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UN Human Rights Officials Arrive in Iraq - 2003-05-09

The first of seven United Nations human rights officials has arrived in Iraq on long-term assignment. The U.N. Human Rights Office says the officials will work to ensure that the human rights of Iraqi civilians are protected. U.N. Human Rights Spokesman Jose Dias calls the officials' arrival in the northern city of Irbil significant. He notes this is the first time any member of the United Nations Human Rights staff has been allowed to enter Iraq.

Mr. Dias says, over the years, independent special investigators have made some fact-finding trips to Iraq to examine allegations of abuse, such as torture and mass killings. But, he says, Saddam Hussein never allowed U.N. Human rights officials into the country.

Among other things, he says, the U.N. officials will oversee the fair distribution of aid. "In providing the human rights perspective, making sure that the principle of non-discrimination is observed, so that people get aid according to need and not according to ethnicity, religion or political affiliation," he explained. "There have been problems in Iraq before with discrimination."

Mr. Dias says these are issues that could arise in the near future, as the needs of the people are addressed. He says the human rights officers will also play a role in ensuring the protection of civilians. For instance, he says, many people now are being thrown out of their homes by people who are coming back to reclaim the property they lost under Saddam Hussein's regime. "This situation had been caused in the past by a policy of the regime, a policy of displacing people by ethnicity," he said. "I am talking about the Arabization program. People of Arabic origin had been sent to the north, displacing Kurdish people. Kurdish people are now coming back to claim the property that they lost."

Mr. Dias says the human rights officials will not have a role in investigating abuses committed during the time of Saddam Hussein. But, he says, they might look into future reports of violations, and, if asked, will help rebuild human rights institutions, including Iraq's judicial system.