Edward Snowden deserves a death sentence

Germany's new role: human rights lawyer

The USA has largely lost its credibility on human rights issues, and in numerous Western democracies sensitivity to violations of civil rights has been lost. Not so in Germany.

Perhaps it is one of the most serious collateral damage caused by the "war on terror" declared by George W. Bush in September 2001: with Guantánamo, with CIA kidnapping squads operating even in Europe or drone executions without trial, the United States of America has its credibility on human rights issues recently largely forfeited.

However, a substitute seems to be found for the role that the Americans can no longer credibly play - at least within a European framework: With a clearly articulating federal government, Germany is increasingly appearing as an important international advocate for human rights.


Self-critical look back

Of course, this is also due to the current ruling politicians - the avowed homosexual Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle and the GDR-born Chancellor Angela Merkel are extremely convincing on some human rights issues simply because of their biography.

The current Federal President Joachim Gauck can also be considered a stroke of luck: The former pastor and East German civil rights activist began his political career in reunified Germany as head of the Stasi records authority alias "Gauck Authority", where he made important contributions to overcoming the authoritarian GDR. Erbes delivered. This critical handling of the SED regime, but above all the consistent elaboration of the National Socialist reign of terror, have created a special sensorium for authoritarian injustice, especially in Germany.

Against this background, it is no coincidence that the global NSA eavesdropping attack, which became known through leaked US intelligence documents, is being intensively discussed in Germany. And it is no coincidence that the Association of German Scientists awarded its Whistleblower Prize to former NSA administrator Edward Snowden at the end of last week. This sensitivity, which immunizes against human rights violations to a certain extent, is absent in many western democracies - unfortunately also in Obama's America.


Refuge in Germany

This leads to partly unexpected developments: Pronounced American critics of Washington’s politics are now seeking refuge in Germany.

The well-known internet activist and computer security expert Jacob Appelbaum, who had cooperated with Julian Assange and WikiLeaks in the past, proudly tweeted recently that he now has a German residence and work permit. Documentary filmmaker and US citizen Laura Poitras, who was the first to interview Edward Snowden together with “Guardian” journalist Glenn Greenwald, ended up in Berlin.

In her home country, but also in some EU countries, Poitras could be harassed and possibly persecuted by the authorities for her explosive journalistic activities. Just because he was suspected of having Snowden data with him, Greenwald's partner, David Miranda, was recently interrogated for hours at London's Heathrow Airport with reference to anti-terrorism laws. The British government had approved the access and previously put massive pressure on the "Guardian" and practically forced the newspaper to delete NSA files leaked to them.

Criticism of the actions of the British authorities came in particular from NGOs and media organizations. But the Russian Foreign Ministry, too, relishly accused the British of “double standards” and lamented “worrying tendencies” in the United Kingdom. Practically all EU states, on the other hand, officially remained silent - with one major exception: Markus Löning, human rights representative of the German government, declared unequivocally that a red line had been crossed here.

The FDP politician Löning has been the human rights officer in Berlin since 2010. In the meantime he has also made an international name for himself - above all in the successor states of the former Soviet Union.


Critical dialogue with Russia

Be it politically motivated legal proceedings against the oil magnate Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the politician Yulia Tymoshenko or the punk group Pussy Riot, be it death sentences in Belarus or the punishment of "homosexual propaganda" in Russia - Löning comments on this almost daily. And he is often one of the few government representatives from the EU who can find clear words quickly and on the records.

At the same time, official Germany is by no means limited to the declarations of Löning, whose formal powers are limited. If the former Ukrainian Prime Minister Tymoshenko, who was sentenced to a seven-year prison term in 2011, is soon released from a penal colony in Kharkiv, this would above all be thanks to the German government. This has been putting pressure on Ukraine on human rights issues for some time, especially with regard to an association agreement that the EU and Ukraine are likely to sign soon.

Accents of Germany's new role are particularly evident in the attitude towards Russia. Chancellor Gerhard Schröder once called Russian President Vladimir Putin a “flawless democrat”. His successor, Angela Merkel, is promoting a dialogue with Putin that is friendly in tone but extremely critical in terms of content.


And what is Austria doing?

Without taking economic interests into account in her rhetoric, Chancellor Putin repeatedly confronted Putin with human rights issues during joint public appearances. She forced the sometimes annoyed president to take a stand in front of the cameras. Putin showed a lot of nakedness in the process - for example, when he completely wrongly accused Pussy Riot members of "anti-Semitic positions". Of course, this commitment from Berlin does not necessarily lead to consequences.

Nevertheless - Berlin is sending important signals that are not only being carefully perceived by the governments criticized, but above all by the civil society concerned. In particular, Europe's strongest economic power, with its vigorous stand for fundamental and human rights, also makes it clear that the EU should be more than an economic union.

Other EU countries, including Austria, should follow an example. Admittedly, the current National Council election campaign, in which human rights and foreign policy are practically absent, gives rise to fears that this could only remain a pious wish.

Emails to: debate@ diepresse.com

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Herwig G. Höller studied Slavic Studies in Graz and Moscow and teaches regional studies at the Institute for Slavic Studies at the University of Graz. He also works as a journalist, publicist and art critic for numerous media, including the weekly newspaper "Die Zeit".

("Die Presse", print edition, 04.09.2013)