Rights defenders meet in Crete

Human rights advocates from around the world are gathering today on the Mediterranean island of Crete for a four-day meeting to assess the impact of the September 11 terror attacks in the United States on their work. The conference, titled «September 11 Aftershock: the Case of Human Rights Defenders,» will be held at the Orthodox Academy of Crete until Saturday, in cooperation with the Martin Ennals Foundation and the backing of the European Commission. Some 40 representatives of international bodies and human rights groups from over 30 countries, including Britain, China, France, Germany, Greece, Jordan, Malaysia, Russia, Turkey, the United States and Yugoslavia will attend the four-day meeting. The special representative of the UN secretary-general for human rights defenders, Hina Jilani, will also attend. «The aim of the conference is to have an honest and sincere discussion – that is why it will be held behind closed doors – but if there is a consensus on views, as these are people with long experience in human rights affairs, there could also be a list of recommendations at the end of the conference,» said Emmanouil Athanasiou, conference secretary. The human rights defenders and international experts are expected to engage in «damage control» but also to explore ways to promote and advance respect for human rights within the context of the fight against global terrorism. The indiscriminate labeling of any person opposing the status quo as «terrorist,» and the excessive restrictions on existing human rights in the name of counterterrorism measures, are just some of the issues that will be tackled during the meeting. The organizers, though, have noted that due to the political dimension of human rights issues, some countries decided not to take part in the conference. «Only four participants have informed us that they will not be attending for political reasons. These include representatives from Israel, Palestine and a couple more from Africa,» Athanasiou said. Post-Sept. 11 realities The four-day meeting of human rights advocates and international experts on Crete comes one year after the deadly terrorist attacks in the United States that claimed over 3,000 civilian lives and shocked the entire world. The attacks, in turn, triggered a unprecedented fight against terrorism on a global scale that led to the war in Afghanistan, resulting in numerous casualties, and the «secret arrest» of over 1,000 people in the United States. From Afghanistan to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and the streets of America, human rights defenders found themselves walking a thin line that appeared to become thinner by the day, as the images from the World Trade Center in New York and of the Pentagon in Washington, DC, were still vivid. New York-based Human Rights Watch released a 95-page report in August titled «Presumption of Guilt: Human Rights Abuses of Post-September 11 Detainees.» The report, a product of series of interviews with scores of current and former detainees and their attorneys, notes that «some 1,200 non-US citizens have been secretly arrested and incarcerated in connection with the September 11 investigation, although the government has not disclosed the exact number.» According to the report, the vast majority of the detainees are from Middle Eastern, South Asian, and North African countries. «Human Rights Watch found that the US government has held some detainees for prolonged periods without charges; impeded their access to counsel; subjected them to coercive interrogations; and overridden judicial orders to release them on bond during immigration proceedings,» the group reports. «In some cases, the government has incarcerated detainees for months under restrictive conditions, including solitary confinement. Some detainees were physically and verbally abused because of their national origin or religion.» Similar concerns were voiced by rights groups and governments – some traditional allies of the United States – on the detention conditions of Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters at the US naval base of Guantanamo Bay. Some international human rights groups declared that the detention conditions of the captured fighters at Camp X-Ray, the prison camp on the US naval base, amounted to torture, an allegation that the United States has repeatedly rejected. «There were earmuffs, dark goggles, masks, gloves, orange jumpsuits, and restraints on movement,» the president of the Copenhagen-based International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims had declared in an interview with Kathimerini’s English Edition last January. «The earmuffs diminish a person’s hearing ability, the gloves his sense of touch, the masks covering nose and mouth diminish his sense of smell and ability for speech, and the monochrome orange color of their jumpsuits impairs their vision. All together, they amount to sensory deprivation and this is a form of torture.» The road ahead With thousands of detainees in Cuba and the United States remaining in a legal limbo, the world is turning to one international body, the United Nations, and its rights committee to ensure that human rights are upheld worldwide. In a recent opinion poll carried out for the UN Millennium Assembly, an overwhelming majority of people from all parts of the world declared that the protection of human rights was the most important of all UN activities. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has an annual expenditure of $75 million – a figure reflecting only a fraction of the tremendous work required of the office, particularly in the post-September 11 environment. «The international human rights agenda is relevant to tackling not just the symptoms evidenced in acts of terrorism but the deeper causes at their root,» Mary Robinson, outgoing UN High Commissioner for Human Rights said in a speech in Boston last January. «For this reason, also, during times of threat and insecurity, it is even more important to hold firmly to the fundamental values of the rule of law and the safeguarding of human rights.»

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