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Human Rights Developments

The map of Europe has changed radically since the demise of communism and the disintegration of the USSR and Yugoslavia, adding seventeen additional countries to the region that Helsinki Watch has traditionally monitored. The human rights situation in the former Soviet bloc has also been utterly transformed. The countries that formerly made up the monolithic Soviet empire had their common repressive policies and abusive practices and were seemingly impervious to the protests of Helsinki Watch. Now, however, we are dealing with new and needy independent states that to one extent or another want our blessings and approval as they reaffirm their own uniqueness. Although human rights abuses continue, they are no longer the same from country to country. Nor do they remain unchanging as was previously the case. The post-communist nations are in transition, and the human rights situations in these countries are also subject to sudden change.

Traditional forms of human rights abuses continue: political prisoners, deplorable prison conditions, lack of due process in the courts, denial of religious and cultural freedom, and the repression of free speech, free assembly, and a free press. Actions to intimidate the independent press and to stifle political opposition, often done under pretexts, are becoming increasingly common in the region, especially in parts of the former USSR, as well as in Croatia, Albania and Slovakia.

Conflicts over territory, sometimes portrayed by governments, accurately or inaccurately, as ethnic conflict, are also rampant. They have led to armed internal and international conflict in the former Yugoslavia (in Croatia and Bosnia-Hercegovina) and in the former Soviet Union (the Caucasus, Nagorno Karabakh and Moldova). In the territory that was formerly the Soviet Union, where situations of armed ethnic conflict seemed impossible just a few years ago, government forces and paramilitary groups now have at their disposal sophisticated heavy weaponry, and are using it to seize long-disputed territory or to resolve other bitter feuds. The tragic bloodbath in Bosnia-Hercegovina and Croatia has assumed particular horror because it is being conducted in the name of "ethnic cleansing." It stands as a symbol of the real and potential dangers that confront the former communist world and threaten Europe as a whole.

A major problem that has arisen in a number of the former communist countries concerns efforts to decommunize the bureaucracy and punish past abuses. Helsinki Watch believes that it is important that there be a full disclosure of past abuses and that those who committed crimes be punished. On the other hand, we oppose the punishment of people solely because of past associations. Helsinki Watch is concerned about the ways in which certain governments are handling the secret police files that have come into their possession and about laws that have been passed or are being considered to "lustrate" (i.e., purify) the society by denying employment in a wide-range of positions to former communists and others who belonged to specified organizations in the past. Czechoslovakia, which many of us expected to set high standards in the process of peaceful democratic change, instead unleashed a lustration process against former communists that has given rise to a witch hunt and become an unfortunate model for other countries in the region. Bulgaria has approached lustration piecemeal, by attaching provisions to legislation such as the law on banking and the draft law on scientific institutions. (The banking law was struck down by the Constitutional Court.) Germany has begun a wide-ranging process of decommunization that affects the entire civil service in what was formerly East Germany. Poland, Russia, Albania and Croatia, among others, are considering various forms of lustration laws or similar measures. The process is particularly worrisome because it is frequently used for ulterior political purposes.

Discrimination against ethnic minorities has become exacerbated in many of the countries that Helsinki Watch monitors, a consequence of nationalism and xenophobia that have come to the fore within the region since the demise of communism. In many countries, in both eastern and western Europe, there have been skinhead attacks on members of minority groups and refugees. Gypsies have been among the prime targets of such attacks, which also extend to foreigners in general. The attacks in eastern Europe are especially worrisome because thepolice are not schooled in sophisticated methods of crowd control and often share the antipathies of the attackers. In Serbia and Montenegro paramilitary groups-with the apparent blessing of the Serbian government-are terrorizing minorities, thereby extending "ethnic cleansing" policies to the current Yugoslavia. Similarly, repression against Albanians in Kosovo continues and the fear of armed conflict has greatly increased.

