December 1, 2003

Human rights conference yields ‘Atlanta Declaration’

Kay Torrance is assistant director of public information for the Carter Center.

Human rights activists from 41 countries, gathered Nov. 11–12 at the Carter Center for the conference, "Human Rights Defenders on the Frontlines of Freedom," called for more protection for themselves and their work as they come under increasing threats in the wake of the war on terrorism. They joined former President Jimmy Carter, U.N. Acting High Commissioner for Human Rights Bertrand Ramcharan, and U.N. Special Representative to the Secretary-General on Human Rights Defenders Hina Jilani.

The activists said their work is becoming increasingly dangerous, as many countries have expanded their police powers since 9/11 and some have used the war on terrorism as an excuse to crack down on human rights. A number of activists said they or their colleagues have been arrested on suspicion of terrorism because of their human rights work.

"There was a general consensus that the unconscionable terrorist attacks of September 2001 have precipitated policy changes in the United States and other nations because of preoccupation with the use of force as the sole means to combat terrorism," Carter said. "This is leading to an alarming erosion of the rule of law in established and emerging democracies and giving comfort to undemocratic governments that previously were the subject of intense pressure on their human rights policies."

For example, Eritrea jailed journalists after accusing them of having terrorist ties, and all independent press outlets were closed in September 2001. Colombian President Alvaro Uribe recently called human rights organizations "politickers at the service of terrorism" and defended expansive police powers such as arbitrary detentions and raids of civil society organizations. Also, members of the Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan were imprisoned on the basis of weak evidence and dubious trials for allegedly recruiting Islamic militants.

"There is a real threat to the preservation of norms of human rights," Jilani said. "Human rights would be sustainable if the rule of law was strengthened. We have almost abandoned political solutions to political problems. In the name of security, we have seen human rights standards being destroyed."

The defenders wrote an "Atlanta Declaration" with proposals to combat the troubling backslide on human rights since the beginning of the war on terrorism that will be presented to U.S. and other nations’ policymakers. In addition to calling for some legislation repeal, the activists asked for the human rights programs of the United Nations and other international bodies to be strengthened to ensure the autonomy needed to monitor and report on violations without undue political influence. UN reports detailing human rights should be given greater visibility, the declaration said.

"The escalating threats against human rights activists who challenge government policies, often at tremendous risk to themselves, are disturbing," said Ashley Barr, the Carter Center’s senior program associate for human rights. "The best way to ensure our collective security is to help the champions of liberty succeed in their own countries. We also must fight the war on terror in a way that will increase cooperation and determination among nations to root out extremism, while advancing justice."

To read a transcript of Carter’s remarks at the conclusion of the conference, access and to read the full text of the Atlanta declaration.