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UN Human Rights Commission Gets Mixed Reviews - 2003-04-26

Human Rights groups are giving mixed reviews to the annual meeting of the United Nations' Human Rights Commission, which ended Friday in Geneva.

Activists point to the first-time censure by the U.N. Human Rights Commission of North Korea, Belarus and Turkmenistan as positive steps to address abuses taking place in those countries. But they say this year's commission session, the 59th, has also resulted in a further decline in commitment to fulfill the commission's mandate to promote and protect human rights worldwide.

One group, Human Rights Watch, argues that serious rights violators are forming voting blocks within the commission to avoid scrutiny and censure of other abusing countries.

The group's U.N. representative, Joanna Weschler, charges that commission members Algeria, Libya, Sudan, Syria and Zimbabwe have joined forces with China, Cuba and Russia to derail important resolutions. African governments, she says, have also worked together. The result, she says, has been to end the mandate of the U.N. rights investigator for Sudan and to pre-empt review of Zimbabwe's rights record and Russian military actions in Chechnya. Ms. Weschler noted that China and Iran never even came up for discussion. "What is really extremely upsetting in this situation that has developed right now, we see complete forgetting about victims. Nobody talks about victims. We have a clear concerted effort on the part of violating countries to weaken the commission, to possibly get rid of any country resolution and to pull out any teeth of U.N. human rights monitoring," she said.

Likely new candidates to the 53-nation U.N. Human Rights Commission include North Korea, Iran, Egypt and Nigeria, and Cuba is up for re-election. Twenty-four members will be elected to two-year terms in late April or May.

The Libyan ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva, Najat al Hajjaji, who chaired this year's commission session, won praise from most activists for her handling of the debate. But they argue that Libya's rights record should disqualify it from the privilege of chairing the commission. They argue that Libya along with Algeria, Zimbabwe, Cuba, China, India and Syria have yet to invite a U.N. expert to investigate rights concerns.

While activists argue that rights abusing nations have too much influence on the Commission, Ambassador Hajjaji expressed concern that western countries have too much influence. She said the commission is dividing along north-south lines, and she argues that the criteria for membership should not be drawn up only by the U.N.'s most powerful countries. "I am worried that this commission will be like the Security Council," she said. "It will be only for those who think that they are good guys and they prevent the bad guys from joining the commission."

Activists say that the United States and the European Union worked together to bring about censure of North Korea, Belarus and Turkmenistan. But groups, like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, argue they could have done more.

The head of the U.S. delegation, Ambassador Jeanne Kirkpatrick, refutes the charge. "Anyone who imagines that the United States is not being pro-active when we do not ourselves sponsor a resolution is making a mistake. We were, for example, very active on Sudan. And we did not take the lead. We ended as one of the sponsors of the resolution," she said. "And we worked actively on it. So don't fall for that line."

The commission session, which coincided with the war in Iraq, voted not to hold a special hearing on the conflict. But a resolution on the human rights situation in Iraq passed on Friday by a vote of 31-3.

It calls for an examination of violations committed by Saddam Hussein's regime, focusing on newly available information. It also extends for another year the mandate of the U.N. rights investigator for Iraq. The resolution does not call for the deployment of U.N. human rights monitors throughout Iraq, a request made by several rights groups.

Also on Friday, the commission unanimously approved a resolution demanding countries protect human rights as they fight against terrorism. The resolution allows the U.N. body to examine the methods countries are using to combat terrorism to see if they violate rights standards. But the commission would have no power to force changes.