Human Rights Report 'Germans Have Undermined their own Credibility'

Germany's hands are far from clean when it comes to human rights abuses in the war on terror. That is the conclusion Amnesty International has come to. The group also talked with SPIEGEL ONLINE about whether it makes sense to boycott the Olympics.

Amnesty International: "Prisoners, in some instances German citizens, sat hopelessly in torture prisons, and apparently the government was aware of this."

Amnesty International: "Prisoners, in some instances German citizens, sat hopelessly in torture prisons, and apparently the government was aware of this."

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Amnesty International is presenting its latest annual report on Wednesday, 60 years after the Declaration of Human Rights. A poll you commissioned by German pollster Infratest in April showed that 42 percent of Germans were unable to name a single human right. Did that surprise you?

Lochbihler: That is, of course, bad news, but it didn't really surprise me. It just tells us that in Germany we need to talk more about human rights. But the study also contained some positive results. More than half of those surveyed said they could imagine getting more involved in the issue of human rights. Thirty-eight percent also said that they had already campaigned for human rights at least once.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: So the good will is there, but why this striking lack of knowledge about the issue?

Lochbihler: Human rights abuses aren't a part of our everyday experience. The subject isn't always obligatory in our nation's schools. That's why we've started a national campaign in German schools that is reaching 13,000 teachers who are dealing with human rights issues and sharing their knowledge. It has been our experience that politics can be influenced if many people raise awareness about the fate of an individual or deplorable circumstances.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Do Germans take human rights too much for granted?

Lochbihler: Human rights seldom plays much of a role in our day to day lives. Usually, the issue is first raised in connection with foreign policy, catastrophes and wars. But we too seldom make an issue of the fact that human rights affect us all. The poll also showed that 72 percent of those surveyed were fully aware of human rights abuses in Germany. Xenophobia, errors in the judicial system and child poverty were named the most often.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: One country where human rights violations are a lot more obvious is China. Activists had hoped that the Olympic Games would improve the peoples' situation in that country …

Lochbihler: … and there have been a few tentative improvements. The highest court, for example, must now review all death sentences. We suspect, though we cannot be certain because the capital punishment statistics are a state secret, that the number of death sentences since then has fallen by about 10 percent. Press freedoms have also improved. But in the face of the serious and numerous human rights violations that are still occurring in China, it is clear that hopes for long term improvement will likely be disappointed. In China, more than 60 crimes are punishable with the death sentence. Torture and abuse are part of daily life in prisons. Those with a different opinion or who raise attention to social evils can expect imprisonment or a five-year re-education sentence handed down without a trial.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: So the situation is worse than it's ever been?

Lochbihler: In some areas violations of human rights are increasing, particularly because of the Olympic Games. Human rights activists who are especially critical and have used China's new openness to the world to talk about grievances have had to face extreme punishment, threats or they have been intimidated. China responded to the riots in Tibet with massive use of force.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: For months, German politicians have been bickering over how they should deal with the Olympic Games, China and the situation in Tibet. Should we participate? Boycott? Be more outspoken in our criticism? What would you suggest?

Lochbihler: We are constantly asked, what would be better? Soft-spoken diplomacy or public pressure? You really need both. But it's wishful thinking to think you can change anything with hushed-up diplomacy. Human rights violations in China, and with that I don't just mean Tibet, must be constructively and also publicly addressed. Our hope is that the German government will deepen its dialogue with the Chinese and call for improvements.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: The United States will elect a new president in November. Who would be the best president with regards to human rights?

Lochbihler: A central issue in the presidential campaign has been: "Should we close Guantanamo, yes or no?" Both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have clearly stated they want to close the prison camp. Obama also said he wants to impose limits on the parameters of secret service operations. John McCain has not made any statements about closing Guantanamo. He has said he is fundamentally opposed to torture, but he rejected proposed legislation that would have banned CIA torture methods like waterboarding. But it's imperative that the US government correct its policies. Under the guise of the battle against terror, the Bush administration has perpetrated many human rights violations, calling them security measures. Many other governments have taken advantage of this and jumped on the bandwagon.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: So no matter who wins in November, you believe the situation can only improve?

Lochbihler: I hope so, but as an activist I also know that promises made before the election are often no longer important after the votes are counted.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: You've spoken again and again about other countries jumping on the bandwagon. Are you also referring to the Germans?

Lochbihler: I'm referring to countries in every region. Western European countries have supported the USA and CIA by allowing kidnapping flights to take place in Europe and its airspace. The hearings of the German parliament probe have shown how deeply involved the government was. They also created the impression that the people in charge had no interest in learning from their mistakes. Prisoners, in some instances German citizens, sat hopelessly in torture prisons, and apparently the government was aware of this. The Germans have thus undermined their own credibility. You can't just turn your head away from something like that and then justify it by saying it was sloppiness or problems with coordination.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: What do you think those responsible should do?

Lochbihler: The (German) government needs to do much better job monitoring the intelligence services. There need to be regulations requiring their workers to observe human rights. The government is fully aware that it cannot deport anyone who is threatened with torture or the death penalty. Nevertheless, they still want to deport people to Algeria in the context of so-called "diplomatic assurances." But such agreements aren't worth the paper they are printed on. In one case, Sweden agreed to such an assurance and deported two people to Egypt who where then tortured in custody and ill-treated. Germany should never agree to such diplomatic assurances.

Interview conducted by Friederike Freiburg


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