Universitas Helsingiensis

How does big brother watch us?

How does big brother watch us?Martin Scheinin travels round the world and researches the way in which dirty tactics are being used in the fight against terrorism.

The way that Israel’s security fence was routed near the Bedouin family’s home meantthat they were forced into isolation – life as they knew it is on the other side of the army checkpoint. The Israelis let their daughters pass on their way to school only after they have been checked to make sure they pose no threat to the security of the settlements. A female soldier carries out the checks but this is not a satisfactory solution for the Bedouin father: girls are not allowed to be touched so they no longer go to school.

Who is right and who is wrong? Is checking clothes a humiliating experience or is the father wielding disproportionate patriarchal power? Who needs protecting, and in whose affairs should we intervene?

“The answers aren’t always black or white,” says Professor Martin Scheinin, UN Special Rapporteur and a guru on human rights law. “I don’t belong to the school of legal scholars who say that the state is always a citizen’s highest form of security.

In a free society, different communities and ethnic groups have the space to monitor their own affairs.”

“However, we have to have international monitoring to supplement a group’s internal control and ensure their rights are implemented. I want to defend the right of Muslims to wear a veil but by the same token, the right not to wear one.”

Shadow boxing doesn’t pay off

Professor Scheinin has been mulling over Israeli issues since his July visit. The UN has appointed him to monitor how the fight against terrorism affects the implementation of human rights, and the UN Human Rights Council expects him to report about Israel, South Africa and the United States. He knows all too well that there is a furore in the offing. “No matter what I say about Israel, I rub someone up the wrong way. But never mind,” says the Professor shaking his head and giving a smile.

You develop a pretty thick skin when your position of trust takes you to interview prisoners in Turkish jails, to question the CIA about secret rendition flights and to follow the trial in Miami of Jose Padilla who has risen to become a symbol of the war against terrorism and who has been locked up for years.

The Council’s reactions to Professor Scheinin’s reports will determine whether his UN duties will continue to consume a considerable share of his time. His “enlistment” is due up next year.

“Then we’ll both – the organisation and me – consider whether we would be interested in another term.”

Besides a thick skin, UN trips call for enthusiasm to sit in meetings. The party on the other side of the table can be anyone – ministerial minions, people from nongovernmental organisations, researchers, politicians, intelligence service folk, military authorities or representatives of the judicial system.

“Many other UN Special Rapporteurs focus on grass-root issues such as prison conditions where – as I try to obtain a picture of legislation and all that it entails – including how the legislation is enforced.”

A broader job description explains why of all the UN Special Rapporteurs, Professor Scheinin was the one invited to visit the United States. Even he was denied permission to talk in confidence with the prisoners at Guantanamo, so the prisons were left out of the programme, but there were still plenty of important matters to deal with.

“The CIA takes a really dim view of cooperating with the UN,” he says, summing up his impressions. “They didn’t consent to answer questions concerning secret prisons, rendition flights or torturous interrogation methods. The difference with visits to other countries was huge. At least with the Turkish, South African and Israeli intelligence services we were able to discuss matters and call things by their right names.”

Science or law?

Professor Scheinin has no intention of getting caught up in shadow boxing with the United States – or any other power giant for that matter. There is plenty of more fruitful work to do.

It sounds practical, and he associated law with practicality when he first became interested in it during his student years. The son of a dental scientist took the view that the natural sciences were the only true sciences; to him, law was more a tool of influence. “I first read biochemistry at university but my studies did not progress quite as I’d hoped. Then I became interested in student politics and found my way into law.”

The Professor says that he only became conscious of the unanswered research questions in law after a spell of practical work. University began to sound attractive again when his duties as a constitutional law jurist in Parliament ignited his interest in international affairs and the routine cycles of the profession had become familiar through and through.

However, the UN Special Rapporteur is not driven by academic passion. Professor Scheinin speaks of moral commitment. A day’s good work awaits its doer. But doesn’t a committed person get depressed on these journeys round the world?

“The pendulum swings from good to bad and back again. We are not living in particularly dismal times. Besides human rights violations, I monitor reform processes and especially active social dialogues. Every single country has something to offer that would serve as a model for others.”

Washing our own dirty laundry

There has been a fortunate turn in the way the UN works, which Professor Scheinin acknowledges having been involved in. “The Counter-Terrorism Committee under the auspices of the Security Council took a tough stance after the 9/11 attacks, as if the UN itself had no need to respect human rights. But discussions about the issue have been successful and the Committee has softened its position. And in a decade from now, the fight for human rights will be easier than it is at present.”

When asked to prognosticate, Professor Scheinin smiles and says, “We’re bringing into being a world human rights court whose jurisdiction is legally binding and to which anyone can complain about violations to his or her human rights.”

His visualisation of the human rights tribunal makes a judicial separation from the state-oriented way of thinking. “Multinational companies, global organisations and other non-state actors have acquired a lot of power in recent years. It would be important for a future world human rights court to examine their actions as well.”

Virve Pohjanpalo