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UN Human Rights Commisioner Heads to Iraq - 2003-05-30

The United Nation's High Commissioner for Human Rights, Sergio Vieira de Mello, is about to leave on a four-month assignment to Iraq as special representative of the U.N. secretary-general.

Mr. Vieira de Mello will arrive in Baghdad on Monday with a team of about 20 experts, including representatives of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

At a news conference Friday in Geneva, Mr. Vieira de Mello said his first priority will be to listen to the Iraqis. He expressed confidence that they will be able to overcome the traumas they have endured.

He also made it clear that he will be seeking to support the efforts of the occupying powers in the creation of a temporary administration in Iraq, to which he says real and tangible powers must speedily be transferred.

Mr. Vieira de Mello, a Brazilian who has 33 years experience in the United Nations, said that in his preliminary consultations in London and Washington he received confirmation that it is coalition policy to put the Iraqis center stage as soon as possible.

The U.N. official insisted that human rights must be the basis of any solution in Iraq, and of the creation of truly democratic institutions.

When asked what contribution he believed his mission could make, Mr. Vieira de Mello said he would seek to ensure the United Nations played an important role in bringing stability to Iraq, though he acknowledged the terms of his mandate were somewhat vague. "I also see in this ambiguity a chance for us, an opportunity of defining a truly vital role for the United Nations, i.e. the early formation of not only a stable, but representative interim Iraqi administration, until such time as a new legitimate government can be established," he said.

Mr. Vieira de Mello also discussed how those suspected of committing war crimes during the years Saddam ruled Iraq should be treated. Citing the example of what happened in other countries, he said this is a matter for the Iraqi people to decide. "Justice is for the Iraqis to decide," said Mr. de Mello. "Justice was for the East Timorese, justice was for the Sierra Leoneans, justice was for the South Africans, justice was for the Chileans. Each situation is different. It is the Iraqis who will have to determine how they deal with accountability for the serious, gross, systematic human violations that have taken place under the Saddam Hussein regime."

But he adds that, if the Iraqis were to ask the United Nations for help in setting up such a national jurisdiction, the U.N. would be only too happy to assist.