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UN: Despite Politics, Commission Remains Key Human Rights Forum

  • Robert McMahon

The UN Commission on Human Rights begins its annual six-week meeting in Geneva on Monday (19 March) amid signs of concern that its effectiveness is restrained by the politicization of the body. RFE/RL's UN correspondent Robert McMahon looks at the ambitious agenda set by the commission and the prospects for bringing about reform in countries where human rights abuses are reported to be widespread.

United Nations, 16 March 2001 (RFE/RL) -- International human rights experts say it can be a painstaking process getting countries to acknowledge and correct abuses of their citizens' rights.

Despite the obligations of the UN Charter and numerous human rights treaties that many member-states have signed, the process of reforming countries that fail to comply is slow and filled with political machinations.

So the annual month-and-a-half meeting in Geneva of the Commission on Human Rights, the UN's main organ for discussion of human rights abuses, is seen by some as a frustrating exercise.

The 53-member commission, chosen by the UN regional groupings, can respond to human rights concerns by appointing special investigators, sending commissions to probe allegations or simply by placing a country on its agenda for discussion.

Michael Colson, executive director of UN Watch -- a Geneva-based private monitoring group -- says that all these tools have been employed in the past. But he thinks they have been used unevenly because of political maneuvering within the commission.

Colson cites the example of China, which in recent years has successfully blocked U.S. efforts to have the commission debate its human rights record. He also notes the watering down of a resolution last year that called for Russia to investigate human rights abuses in Chechnya.

"While we hope that that process will lead to a greater respect and promotion and protection of human rights, you can't divorce yourself from the fact that it is highly, highly political and on issues like Russia, you cannot get around the very, very intense political dimension to it."

Colson and other rights monitors are concerned by the composition of this year's commission, which includes new members such as Cuba, Syria, Libya, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. These nations are all rated by monitors as having particularly poor rights records.

But spokesman Jose Diaz of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights says he does not think the commission's newly elected members dramatically change its composition. Diaz acknowledges that the commission is a political body but says it has still achieved measurable progress.

"It does remain, of course, a political body and sometimes the discourse that one hears in it is one in which countries defend their policies more than perhaps advancing human rights in a disinterested way. But I think the progress that has been made must be recognized."

Among the items on the commission's agenda this year will be discussions related to racism, minorities, and migrant workers. The rights of women and violence against women will also be discussed, as will torture, disappearances, and summary executions.

There will be a special commission debate on 26 March on tolerance and respect, encompassing a wide range of issues from religion to education to treatment of refugees. A month later (17 April), the commission will hear the first report from the new UN special representative on human rights defenders, Hina Jilani. A lawyer from Pakistan appointed last year, Jilani has been charged with protecting individuals and organizations which report on human rights.

The commission will also consider reports presented by more than a dozen special rapporteurs appointed to investigate countries where allegations of the most serious human rights abuses have been made. This year's presentations will include an appraisal of conditions in Afghanistan (rapporteur: Kamal Hossain), Yugoslavia and Kosovo (Jiri Dientsbier), Iraq (Andreas Mavrommatis), Iran (Maurice Copithorne), and Russia (UN High Commissioner Mary Robinson).

Reports released earlier this week indicate that Iran and Iraq will face harsh criticism before the commission. The rapporteur for Iraq, Andreas Mavrommatis, said Iraqi citizens continue to face torture, arbitrary detention, and forced expulsion by the government.

The rapporteur for Iran, Maurice Copithorne, said a conservative backlash against reform efforts has led to severe press restrictions, suffering by religious minorities, and an unfair judicial system. Both Mavrommatis and Copithorne have not been allowed to visit their respective target countries to complete their reporting.

High Commissioner Mary Robinson said at a news conference last month that she had pressed the case for a Copithorne visit during recent meetings with Iranian officials in Tehran. She said a very tense situation has developed between conservative and reformist elements in Iran.

"I was more conscious of the extent of the tensions, the extent of the pressures on those who are seeking reform and the serious violations of human rights that have taken place in recent times, and the importance of finding ways to ensure that there is more structured and institutionalized progress of reform in Tehran."

This year's session of the commission is also expected to feature a resolution introduced by the Czech government alleging human rights violations in Cuba. Cuba reacted angrily to last year's resolution, co-sponsored by the Czech Republic and Poland. Earlier this year, Cuba detained two Czech democracy activists for 24 days in what was seen as partial retaliation for last year's commission resolution.

This year's Czech draft resolution also contains criticism of the U.S. economic sanctions against Cuba. That has raised concerns domestically that Czech officials were weakening their stance on rights reforms.

A UN representative for Human Rights Watch, Joanna Weschler, applauds last year's actions by the Czech Republic, which included co-sponsoring a resolution calling on Russia to investigate rights abuses in Chechnya. Weschler says the Czech Republic fulfilled its obligations but also showed some political courage.

"It takes a certain degree of courage -- especially to take on a controversial country resolution -- but some governments have demonstrated that courage. "

Non-governmental organizations such as Human Rights Watch are able to interact regularly with government delegations at the Human Rights Commission, and have a significant voice throughout the proceedings. Colson of UN Watch says this interaction means that, politics aside, the language of human rights is heard at a major world forum for at least six weeks.

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