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UN: East European States Get Strong Rating For Work On Rights Panel

  • Robert McMahon

At a time when the UN Human Rights Commission is accused of growing politicization, the former communist nations of Eastern Europe are being credited with working to uphold the commission's principles. The Czech Republic and Romania faced especially sharp criticism for their votes against Cuba and China in the commission's recently completed session in Geneva. Human rights campaigners say they represent a number of nations from the former Eastern bloc that have become an effective democratic group on the commission.

United Nations, 30 April 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Human rights supporters say the former communist nations of Eastern Europe are emerging as an important bloc of nations upholding rights standards at a time when international consensus is sensitive to political pressure.

The four East European nations on the UN Human Rights Commission -- Poland, Romania, the Czech Republic, and Latvia -- consistently voted for resolutions aimed at investigating or condemning the world's worst rights abuses during the panel's just-concluded session in Geneva.

They frequently joined with the United States and European Union nations in these votes on the 53-member commission. A number of other democracies on the commission, rights activists say, were more influenced by political considerations when countries such as China or Cuba faced censure.

Resolutions from the human rights commission are not legally binding, but they focus international attention on a country's human rights record.

The steady support for human rights shown by countries recently under totalitarian control is a sign of strengthening democracy, says Michael Goldfarb, spokesman for the New York-based Freedom House. Goldfarb tells RFE/RL that the fresh memory of human rights abuses in these countries has bolstered their commitment to reforms worldwide.

"I think there's a sense of solidarity among that bloc to raise awareness about systems today that still persist in other countries of the world that used to persist in their (region)."

The Czech Republic for the third year in a row introduced a resolution drawing attention to human rights problems in Cuba. The resolution did not include criticism of anti-Cuban economic sanctions, which it originally contained, due in part to U.S. objections. It also stopped short of formal condemnation of Cuba, instead calling on Cuba to respect international human rights standards and calling attention to the Cuban government's "repression of the political opposition."

Cuba, a member of the UN panel, had mounted a campaign urging other commission members to defeat the resolution. It passed by a vote of 22 to 20. The Czech deputy foreign minister, Martin Palous, speaking after the vote on April 18, said Czech officials felt an obligation to the Cuban people to speak out against what he said were ongoing abuses by the government in Havana.

"The fact that we had to undergo a very similar experience with our own totalitarian regime is a special reason why we Central Europeans cannot remain silent, why we feel obliged to repeat this initiative and to speak up together with other democratic countries on behalf of all those courageous individuals in Cuba defending human rights and fundamental freedoms, dreaming of a better future for their beautiful country while being silenced, harassed, and persecuted."

Cuba had defended its human rights record, saying it does more than most nations by ensuring its citizens are cared for through free health and other social services. After the resolution passed, Cuba accused the Czech government of following orders from the United States.

In another controversial vote, China again succeeded in blocking discussion by the commission of its human rights record. The commission voted 23 to 17 not to consider a U.S. resolution denouncing China for its repression of the Falun Gong spiritual movements, its restrictions on Tibetans and harsh actions against government opponents.

While China welcomed the result, it lashed out in a public session against Romania for voting against its "no-action" motion. Romania, with traditionally close ties with China, had voted along with Beijing in previous years.

But the deputy permanent representative of the Romanian mission in Geneva, Petru Dumitriu, told our correspondent that this year Bucharest felt strongly it was time for China to face scrutiny of its rights practices. Dumitriu said Romania regretted China's harsh criticism but said it was important to support the mandate of the human rights commission.

"I think that was a vote for the integrity of the commission and hopefully the good relations will survive through this, let's call it 'unpleasant surprise' for China, which did expect us to vote against the no-action motion like we did in the two previous years."

Dumitriu said Romania itself faced the investigations of a special rapporteur appointed by the human rights commission in the late 1980s. He said the country's own experience with the rapporteur was a positive one that allowed it to address serious human rights issues.

Romania this year introduced a resolution on continuing dialogue on measures to promote democracy, which was overwhelmingly approved. The resolution welcomes steps taken by countries to build and consolidate democratic institutions and encourages information sharing on democracy building from all regions of the world.

Dumitriu says the resolution helps affirm that democracy and respect for human rights are interdependent. It helps the commission, he says, stay focused on its main objective.

"We tend to forget that the commission of human rights is here to contribute to the improvement of the situation of human rights in all countries in the world and with that specific objective in mind, we can deal easily with what is called the politicization of the work of the commission of human rights."

This year's commission meeting also marked another step forward for Croatia. A resolution on human rights in southeastern Europe this year did not cite Croatia, as it had in previous years, because of the country's perceived advances. The resolution, which passed by a wide margin, focused on human rights in Bosnia-Herzegovina and the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, recognizing progress in both countries. But it also stressed the need for greater efforts to bring about the return of refugees and displaced persons in safety and to end all trafficking in people, an especially bad problem in Bosnia.

The commission also ended the mandate of the special rapporteur for the former Yugoslavia, Jiri Dientsbier of the Czech Republic. It created instead the position of special representative on the situation of human rights in Bosnia-Herzegovina and the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.

As a result of its progress, Croatia has signaled it will be a candidate from the East European region for the next elections to the UN Human Rights Commission. Those elections are to be held in the UN's Economic and Social Council later this week in New York. Members serve three-year terms.

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