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Controversy Hangs Over Human Rights Day at UN

United Nations' observances of Human Rights Day, Friday, were overshadowed by questions about the legitimacy of the main U.N. human rights body. A high-level panel recently concluded that the U.N. Human Rights Commission is damaging the world body's reputation.

U.N. headquarters observed Human Rights Day with a General Assembly debate, a news conference and two panel discussions featuring prominent rights activists.

Opening the debate, Deputy U.N. Secretary General Louise Frechette noted that, 56 years after adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, it remains largely an unfulfilled dream. "This Human Rights Day is also an occasion to remember persisting human rights abuses around the world, and to point to the enormous efforts still needed to make human rights a reality for all," she said.

But hanging over the observances was a report issued last week by a high-level U.N. panel concluding that the U.N. Human Rights Commission suffers from a legitimacy deficit. The panel, appointed by Secretary General Kofi Annan, says the commission's failures cast doubt on the world body's overall reputation.

The United States and many European countries have complained for years that the commission's membership includes nations accused of gross rights abuses. Among the 53 current members are Cuba, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Zimbabwe, all targets of criticism for their human rights records.

As a means of improving the commission's effectiveness, the high-level panel recommends increasing the membership to include all 191 U.N. member states. But Joanna Weschler of Human Rights Watch, who spoke at Human Rights Day observances, told VOA expanding the commission's size would make it weaker, not stronger. "It's a terrible idea. The report provides a good analysis of what's wrong with the commission. In other words, it points out that governments are there not to protect human rights, but to protect themselves from criticism," she said. "It points out that the main problem is the membership, but then almost in the same breath it says we need to expand membership to all 191 countries, which really isn't the cure, it's not going to solve anything. If anything it's likely to make the commission more ineffective, more of a talk shop."

Dutch Ambassador Dirk Van den Berg, speaking on behalf of the European Union, cautioned the General Assembly Friday that talking about human rights is of no use, unless it leads to concrete action. "We can proclaim decades, we can adopt programs of action, we can adopt resolutions as much as we want. If these do not result in concrete activities, if these do not lead to improvement on the ground, all our efforts will have been entirely in vain," he said.

In a separate observance of Human Rights Day, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour this week said the response to international terrorism had been confused. Ms. Arbour, a former Canadian Supreme Court justice, cautioned countries not to curb personal freedom in the fight against terror, because they may make it easier for terrorist groups to recruit members.