Human rights official quits
Percy MacLean clashed with institute's board over his focus on abuses
By Carola Schlagheck
Only half a year after taking up his post, the first director
new German Institute of Human Rights resigned last week after repeated
clashes with the institute's board of directors over his tough stance
on domestic civil rights issues.
"There were certain disagreements on how detailed we should look into
certain issues, not a dispute over whether domestic issues should be
dealt with at all," Percy MacLean said in an interview with F.A.Z.
Weekly. However, the board considered it "politically too explosive"
to check whether the country actually complies with international
human rights obligations, and instead wanted to restrict itself to
merely scrutinizing the obligations, he added. "The institute is
supposed to offer consulting services for politicians. This means for
me also to give the impetus for better implementation."
The tax-financed institute was launched last March, based on a
parliamentary decision in 2000. It is run by the director and a board,
or curatorship, that includes representatives of political parties,
ministries, rights organizations, the news media and academia. Six of
the 12 board members with voting rights - government representatives
are not allowed to vote - carried a vote of no-confidence in MacLean,
prompting him to resign.
"One of the main problems was that the director's independence is not
guaranteed. You can accomplish such a task only if the director is
completely independent," MacLean said. To ensure greater independence,
he said, it should take more votes to oust the director.
The managing director of the human rights organization Pro Asyl,
Günter Burkhardt, told F.A.Z. Weekly that MacLean's resignation was a
"severe setback that plunges the institute into crisis. MacLean
addressed the central human rights issues in Germany, such as
deportation custody of one and a half years," Burkhardt said. His
"forced resignation" questions the credibility of the federal
government, because one can only stand up for human rights abroad
credibly if one does so in one's own country, Burkhardt added.
Barbara Unmüssig, the board's vice president and head of the Heinrich
Böll Foundation, which is affiliated with the Green party, is
temporarily running the institute. She confirmed that there had been
major disputes with MacLean about how the institute should tackle
The board particularly disliked MacLean's idea of involving the
institute with individual cases of rights violations because these are
already handled by other institutions, she said. Moreover, she said,
it was not the institute's task to take a stance on labor issues. The
institute will continue to look into rights violations in Germany and
the implementation of international agreements, she said.
MacLean, 55, had made it his first act upon taking office to cite
human rights violations within Germany, saying that this was the only
credible way one could ask other countries to uphold these rights. He
criticized Germany's deportation practices, its anti-terror laws and
the way old and sick people are treated, calling for a complete review
of legislation on foreigners and refugees and demanding research on
the right to work.
Among the contentious issues were the treatment of old people in
Germany, for which the country is regularly reprimanded by the United
Nations. It was considered by parts of the board to be a social issue
and therefore not the institute's responsibility, MacLean said. Yet
the institute's work was well received abroad, he continued, saying he
hoped that his resignation would allow for a fresh start because the
institute is "extremely important."
MacLean, whose surname comes from a Scottish ancestor who arrived in
what is now Poland in 1753, was born in the eastern German state of
Thuringia. The former judge of Berlin's administrative court will now
return to the bench. Unmüssig said the board had set up a working
group to appoint a new director and review the institute's structure.
© Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung 2002
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