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Human Rights

new internationalist
issue 224 - October 1991

The power to say whoa!
Petra Kelly spots a new plan that could seriously shake
the hypocrites in Western corridors of power –
and save countless lives.

For eight intense years – up until 1990 – I sat through meetings of the prestigious and top secret Foreign Relations Committee of the German Parliament.

The first thing I learned was that Western European and North American double standards on human rights are much, much worse than I had ever imagined.

Every day thousands of people across the world are imprisoned, tortured or killed by governments seeking to repress or control them. For me there was never any question that human rights and the development of a green, non-violent, non-aligned foreign policy had to be a priority.

But when I began drawing attention to such taboo subjects as the ‘holocaust’ on the roof of the world – Tibet – or to the US-backed massacres in Timor, I encountered growing opposition from the German Government’s Foreign Affairs Department. They tried to curb my initiatives in Parliament and even pleaded with me to drop certain resolutions which were certain to get through.

The messages I received were contradictory to say the least. On the one hand the German Government would solemnly declare – in every human rights debate – that the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of other states could not be used to reject demands to respect human rights. In fact, the German Foreign Ministry pronounced that no state should reject as ‘interference’ any criticism of its ‘behaviour with regard to the realization of human rights’.

But in actual practice the German Government – like that of many other Western nations – is ruled by expediency and strategic economic interests rather than moral standards. For example, the massacres of Tibetans in Lhasa and of Chinese students in Tiananmen Square – just two years ago – have been conveniently forgotten in favour of a pro-China trade policy. And when China protests that foreign criticism of its human-rights record amounts to meddling in its internal affairs, Western politicians listen. ‘One doesn’t want to anger China’, is a common whisper among German officials.

The reluctance to criticize China is even greater since the Gulf War when China chose not to exert its veto in the United Nations Security Council. This enabled the US and its allies to mobilize forces against Iraq with UN approval.

But a small – and in my opinion extremely important – step in the right direction is currently being made. Austria is tabling a motion at the United Nations General Assembly that would permit the UN to intervene in countries where human rights are being seriously violated.

This initiative deserves support. If accepted it will mean that governments will no longer be able to dismiss calls for action over human rights issues by claiming that they cannot interfere. Millions of oppressed people around the world would benefit.

Calls for change have been increasingly urgent in recent months. Encouraged by the UN intervention on behalf of the Kurdish people, many other oppressed groups such as the Tibetans and the East Timorese are hoping for similar support from the outside.

It would be a radical departure from the UN’s shameful performance of the past – most dramatically demonstrated by its silence during Pol Pot’s massacre of millions in Cambodia followed by its acceptance of Pol Pot’s associates as representatives at the UN.

Quite rightly a moral responsibility is assigned to the United Nations to prevent totalitarian regimes from committing genocide. This initiative from Austria – a neutral country – could help put that moral responsibility into practice and prompt other important changes.

And the most urgent change needed at the UN today is to restructure the Security Council and to do away with the exclusive veto powers of its five permanent members – the US, USSR, China, Britain and France.

The Security Council is the real decision-making body within the international community and the major powers’ right to veto establishes a dual class of states, giving even greater power to the stronger nations. This violates the principle of equal rights and the very spirit of the UN Charter. The dilemma will not be resolved by merely expanding the Security Council to include nations such as Japan and Germany as this would simply increase the predominance of the major industrial powers.

For the UN to regain any of the credibility it once had, it must free itself from the constraints imposed by the major powers. International law must no longer be twisted and turned by those with the skill and power to do so. And the debate about intervention in the affairs of states that commit serious human-rights abuse is long overdue in our shrinking world – in our global village. Human-rights abuses can no longer be regarded as a matter for the perpetrators and their victims but as crimes which concern the international community as a whole. This means that priority must be given to enforcing human-rights principles both in our domestic and foreign policy.

While sheer power, military might and daily violation of human rights are still the forces around which the system of international relations revolves, we in the alternative movements across the globe must not be silent. Silence is betrayal of those who are suffering!

Petra Kelly was until last year a Green member of parliament in the German Bundestag. Her latest book is The Anguish of Tibet (Parallax Press, 1991).

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New Internationalist issue 224 magazine cover This article is from the October 1991 issue of New Internationalist.
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