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Germany

Merkel Makes Human Rights a Top Priority

In keeping with her consistently outspoken stance on sensitive issues, Germany's chancellor did not mince words on human rights during her visit to China this week. Experts say her style will increase Germany's clout.

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Angela Merkel is respected for her pragmatic manner in addressing sensitive issues

German Chancellor Angela Merkel is setting a clear course when it comes to human rights.

"This is an issue that is being supported from the top and it is significant that this is the case," said Günter Nooke, the German government's human rights representative.

He said the differences between Merkel and her predecessor Gerhard Schröder were "self-evident." Schröder, who had a very close relationship to Russian president Vladimir Putin, had called the leader a "flawless democrat." Merkel, on the other hand, addressed sensitive issues such as Chechnya when she went to Moscow in January.

She also broached the delicate subject of the US prison camp at Guantanamo Bay before and during her inaugural visit to Washington in January.

No n eed to schmooze i n Chi n a

Eberhard Sandschneider, director of the German Council on Foreign Relations' Research Institute, said he wasn't surprised that Merkel had talked about human rights concerns while in Beijing.

China Todesstrafe

Experts estimate that at least 8,000 people get the death penalty in China each year

"It isn't astonishing, as human rights are always an issue when one of our politicians goes to China," Sandschneider said. "This sends a signal at home."

But Merkel's course was more positive than Schröder's, Sandschneider said.

"We finally have someone who recognizes that China doesn't need to be schmoozed," he said. "Rather, a common base needs to be found and we can go from there. They can handle the criticism."

Merkel is a tough but ho n est part n er

Merkel said at the end of her China visit that the country "still had deficits in human rights.

"The Chinese are tough negotiators," Merkel told German television ZDF. "So we have to counter just as toughly and make clear that we don't have anything to give away."

This style of dialogue was by no means detrimental to international ties, Nooke said.

Angela Merkel bei George Bush in Washington

US President Bush praised Merkel as a "clear thinker"

"An interesting partner is someone who has their own opinion," Nooke said. "The fact that there are differences of opinion doesn't make us any less interesting."

Merkel's criticism of human rights issues in Beijing, Moscow and Washington have been positively received on the international stage. Sandschneider said this was because she came across authentically.

"She has an honest and straightforward manner and people value this," Sandschneider said.

The first step i n a lo n g process

Human rights organizations have welcomed Merkel's course. Beate Wagner from the Human Rights Forum's (HRF) coordination group said there had been a consistent upgrading of human rights under Merkel. The HRF is a network of more than 40 German non-governmental organizations, which critically monitor the human rights policies of the German government.

"Human rights issues have been explicitly well positioned on her inaugural visits," said Wagner, who is also secretary general of the German Society for the United Nations. She said this marked an "improvement" to the Schröder government and was a first step.

"Now, more work needs to be done," Wagner said. "We'll have to see how much gets implemented in bilateral relations. But we are positively looking forward to see what happens next."

Of course, experts agree that Merkel's criticism will not solve problems overnight.

"You can't have the illusion that one government is going to make a difference," Wagner said. "But it is part of an international climate, which can exert pressure."

Germa n y should use its i n ter n atio n al role i n 2007

In January, Germany will take over the six-month rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union. It will also hold the G8 presidency in 2007.

Europarat in Strasburg - Council of Europe

Germany will chair the Council of the European Union for the first half of 2007

Wagner said Germany could use these positions to increase international pressure regarding human rights.

"It can set impulses in UN meetings, for example, when it has the voice as head of the European Council," she said.

Nooke said he was interested in keeping human rights on the agenda in the European Council next year.

"It is important that Europe pull together and carry weight in international bodies," Nooke said. "We have to have the courage to address critical issues. It can be that someone may not be happy with this, but in the medium and long term, it's worth it."

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