Too much torture, too few liberties

As we stand united to take action against terrorism, let us remember that the human rights we’re defending are universal… Widespread violations of human rights in any state are a danger signal. They warn us that conflict is on the horizon. These were some of the remarks made by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan in a statement released in view of yesterday’s Human Rights Day, a day which is certainly no occasion for celebration. The list of human rights violations grew longer this year as armed conflicts, terrorism, torture and discrimination were the rule in numerous countries worldwide. Few countries can claim an impeccable human rights record, whether in the Balkans or the Middle East, Africa or Asia, Europe or the Americas. Human rights reports filed by independent non-governmental organizations and agencies of the United Nations are an indisputable record of gross atrocities and an utter disregard for basic human rights. Even industrialized countries – the self-appointed defenders of human rights worldwide – have been named in several reports by human rights organizations who accuse them, among other things, of exercising selective impunity. Several examples were cited in Europe. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the chief regional organization with a mandate to strengthen human rights, emphasized economic and security cooperation instead, an approach that failed to yield any progress on human rights, Human Rights Watch (HRW) notes in its annual report this year. OSCE missions in Central Asia did not engage in regular, frank, public reporting on the human rights situation in the region; this was a glaring failure, particularly when juxtaposed against the massive and laudable public documentation and reporting effort undertaken in Kosovo. Human rights are not only violated in time of war, but also during peace, in the form of discrimination, racism and xenophobic actions. One minority group – possibly more so than any other – that continues to be the subject of discrimination and harassment in numerous countries is the Roma people. Roma continued to suffer shocking levels of harassment, violent attacks, and malicious discrimination in Croatia, Hungary, Romania, the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Serbia, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and Slovakia, marring much of the region’s record of progress on other human rights issues, HRW reports. According to the rights group, law enforcement authorities in all of these countries typically did not investigate violent attacks on Roma. Moreover, Roma children often lacked access to education in Croatia, and in the Czech Republic they were disproportionally channeled into classes for the mentally disabled. Greece’s own misdeeds Greece’s record with respect to the Roma was no better than the other countries in the region, and is one of the main issues in its annual human rights record. Municipalities in Serbia, Croatia, Hungary and Greece forced Roma to abandon their homes, usually citing spurious zoning laws, HRW notes. Roma were evicted from their homes in Athens to clear land for facilities for the 2004 Olympics. In July, a municipal bulldozer, accompanied by the mayor and police, demolished numerous Roma huts in the Athens Aspropyrgos suburb. Greek and Albanian Roma families in the settlement situated on a garbage dump were ordered to leave within three days. Selective impunity was also found by the rights group in cases of abuse of power by Greek police officers who used violence against Roma. In March, a Salonica court dismissed charges against three police officers for the April 1998 killing of Angelos Celal, holding that the officers had acted in legitimate self-defense. Celal was unarmed and shot from behind, HRW reports. But the mistreatment of and discrimination against Roma in Greece has gone beyond the report by Human Rights Watch, and into a Geneva room of the United Nations Commission Against Torture, where Greece attempted to explain its actions. Standing before the UN committee on the afternoon of May 3, 2001, Greek delegates defended police raids at Roma camps, saying that Roma often lived in isolated tent camps where they kept arms and dealt in drugs. That situation obliged police to intervene according to a ‘plan,’ with the use of special forces and depending on the danger the police personnel faced each time, delegates noted. The police operations took place in specific regions because of increased criminality or illegal immigration there, as well as drug and weapon trafficking. There was no racial motivation behind the police operations. In spite of these explanations, the committee was not convinced of the necessity of using force on unarmed populations, a point it made clear in its recommendations six days later. The committee said that although domestic legislation provided a satisfactory framework for protecting human rights in general… it was concerned that there was evidence that police sometimes used excessive or unjustifiable force in carrying out their duties, particularly when dealing with ethnic and national minorities. Prison overcrowding Two other issues that appear in almost every annual rights report on Greece are the conditions at detention centers and prison facilities, and religious freedom. Overcrowding in Greek prisons was the second most important issue the the Greek delegation had to face in its presentation before the UN committee. The number of detainees in Greek prisons stood at 8,306 although the capacity of the institutions was 5,004 inmates, the delegation noted. In order to reduce overcrowding in prisons, suspension of sentences under two or three years for first offenders was envisaged as an alternative measure, among others. According to the delegates, the problem of overcrowding was particularly felt at the detention center in the greater Athens area to which the majority of detainees were transferred from all over Greece before they were deported. In its turn, the committee expressed concern about the harsh conditions in general, and in particular, the long-term detention of undocumented migrants and asylum seekers awaiting deportation in police stations without adequate facilities; about the severe overcrowding in prisons which aggravated the already substandard material conditions and which might contribute to inter-prisoner violence. The committee recommended that urgent measures be taken to improve the conditions in police stations and prisons. The last issue concerning Greece’s human rights record is religious freedom, which, according to a US State Department report released this year, saw a general improvement, based on reports by the representatives of religious minorities in the country. Overall, leaders of minority religions noted a general improvement in government tolerance during the period covered by this report, citing fewer detentions for proselytizing; the conscientious objector law; and an effective, well-run Ombudsman’s office, which successfully handled an increasing number of cases, the report noted. Although no major incidents were recorded by the report, non-Orthodox groups sometimes faced administrative obstacles or encountered legal restrictions on religious practice, which was still a major improvement on earlier reports.