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March 28, 1999, Sunday
Foreign Desk

Good Friends Join Enemies To Criticize U.S. on Rights


The United States, which regards itself as a bastion of human rights, found itself under attack from friend and foe alike during the first week of the United Nations annual meeting on global democratic rights.

The sharpest blow came from America's ally, Germany, whose Foreign Minister, Joschka Fischer, announced that the 15-member European Union for the first time would submit an anti-death-penalty resolution to the United Nations' Human Rights Commission.

He told delegates from the 53 member countries that the resolution was intended to prevent ''the execution of minors, of the mentally ill, enforcement before completion of ongoing procedures, and extradition to countries where the death penalty is in force.''

Mr. Fischer did not single out the United States by name, but Germany protested when Arizona executed two German-born men earlier this year, despite German Government protests that the executions were ''barbarism.''

America's rights record was predictably excoriated by longtime rivals like Cuba, but it also came under criticism from friendly countries and from Amnesty International, a leading crusader against human rights violations.

On the commission's opening day, Amnesty International for the first time placed the United States on its list of human rights violators, in the company of Algeria, Cambodia and Turkey, among others, because of police brutality, violations against people in detention and increased numbers of executions.

Each year, Amnesty International, which is based in London, targets a half-dozen nations as the worst violators of human rights and lobbies to see that the United Nations body censures them.

''Human rights violations in the United States are persistent, widespread and appear to disproportionately affect people of racial or ethnic minority backgrounds,'' said Pierre Sane, the group's Secretary General.

He argued that despite its ''claim to international leadership,'' the United States' position as a champion of human rights had been tarnished by its violations.

Police brutality and poor treatment of those in detention are widespread in America, he said. He also accused American officials of detaining those seeking asylum from political persecution in other countries without judicial review and sometimes in the same lockups as criminals.

Nancy Rubin, head of the American delegation, disagreed ''strongly that civil and human rights violations in the United States are persistent, widespread or indeed that they go unpunished.'' There are already ''mechanisms in place'' to safeguard citizens' rights, she noted.

''In the United States, the average time on death row is 11 years,'' said one American official, who refused to be identified. ''The average time after a death sentence is given in China is 30 minutes, but it is not on Amnesty's list this year.''

In previous years, Amnesty International has placed China high on its list of violators, but it was listed as a second priority this year.

Mr. Sane, from Senegal, said Amnesty International would support a resolution that will urge a moratorium on executions, with the goal of abolishing the death penalty. To do otherwise, he said, would jeopardize the group's credibility because of the increased numbers of people being executed in the United States, and because of the 3,500 people currently on death row.

The United States has executed 380 people since 1990, with 78 put to death last year. Currently, 38 states have the death penalty. Around the world, about 90 countries still reserve the right to use capital punishment, while 105 nations have renounced it, including Canada, Bulgaria and Lithuania in the last year.

Most European countries either bar the death penalty or have placed a moratorium on its use.

If adopted, the resolution would be the rights commission's third endorsing a global moratorium on executions. The campaign against the death penalty has been led by Italy, and picked up speed in Europe after the British Government, under Tony Blair, placed a moratorium on executions.

A number of European countries, including Norway, Finland and Italy, used their opening statements this week to emphasize opposition to the death penalty.

Finland's Foreign Minister, Tarja Halonen, denounced it as ''an inhuman form of punishment.'' She did not name the United States but said that capital punishment should never be used in the ''case of minors,'' one of the key complaints against the United States, where people are held accountable for crimes committed before they turned 18.

Organizations mentioned in this article:
United Nations; Amnesty International

Related Terms:
Freedom and Human Rights; Capital Punishment

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