Minority rights are a problem throughout the former Soviet Union, but are aggravated-and resolved-in different ways. In remote regions of Russia, certain ethnic minorities have repeatedly been the targets of popular attacks, a pattern with which the Russian government has so far been unwilling or unable to cope. In the Caucasus and Moldova, the demands of minorities have led to violent clashes. The governments of the Baltic states have passed or are considering citizenship laws affecting the rights of minorities; Helsinki Watch is critical of some of the methods they have chosen.

The human rights situation in Turkey, long a source of great concern, deteriorated dramatically in 1992, despite the advent of a new, more liberal coalition government that promised to make major human rights reforms. Just about every human rights abuse in the lexicon is taking place in Turkey: summary execution by security forces, torture during police detention, disappearances, assassinations, violent suppression of demonstrations, censorship, arrests and killings of journalists, and the suppression of a large ethnic minority, the Kurds. The conflict in Northern Ireland remains acute, with human rights abuses committed both by the security forces and paramilitary groups.

The Right to Monitor

In the countries of the former Soviet bloc, where human rights monitoring was severely repressed under the communists, there is virtually no overt repression of human rights monitors at this time. Ironically, however, we now find a dearth of local human rights monitors. Many of the dissidents with whom we formerly worked have joined the new governments. Some have turned out to have views antithetical to our concept of human rights. Almost no one is truly impartial. Because our work depends on the existence of reliable human rights sources within each country, we have begun seeking out, encouraging and training new people who have the potential of becoming human rights monitors within their countries. As human rights abuses proliferate in the post-communist societies, new human rights monitoring groups are beginning to form.

In Turkey, where human rights monitors in the Kurdish southeast have been the victims of killings and disappearances, human rights groups are nevertheless permitted to function, albeit with frequent intimidation. In Northern Ireland, Greece and Germany, where Helsinki Watch has become increasingly engaged, the right to monitor has not, to our knowledge, been abused.

U.S. Policy

The U.S. government's policy toward the former Soviet Union and the former communist countries in Eastern Europe has, on the whole, been nurturing and benign. The United States has put its efforts into strengthening democratic institutions through exchanges and training programs, as well as programs of economic assistance.

While this is to be encouraged, Helsinki Watch is disturbed by the failure of U.S. government officials to speak out publicly about ongoing human rights abuses in these countries. U.S. human rights policy appears to be based on the assumption that the demise of communism and the turn toward a market economy will inevitably lead to democracy, and on the further assumption that democracy inevitably leads to respect for human rights. Neither, however, is necessarily the case.

The failure of U.S. human rights policy also stems from its mainly reactive stance without a comprehensive, forward-looking plan. While this is understandable to some extent, given the turmoil and chaos in the region, it has led, unfortunately, to inconsistency and waffling on major issues, such as the conflict in Yugoslavia. Throughout the war in Croatia, the U.S. remained virtually silent and it was only after war broke out in Bosnia-Hercegovina in April did the U.S. began to take a more forceful role, urging severe sanctions against Serbia and working hard to enlist other governments in the embargo. After the sanctions were in place, however, the U.S. seemed to disengage from theBosnian situation. Indeed in August, when international public opinion focused with horror on reports from Serbian-operated detention camps, U.S. determination to avoid military involvement in Bosnia-Hercegovina initially led State Department spokespersons to minimize the enormity of the crimes being committed in the camps. Ultimately, the U.S. government took the lead again, urging the establishment of a war crimes investigative body under U.N. auspices.

The State Department, before recognizing the successor states to the former Soviet Union, set certain conditions for recognition including a respect for human rights, then proceeded to recognize fledgling governments, many of which have only a tenuous hold on human rights principles. It would have been better to recognize the new states and urge that they take measures to ensure respect for the rights of all citizens. By implying in recognizing these states that they are respectful of human rights it became more difficult for the State Department subsequently to criticize the human rights policies of those governments. Despite abuses in a number of the successor states, only Azerbaijan has been subjected to sanctions, i.e., the withholding of aid under the Freedom Support Act because of its role in the Nagorno Karabakh conflict. Even then, the measures taken were less effective than they might have been because they were not even-handed, since no mention was made of Armenia's role in human rights abuses in the Nagorno Karabakh conflict.

