinese. In Iran, the focus is on the country's nuclear
programme rather than on the students and other dissidents who are persecuted
by religious zealots.
Member governments of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations are reluctant
to take tough measures against the military despots in Myanmar. British
criticism of Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe is not backed up by international
action. In most Western democracies, there have been failures in upholding
In the United States, Attorney General John Ashcroft appears to be a neo-conservative
authoritarian who will go to the limits allowed by the US Constitution
as interpreted by the Supreme Court. The legal rights of citizens seem
threatened by some of the measures that he has introduced. Internees at
Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, have been denied access to lawyers and fair trials.
Their conditions of imprisonment appear to be highly restrictive.
The revelation that among the internees there are some adolescents has
surprised and appalled many observers. In Iraq it seems clear that US
forces have not done enough to restore law and order and the military
often seem to have been trigger-happy.
In Britain, Home Secretary David Blunkett has been criticised for his
attempt to influence the judges and to use Draconian measures against
refugees. British prisons are overcrowded and rehabilitation efforts are
inadequate. In the rest of Europe, the police have a reputation for being
highhanded and redress against the police is difficult to obtain. Italian
Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has persuaded Parliament that he should
be exempt from trial on serious charges while in office. French President
Jacques Chirac managed to brush aside complaints about improper behaviour
while he was mayor of Paris.
The maintenance of the death penalty in the US and in Japan is a real
cause for concern among human rights campaigners. The death penalty has
been abolished in European Union countries. There is no evidence that
it deters murderers, and there are real dangers that on occasion people
later proved to have been innocent have been executed.
The establishment of the International Criminal Court should help to ensure
that future despotic leaders are more circumspect in their behaviour,
but the US refusal to support the court and their efforts to ensure that
their nationals will not be subject to prosecution in the court has undermined
the value and prestige of the court.
Amnesty International is not popular with authoritarian politicians who
may have guilty consciences. But it and other organisations supporting
the victims of torture and the reform of prison conditions have an important
role in reminding all of us that human rights are being constantly impinged
even in purportedly democratic countries. Their reports deserve to be
taken seriously and given due publicity. We must also ensure that our
politicians are called to account and forced to take remedial measures
where necessary and appropriate.
Japanese politicians should take early steps to reform the Japanese prison
system, which is a shameful blot on Japan's reputation as an upholder
of human rights. Japanese prisons should be open to independent inspection.
Cortazzi writes for The Japan Times.