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Australian Ambassador Elected Chair of UN Human Rights Commission Session

The 53-member U.N. Human Rights Commission has elected Australian Ambassador Michael Smith as chairman of this year's six-week session. This year's election was tranquil compared to the controversy which surrounded last year's nomination by the African group of the Libyan ambassador to head the commission.

The newly elected chairman says he plans to exert an iron hand at this year's proceedings, which open March 15, so that the Commission can get through the heavy agenda facing it.

Among the many issues the commission will examine are recurring human rights abuses such as torture, forced disappearances, and extra-judicial and summary executions. It will also review such problems as pornography and the sexual exploitation of children.

As in previous years, the commission will spend the first week examining the human rights situation in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories. Mr. Smith said the Middle East comes up in several items and is always a contentious issue. "Item nine, which deals with country situations, is always fairly hotly contested because countries do not like to be criticized. That is an item under which particular situations of human-rights concern are debated and sometimes resolutions are adopted. And, there is a lot of resistance in those countries that are being criticized. But that is all part of it and that is part of what the Commission is here to do," he said.

Because of Iraq's radically changed circumstances, it no longer will figure among the list of country violators. But Mr. Smith said he does expect Iraq to be debated in some form or other at the Commission.

The election of the chairperson of the U.N. Human Rights Commission rotates annually among the five geographic regions. The election is normally achieved by consensus. This year's nomination by the Western Group of the Australian Ambassador ran into initial problems when the African Group decried Australia's human rights record and demanded a vote on his election. At the last moment, the confrontation was averted and Mr. Smith was elected by acclamation.

The ambassador describes himself as a plain speaking, pragmatic man who wants to see results. He said he would like to see the commission get more involved than in the past with human rights institutions in individual countries. "National institutions which are human rights commissions-ombudsmen, people like that, independent operators within a country, who understand the culture, who are rooted in the country, often can be a lot more effective in promoting and educating people and even investigating alleged abuses than the rather remote inter-governmental body and mechanism that we have here in Geneva," he said.

He also paid tribute to the previous U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Sergio Vieira de Mello, who was among 22 people killed in a bomb blast at U.N. headquarters last August in Baghdad.