In other countries, U.S human rights policy has too often been marked by silence; this is especially true in the case of Turkey. State Department officials acknowledge human rights abuses in Turkey but claim that they use quiet diplomacy in trying to improve the situation. There have been no strong public criticisms of the torture, killings and disappearances in Turkey, and, in the case of killings in southeastern Turkey at the time of the Kurdish New Year, a State Department spokesperson went so far as to praise the Turkish government for its "use of restraint." Turkey remains the third largest recipient of U.S. aid, but, despite an exacerbation of the consistent pattern of gross abuse in Turkey, the U.S. government has never invoked Section 502B of the Foreign Assistance Act to withhold aid from Turkey or to explain the extenuating circumstances that make such aid necessary.

The U.S. State Department has not publicly criticized the government of the U.K. for abuses in Northern Ireland, nor has it publicly condemned the German government for not being forceful in attempting to prevent right-wing violence in Germany.

Helsinki Watch urges the new Administration to be more forceful in its human rights policies by combining quiet diplomacy with public criticism and developing a consistent strategy for dealing with human rights abuses in the Helsinki signatory countries.

The Work of Helsinki Watch

The monitoring work of Helsinki Watch has been much easier in 1992, due to greater access in the countries that we monitor and to our own strong reputations with their governments. Especially in the former Soviet bloc where many government officials are former colleagues of ours in the human rights struggle, our reports and critiques are taken seriously, both by those who agree with us and by those who disagree. A critical report or letter to a government official from Helsinki Watch often occasions protracted debate in government circles and the press. It is gratifying, and also sobering, to know that we have such direct impact.

The former Soviet Union, as the largest and most complex of the countries in the region we cover, was always the main focus of our attention. With the breakup of the empire, we continue to focus attention on its constituent parts, a task that at times seems overwhelming. In 1992, Helsinki Watch expanded its staff to include a Central Asian specialist and opened a Moscow office. The Moscow office is used to monitor developments in Russia and as a taking off point for missions and research conducted in other parts of former Soviet territory.

Even before the breakup of the former Soviet Union, Helsinki Watch had established a program of missions to the various republics. Initially, we focused on what were known as "hot spots"-areas in which local unrest had escalated into violence, primarily due to nationalist and/or anti-communist protests. We investigated the ways in which Soviet armed forces contributed to the violence, either by inaction or overreaction. Invariably we found that the Sovietgovernment's response was dictated by the perceived political needs of the center.

Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the human rights situation has become as variegated as the countries themselves. Yet different patterns of problems have emerged that are specific to different regions. In the Caucasus, Moldova and parts of Central Asia, struggles to maintain political power and/or territorial integrity or for self-determination have escalated to armed conflicts. Helsinki Watch has sent missions and/or issued reports on conflicts in Georgia, Azerbaijan, Tajikistan and Moldova. In our reporting, we seek to ascertain the causes of the hostilities with the hope that governments in other former Soviet republics, by treating their minorities with greater care and understanding, might avoid such conflicts from erupting in the future.

In many of the countries of Central Asia, governments are led by former Communists who continue old, Soviet-inherited practices of political repression-cracking down on the nascent free press, free speech and free assembly-in an effort to fend off threats to their power. Former communists-now devoted nationalists-are also in positions of power in Belarus and Ukraine where they are engaged in continued, organized efforts at silencing public criticism of their governments (albeit on a milder scale than their Central Asian counterparts). Helsinki Watch has reported on some of these abuses and issued protests about others. Our work has been complicated by the fact that the violations occur under circumstances of rapid change in which the rule of law is non-existent. We frequently find ourselves protesting against abuses by a government which, soon afterwards, is no longer in power, as was the case with the Zviad Gamsakhurdia government in Georgia and, more recently, with the government of Rakhman Nabiev in Tajikistan.

