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UN: Human Rights Panel Closes Session With Mixed Results

  • Robert McMahon

The world's most important forum for human rights deliberations concludes its annual session today (27 April) with a mixed record of achievements. The panel highlighted rights abuses in Chechnya, Iran, and Iraq but failed again to discuss the situation in China. UN correspondent Robert McMahon reports on the key developments of the six-week session.

United Nations, 27 April 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The United Nations Human Rights Commission completes six weeks of work today in Geneva with what some activists call a mixed record of success in dealing with the world's worst human rights situations.

The commission's final two weeks were dominated by its most high-profile events -- the country resolutions in which nations with poor rights records are singled out for evaluation.

The commission passed strong resolutions criticizing abuses in Chechnya, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Iran. But it chose not to condemn Cuba's human rights practices, supporting a weaker resolution instead, and sided with a Chinese initiative blocking any discussion of Beijing's record.

For the second straight year, the commission passed a resolution condemning human rights abuses by Russian forces against civilians in Chechnya. The resolution did not set up an international commission of inquiry into the abuses as called for by human rights activists, but activists said they still welcomed the measure.

The UN representative for Human Rights Watch, Joanna Weschler, told RFE/RL the Chechnya resolution affirmed the commission's dissatisfaction with Russia's response to previous calls to improve the situation.

"I think it is due to the nature and severity of human rights violations in that region that the commission acted correctly."

Weschler said she hopes the resolution will bring about better cooperation between Russia and UN human rights monitors.

The commission also voted to maintain intensive monitoring of rights abuses in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Iran by special rapporteurs for another one-year period. The commission said the Iranian government had made some efforts to increase respect for human rights. But it expressed concern over recent restrictions on freedom of expression and freedom of the press and over a harsh crackdown after student demonstrations.

Iraq and Afghanistan were criticized more severely for some of the most widespread abuses discussed by the commission.

Johan Molander of Sweden, speaking on behalf of the European Union, told the commission at the time of the vote last week that the Iraqi government had continued to violate human rights systematically and blatantly.

"Amongst these blatant violations of human rights, the suppression of fundamental freedoms, the repression of any kind of opposition, the widespread use of the death penalty, summary and arbitrary executions, and widespread systematic torture is particularly abhorrent."

The commission also noted that the work of the rapporteurs appointed for Iraq and Iran had been hampered by a refusal of the governments to allow them to make first-hand investigations. Another development cited by human rights activists was the commission's decision to move ahead with plans to draft a legally binding instrument aimed at protecting people from enforced disappearances. The commission appointed an independent expert to examine existing laws on involuntary disappearances and make recommendations that will be discussed at next year's commission. Weschler, of Human Rights Watch, says the measure may help curtail what she called one of the most "painful and prolonged" violations of human rights.

But despite the gains at this year's session, some observers pointed to the continuing politicization of the 53-member human rights commission.

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson raised concerns early on, telling the commission there was a large gap between words and actions in the field of human rights. She then announced she would not seek a new term in office this autumn, citing the constraints imposed on her activities by the multilateral agency. Robinson was later persuaded to seek a one-year extension.

Rights activists were especially critical of the countries joining the commission this year. Perennial commission members China and Cuba -- often accused of rights violations -- were joined by other countries with poor records such as Syria, Libya, Algeria, and Vietnam.

The UN's democratic system of electing members to the commission in some ways serves to undermine the aims of a rights panel, says Michael Goldfarb, a spokesman for the New York-based non-governmental organization Freedom House.

Goldfarb tells RFE/RL that the United Nations should introduce some sort of membership criteria for countries wishing to join the rights commission in order to avoid tainting its reputation.

"While the commission doesn't have legal weight, legal authority -- there really isn't legal authority behind the resolutions -- there is great moral authority and there is great moral weight to them. People pay attention to the commission's deliberations."

Goldfarb and other observers cite China as a case in point. They accuse China of major rights abuses, including a harsh crackdown on religion, especially members of the Falun Gong movement.

The United States had proposed a resolution in Geneva, noting China's progress in improving the lives of its people but also pointing out areas of concern in political, religious, and civil rights. But as in previous years, China managed to convince the developing nations serving on the commission to remove the U.S. resolution from the UN commission's agenda. China has successfully applied such lobbying tactics in all but one year during the past decade.

The United States also sought support for a vote condemning Cuba. But there was only enough support to narrowly approve a Czech-sponsored resolution that called on Cuba to respect human rights. In another move seen as disappointing for rights activists, the commission did not extend the mandate of a special rapporteur for human rights in Rwanda, where seven years ago hundreds of thousands of people were killed. The panel instead approved a resolution that called for the UN High Commissioner's Office to respond to any requests for human rights assistance made by the Rwandan government.

Weschler, of Human Rights Watch, says there was a disturbing pattern of voting this year in which countries with little in common except poor human rights records, consistently voted together.

"We may be dealing with something like a solidarity of abusers. Abusive governments are not likely to ostracize any other government out of fear of becoming a target."

Human rights campaigners say that the best way to build momentum on the UN Human Rights Commission is to try to ensure that more qualified countries are selected for the panel. The UN's Economic and Social Council each year selects one-third of the commission members for three-year terms. The vote for next year's new members will be held next week at UN headquarters in New York.

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