HELSINKI WATCH OVERVIEW
Human Rights Developments
The optimism that attended the East European revolutions of l989 had already dimmed somewhat by the end of l990. Now, at the close of l991, we are forced to conclude that some of our worst forebodings have become reality. If there is any room left for surprise, it is mainly at the speed with which the events we feared have come to pass.
The demise of communism in Europe has brought grave human rights problems in its wake. A fierce and brutal civil war is raging in Yugoslavia. The Soviet empire has come to an end with new and diverse republic governments now responsible for the protection of human rights. In Romania, vigilante miners, who last year supported the government by brutally suppressing demonstrators, this year smashed the Parliament building in violent protest against price increases and forced the government to resign. In Albania, the demise of communism has been a stormy one, resulting in considerable turmoil, an attempted mass exodus, and violence.
Turkey, a strongly anti-communist member of NATO, has long used the fear of a communist takeover to justify repression against its citizens. But the end of a "communist threat" has not eased repression in Turkey, where torture in police detention centers continues unabated. Indeed, violence has escalated in the country; in the past year we have reported on a significant number of deaths in detention and the murder of a human rights activist.
Communism is fast being replaced, both in Eastern Europe and in the former Soviet Union, by the ideology of nationalism. In some cases, communist leaders have merely traded in one mantle for the other. Nationalism, which often leads to ethnic conflicts, border disputes and discrimination against minorities, is potentially dangerous to the cause of human rights, as the violence in Yugoslavia and various republics of the former Soviet Union illustrates.
Czechoslovakia, Poland and Hungary, where new democracies are struggling to take hold, are also facing new problems in the process of de-communization and in addressing abuses of the past. It is ironic that in Czechoslovakia, where an enlightened president came to power in l989 declaring that all citizens should take responsibility for what happened in the past, the Parliament has recently passed a law to prevent, among others, former communist officials and all those whose names are listed as collaborators in secret police files from occupying high-level administrative positions in the public sector. The law, which assumes guilt by association and considers people guilty until proven innocent, does not provide for due process and could unleash a witch hunt of considerable proportions. Similar legislation is also being considered in Poland and Hungary. In the three Baltic states that achieved their independence in l991 _ Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania _ new kinds of human rights issues have become cause for concern: the rehabilitation of former war criminals, legislation restricting the right to citizenship and property, and discrimination against minorities.
The variety of problems that Helsinki Watch now faces has increased dramatically, as has the number of new independent states and regions that we now monitor. Before l989, our major focus was on a region completely under Soviet hegemony, with a monolithic structure that made it possible to understand and respond to events in the various Warsaw Pact countries almost as if they were a single entity. Now, the countries in the region have not only taken on new individuality, but many are also fracturing into their constituent parts, and some of these constituent parts, in turn, may soon splinter further.
The Right to Monitor
In such a time of turmoil, it has become increasingly important for Helsinki Watch to have contacts with local human rights monitors who are investigating and recording human rights abuses and issuing information that we know is reliable. But ironically, the sudden opening of many formerly closed societies has led to a diminution of indigenous human rights monitoring. In the formerly Soviet republics and Eastern Europe, where human rights monitoring (as well as the persecution of monitors) was a highly developed art, monitoring by citizens is now, at last, largely free of danger. But many of those previously active in the human rights movement are now involved in politics: they are either running their governments or active in the opposition. For the most part, new people have not emerged to take their place.
At the same time, Helsinki Watch now has unprecedented opportunities to send fact-finding missions to countries that were previously closed to us and where we were unable to travel openly for human rights purposes. We have seized the opportunity to send missions to far-flung places. We have also stationed our own representatives for long periods of time in Helsinki Watch offices in Bulgaria, Romania, Yugoslavia and, most recently, in Moscow. The ability to work in these countries on an extended basis has not only improved the quality of the information we are able to gather, but it has provided us with a network of contacts in these countries and given us an organizational presence there. Part of the work of Helsinki Watch has been to discover new people interested in doing human rights work in their countries. We are now developing projects for training them, when necessary, in the skills of taking testimony and the methodology of human rights fact-finding.
In Turkey, the human rights monitoring situation remains a mixed one: human rights monitors are now formally allowed to function, but monitoring is not without risks. Monitors are routinely repressed and, during l991, one human rights activist was killed.
The U.S. government has always walked gingerly with regard to human rights criticism of Turkey, a valued NATO ally. Although the State Department in recent years has been forced by public pressure to acknowledge the existence of torture and other human rights abuses in Turkey, its expressions of concern have been, for the most part, in the realm of quiet diplomacy. The same has traditionally been true with regard to Yugoslavia, which successive U.S. administrations considered "our" communist country as distinct from "theirs" (i.e., the Soviet Union's).
With the breakup of the Soviet Union and the collapse of communism, such old distinctions no longer pertain. However, the result has not been beneficial to the cause of human rights. It was hoped that, with the end of the Cold War, the United States would be in a position to criticize human rights abuses wherever they occur. Instead, human rights protests have largely disappeared from the agendas of U.S. governmental bodies when it comes to the countries of the former Warsaw Pact. The State Department, to its credit, has been engaged in constructive human rights activities aimed at the building of democratic institutions in the former Eastern bloc, surely a worthy and necessary task. But the Department has been reluctant to criticize ongoing human rights abuses in the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia or elsewhere in Eastern Europe. Its main concern has been to shore up the faltering central governments in these countries; in the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, this policy continued long after its futility became apparent.
As for Turkey, its ties to the U.S. government, if anything, are stronger than ever before, given Turkey's role in supporting U.S. positions during and after the Persian Gulf war. The United State has boosted its aid to Turkey and remains disinclined to raise delicate human rights issues, even in appropriate forums.