Helsinki Watch has sent multiple missions to and issued reports on 11 of the 15 republics that are now successor states to the Soviet Union, and we continue to follow up in those regions where we have already begun work. Yet the work remains daunting: we have yet to begin work in Ukraine, Belarus, Turkmenistan and Kyrgyzstan, to say nothing of the vast expanse of Russia outside of Moscow and St. Petersburg.

Helsinki Watch now maintains a constant presence in the former Yugoslavia, detailing abuses as they occur. We have documented a range of abuses connected with the armed conflict there: summary killings and torture of civilians, the use of indiscriminate force, the taking of hostages, the mistreatment of prisoners of war, and the forcible displacement of civilians. Our work in Yugoslavia goes back some years, beginning with our reports on Serbian repression in Kosovo. We compiled detailed information about violations by both sides in the war in Croatia and brought this information directly to the presidents of both Serbia and Croatia. In 1992 we issued yet another report on the situation in Kosovo and lengthy documentation on violations of the laws of war in Bosnia-Hercegovina.

In Eastern and Central Europe, the major problems involve the de-communization process and ethnic and racial discrimination. Helsinki Watch has issued a number of critiques of the de-communization process, in Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria and Poland. We are preparing a report on de-communization in Germany and will continue to weigh in on this subject in each of the countries in which such procedures are being contemplated or are already under way.

In 1992 Helsinki Watch issued a report on the treatment of foreigners in Germany that attracted considerable attention in Germany. Helsinki Watch also criticized the deportation of Romanian Gypsies from Germany. We have issued three reports so far on discrimination against Gypsies in Europe (in Bulgaria, Romania and Czechoslovakia) and are planning others. In recent years, Helsinki Watch has issued reports on the treatment of Hungarians in Romania, Macedonians in Bulgaria, Turks in Greece and Greeks and Kurds in Turkey.

Helsinki Watch has entered the debate on discriminatory citizenship and minority laws, especially in Latvia, Estonia and Moldova, where laws have been passed or are being considered that would deny citizenship and/or property rights to some minorities or force non-native speakers to learn the titular language of the republic in order to hold positions in government and industry.

Helsinki Watch stepped up its work on Turkey still further in 1992, issuing many reports and newsletters on abuses and continuing to lobby the U.S. government to withhold or justify providing massive financial aid to Turkey in light of its pattern of gross violations of human rights.

In recent years Helsinki Watch has expanded its critiques to include certain countries in western Europe, most notably Germany, Greece and the United Kingdom. Our work in Germany is described above. In Greece, we continue to monitor the situation of the Turkish minority in Western Thrace, where there has recently been some noticeable improvement. In Northern Ireland we have monitored the conduct of both security forces and paramilitary groups in the ongoing conflict, most recently with a report examining the treatment of children in Northern Ireland and the system of extralegal justice that has evolved there. We have brought our complaints to the responsible officials in the United Kingdom, and they have received considerable attention there.

Helsinki Watch continues to report on prison conditions and conditions in police lockups, most recently in Romania, the U.K. and Spain. We have also issued two reports in conjunction with the Women's Rights Project of Human Rights Watch. One documents the Czechoslovak communists' practice of forcing or coercing Gypsy women to be sterilized and its carryover into the present. Another report that describes discriminatory practices toward women in Poland caused considerable discussion in Poland. Helsinki Watch also expressed concern about the Polish Medical Association's ethics code against the practice of abortion, pointing out that it was contradictory to the country's current abortion law.

In these turbulent times, we find that we are constantly setting and re-setting our priorities. New work is always undertaken with the recognition that, once we begin a project in a country, we are committed to continue our monitoring there on a regular basis as long as problems persist.

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