Monday, October 15, 2007

Interview with Thomas Hammarberg

Human rights need attention even in Europe: Hammarberg

The teaching role that the Western nations play at the international bodies like the United Nation on the subject of human rights will lose its credibility if these nations fail to refresh their human rights records and adopt better ways and means to implement human rights principles, according to Thomas Hammarberg, European Commissioner for Human Rights in the Council of Europe.

On the question of flourishing Wahhabism in the Western Balkans right in the heart of Europe, the commissioner mentioned a “Mufti” (Islamic religious man) in Kiev, Ukraine where he preaches in a dilapidated mosque. The commissioner commended the moral strength and value-based beliefs of the Mufti who was visited by a delegation of Saudi Arabian Islamists offering money to renovate his mosque but with a condition that Mufti will shift to preaching Wahhabism form of Islam.Mufti refused the offer and still preaches from his old mosque but with his head held high with his own beliefs.

Recently writing ( Issue number 749, dated September 30- October 6, 2007) “Wahhabism tightening grip over Kosovo,” I had received more brickbats than bouquets from different readers.

Moving on to other issues, Commissioner Hammarberg lambasted media clampdowns saying, “This is a question of human rights because not only people should be allowed to express their opinions but also if one does not have this right, it means other rights will not be fully granted. This is an absolutely crucial right and must be respected.”

Asked to comment on human rights problems on the democratic Western soil, the commissioner said, “We have human rights problems even in Western Europe which need to be addressed. There are progresses in all countries and it is very important to promote an attitude that we all have to improve.” “In the area of discrimination and inter-personal relations, we will never reach a situation where no one is discriminated or people are treating one another with respect but we need to constantly work in that direction.”

Commenting on the slow progress to implement judicial reforms in the former Soviet Union states, the commissioner explained, “When it comes to the functioning of the justice system, there are problems in countries that came out of communism. In the communist system, courts were not seen as independent bodies, they were seen as instruments of political powers and it takes time to change not only training new personnel or retraining the old one but also to change the whole climate around trials.” “Now almost 20 years after the collapse of Soviet Union, we still see problems with corruption and political influence of judges and clarification of the role of prosecutors.”

The ongoing debate about minority rights in the Baltic states was not the only topic that the Commission top officials looked at during a recent visit. The commissioner said, “With respect to Baltics we did not deal only with minority rights but a number of issues. There is a hangover from Soviet times as in prison conditions, really bad in pre-trial detention centres. In the case of minority rights, we stressed the cases of no-status citizens for those who were born in the country.”

Expressing confidence for a solution sooner rather than later, Commissioner Hammarberg said, “Two issues were raised: Every child has a right to a citizenship. There are quite a few thousand children who have no citizenship so I appealed to them to review that and to automatically give citizenship to all new born children. The point that I raised was that old people can not be expected to go through difficult exams for citizenship after spending all their lives in those two countries. I proposed that it should be sufficient for them to declare that they are interested in citizenship. They have relaxed the system a little bit as they do it now orally but it’s still asking for too much in my opinion.”

Coming to the controversial issue of the media situation in Azerbaijan, commissioner Hammarberg said, “The full report on Azerbaijan is not yet ready but they need to review defamation law and the criminalising of it. Journalists are afraid of writing on certain topics that they might be brought to prison. Our position is nobody should go to prison for what they have written and if there is a need, it should be a civil court and not a criminal court.”

With the European Convention on Human Rights already law of the land in all 47 Council of Europe member states the commissioner reiterated the importance of human rights education and the need to renew understanding of the basic democratic values by each new generation.

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