In September l99l, for example, the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) held a conference on human rights in Moscow. Before and during the conference, Helsinki Watch urged the U.S delegation to raise human rights issues in countries that heretofore had been spared any human rights criticism in that forum. We argued that the breakdown of the blocs gave the Helsinki process an opportunity to become more than an East-West confrontation. We urged the U.S. delegation to raise publicly for the first time issues affecting Yugoslavia, Turkey and Western democracies. The U.S. ambassador to the Moscow meeting, Max Kampelman, after first expressing a disinclination to initiate such criticisms, later reversed himself, but his criticisms within the CSCE forum were mild. When one recalls Ambassador Kampelman's vociferous defense of imprisoned Helsinki monitors in Soviet bloc countries during the Madrid Review Conference, the contrast is striking.
The Work of Helsinki Watch
The Soviet Union, as the largest and most complex of the countries with which we deal, has always been the main focus of our concerns in the region. In whatever form it ultimately assumes, it will continue to command our attention in the years to come. Well before the rapid move toward independence in the Soviet republics following the aborted August 1991 coup, Helsinki Watch had begun a program of dealing with each republic as a separate entity. This approach did not denote a position on sovereignty, only a recognition that it was the most realistic way to address the human rights issues of concern. Taking advantage of the access we now enjoy to republics that before were off limits to human rights activists, we embarked on a program of missions to and reports on various republics.
We focused on what is known in the region as "hot spots" _ regions where there have been violent incidents involving the unwarranted use of armed force against civilians. Many of these regions were later cut off from the press and from human rights investigators for many months or even years. Unofficial and even official investigative commissions were often unable to publish their findings or found that their reports were ignored. Those responsible for civilians deaths and injuries were never punished.
Since May l990, Helsinki Watch has sent missions to Armenia (twice), Azerbaidzhan (four times), Belorussia, Estonia, Georgia (twice), Kazakhstan (twice), Latvia, Lithuania, Moldavia, Tadzhikistan (three times), Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and, of course, Russia. Most of these missions have resulted in reports or newsletters on the incidents under investigation. In the course of our work, we discovered that these incidents _ even those that occurred some years before we got there _ are still uppermost in the thoughts of people living in the republics, and that our interest in investigating such events put us in touch with local activists and served as a good example of how human rights work is conducted to people who are unaccustomed to the process. Our efforts produced considerable internal press coverage and helped establish Helsinki Watch as a respected presence on the Soviet scene.
In investigating Soviet "hot spots," we documented a pattern of violence under Gorbachev. When violence erupted in Lithuania and Latvia in January 1991, we pointed out that these events _ which, unlike previous events, were covered by the international press _ were part of a pattern of violence that had been established by Soviet and KGB forces as early as December 1986 in Kazakhstan.
Helsinki Watch has also been especially active in Yugoslavia, monitoring human rights abuses in the brutal struggle between Serbs and Croats in which both sides, and the Yugoslav army, are all guilty of egregious behavior. In early 1991, Helsinki Watch reported on the use of excessive force by Serbian police to quell demonstrations in Belgrade and by the Yugoslav army in suppressing demonstrations in Slovenia.
Helsinki Watch is engaged in preparing a series of reports on the problems of Gypsies in various countries that we monitor. In l991, we published reports on Gypsies in Bulgaria and Romania, describing escalating violence and discrimination against Gypsies and a disinclination on the part of the authorities to protect Gypsies from such attacks. Helsinki Watch has sent missions to Germany and Czechoslovakia to gather information for reports on the situations of Gypsies in those countries.
Helsinki Watch continued to report on violence in Romania, following up on the June l990 miners' attacks against civilian protestors in Bucharest and pointing to the failure to prosecute those responsible for abuses; months later, the miners attacked again, this time against the government that had failed to prosecute them.
Helsinki Watch also reported on excessive force used by the police in Turkey to suppress demonstrations and to conduct raids on houses in which terrorists were suspected of hiding. We continued to monitor pervasive human rights violations in Turkey involving torture, including of children, deaths in detention, and the killing of a human right activist.
In 1991, Helsinki Watch sent its first mission to investigate the armed conflict in Northern Ireland, and published a detailed report on human rights abuses committed by both security forces and paramilitary groups in violation of international human rights and humanitarian law and standards.
Helsinki Watch is also closely watching the ways in which countries address abuses of the past. The question is a delicate one: on the one hand, we believe that it is important that there be full disclosure of such abuses and that the perpetrators of crimes be punished; on the other hand, caution must be taken so that whole groups of people are not persecuted for their past associations, including individuals who were not guilty of any crime. We have urged that more attention be paid to prosecuting those guilty of crimes under previous regimes in Romania, Bulgaria, Albania and elsewhere, and that the victims of such abuses be rehabilitated. At the same time, we have taken issue with new laws that were passed in Czechoslovakia and the newly independent Baltic nations that presume guilt by association and discriminate against whole groups of people because of their ethnicity or political beliefs.
In addition to new issues such as internal violence and the ways in which governments address past abuses, we have continued our traditional human rights work of monitoring issues such as freedom of expression and the press. In 1991, we published reports on free expression in the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, Turkey, the United Kingdom and the United States.
We continued our monitoring of prison conditions. In 1991, we published reports on conditions in U.S., Soviet and Czechoslovak prisons, and sent missions to Romania, Spain and the United Kingdom to investigate prison conditions there.
We also continued our series on the treatment of ethnic minorities. In l991, we issued reports on the Macedonians in Bulgaria and the Turks in Greece and are now preparing a report on the Greeks in Turkey.
We anticipate a significant increase in our work load in 1992. The disintegration of the Soviet empire has ramifications for the entire region, many of which are yet to be seen. It is both a fascinating and a worrisome time, one that poses great challenges for the Helsinki Watch board and staff in the years ahead.