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A broader coalition for human rights

In the last days of 2005, leading thinkers and scholars from around the world share their fears, hopes and expectations of 2006. As Isabel Hilton asks: What does 2006 have in store? (Part one)

My hope for 2006 is that the damage done to human rights by the "war on terror" be reversed. In 2005, it was confirmed that the prison at Guantánamo Bay is only one in an archipelago of prison camps where fundamental rights are not respected. In Europe, alleged CIA prison camps and "rendition flights" caused an intense debate at the end of the year.

European governments have agreed a number of new laws and policy statements to combat terrorism. Such dreadful acts as the bombings in London and Madrid must be prevented, but there is too much secrecy in the negotiations, and too few guarantees for fundamental rights. Independent experts have warned of the consequences for civil liberties of the hunt for suspected terrorists.

There is a sharp contrast between today and the proud statements made in December 2000 when European Union member-states signed the non-binding EU Charter of Fundamental Rights. The German foreign minister Joschka Fischer had argued that the charter should be legally binding. Individual citizens will be subject to more and more EU legislation, he argued. They will need legal protection for their rights.

His colleagues from other member states were sceptical. But Joschka Fischer was right. A binding charter would give citizens more protection against the plethora of new EU legislation aimed at combating crime in general, and terrorism in particular.

The charter was included in the proposed EU constitution, which now is in limbo, but a number of measures could be still taken to strengthen citizens’ rights. Better procedural rights of suspects in criminal investigations, for instance, would be a valuable measure, but the EU action on this has taken significantly longer to conclude than have a large number of tougher laws.

A more stringent directive on protection of personal data, increased transparency, regular reviews of member-states’ respect for human rights, laws on genetic integrity, and an EU ratification of the European Convention on Human Rights are other important measures the EU could take. Human rights must also regain its importance in European foreign policy. Autocratic leaders in Moscow and Beijing are using the arguments from the "war on terror" as a pretext for the repression of peaceful protests.

The consequences affect us all. When free trade unions are hunted down in China, the chances of a socially acceptable globalization are reduced. When green activists are threatened and imprisoned in Russia, prospects for environmental improvements everywhere are affected. Without a more democratic Russia and China, there will not be enough progress in global negotiations on socially acceptable trade and on climate change.

Around the world, trade unionists, environmental activists and human rights organisations are making great efforts. But there is a need for better coordination, for making human rights a cornerstone also in national debates and elections. There is a clear link between human rights in different parts of the world, between fair wages and surveillance of organisations in the name of fighting terrorism, between environmental hazards and the freedom of speech. Defending human rights in the " war on terror" must be a task also for trade unions and other social movements.

Stronger efforts to build such a broad coalition for human rights would be my wish for 2006.

About the author

Mats Engström is a writer and journalist. He was editorial writer at the Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet for seven years, and has written extensively on European affairs for Swedish and other publications. He has also held various positions in the Swedish government services, including special advisor and deputy state secretary to Anna Lindh from 1994-2001. His blog is here

 


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