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UN Council Goes After Human Rights Abusers

The 47-member United Nations Human Rights Council is set to examine widespread violations of human rights in countries such as Sudan and Somalia, as well as dealing with so-called thematic issues such as torture and discrimination. The three-week session, which opens Monday in Geneva, also will present the results of a fact-finding mission of Israel's raid on the Gaza-bound aid flotilla.

The U.N. Human Rights Council often is referred to as a "talking shop." Some members bristle at this description. Bente Angeli-Hansen is Norwegian Ambassador and Vice-President of the Council.

She says Norway and other members want to run the Council in an effective way. She says they want to do the utmost to have results that can make a difference in the lives of people.

"We have a very important debate coming up on discriminatory laws," she said. "There was a report three years ago that showed that discriminatory laws, they are basically in all countries all over the world. So, if we are able to make a change there, it can really make a difference to people, to women. So, this is an important priority for us."

The Council plans to hold, what it calls, an interactive dialogue on Somalia. Its aim is to engage the country in a constructive discussion on how to improve its deplorable human rights situation. The UN Human Rights Commissioner will participate, as will representatives from Somalia's transitional government and the African Union.

Sudan's human rights record will be examined. But, as of now, the widespread rapes and other atrocities committed in the Democratic Republic of Congo are not on the Council agenda.

However, Thai Ambassador and Council President, Sihasak, says that could change.

"It is important that the Council be able to react to emergency situations wherever and whenever they occur," said Sihasak. "And, of course, we always have the possibility of special sessions and there are procedures for these special sessions."

The United States sought membership in the Council a year ago, reversing a decision made under the previous Bush Administration.

Eileen Chamberlain Donahoe, the first U.S. Ambassador to the Council, says the United States is committed to making a difference on the ground to human rights defenders and victims.

She says one important way to enhance this goal is to assure freedom of expression and freedom of religion. And, one of Washington's priorities at this session is to appoint an independent expert on freedom of association.

"Freedom of Assembly is at the end of the day the fundamental pillar along with freedom of expression for protecting all human rights," she said. "And, we have found this theme to resonate across the board in region after region… So, this is something that truly is a universal right and we are going to work with our partners to make sure that it takes its place with the other fundamental freedoms at the Human Rights Council."

Chamberlain says the U.S. already has commitments from several countries to co-sponsor the resolution. They include Mexico, Nigeria, the Chech Republic and Lithuania. She says she expects the resolution to garner support from other countries in all regions.