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UN: Human Rights Commission Begins Debate Without U.S.

  • Don Hill

Delegates representing 53 member states and nongovernmental human rights groups have gathered in Geneva for the 58th annual session of the UN Human Rights Commission. RFE/RL correspondent Don Hill reports that for the first time in the commission's history, the United States is not seated at the table.

Prague, 26 March 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The famous fictional British detective Sherlock Holmes solved one of his most puzzling mysteries when he realized that a watchdog never barked on the night of the crime. The entire mystery centered on the lack of that growl.

At the 58th annual session of the UNHRC, the UN Human Rights Commission -- meeting from 18 March to 26 April in Geneva -- the United States is the dog that is failing to bark. For the first time in the commission's history, the U.S. has been denied a seat at the table and is attending only as an observer.

The absence of Washington's voice throughout the debates on issues such as human rights and combating terrorism, the right of poor countries to development, and the treatment of Palestinians in the occupied territories is likely to make a difference, although participants differ on how much.

In past years, the U.S. delegation has been influential in pressing for resolutions condemning the Russian military campaign in Chechnya and China's domestic human rights record. Many observers say that this year, resolutions on Chechnya and China, if they exist at all, are likely to be diluted.

Javier Solana, the European Union's foreign policy chief, said recently that the EU -- which sponsored resolutions on Chechnya in the past -- will not do so this year.

But Jose Luis Diaz, a spokesperson for the UNHRC, said yesterday that this does not mean the meeting will ignore major human rights problems: "The commission has such a big agenda, we're treating so many issues, that it would be hard to say that it is not dealing with interesting problems. This afternoon, it should start discussing the situation in the occupied Arab territories. And later in the week, it will take up the issue of individual country situations. Right now, it is finishing up a debate on the right to development."

Certainly, the year's hottest human rights issue will be addressed at length during the six-week session -- that is, the danger that the international campaign against terrorism will trample human rights in its effort to guarantee security.

Organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch joined late last week in an appeal to give human rights concerns more force in the UN Security Council's antiterrorism committee. Human Rights Watch's UN delegate Dianna Weschler tells RFE/RL that the declaration supports a similar call from outgoing UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson.

"Human Rights Watch, along with several other organizations, has made a call on the commission -- and that was made in support of a call that came out of the High Commissioner last Wednesday (20 March) -- the High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson -- to create a mechanism that would monitor the impact of the antiterrorism struggle on human rights."

This human rights and antiterrorism debate has awakened the U.S. "watchdog" somewhat. UNHRC spokesperson Diaz says the United States retains a voice in commission deliberations. "The U.S. has taken the floor, as it can with its status of observer country. It can also participate in another number of ways. So it could still influence the debate and the action of the commission."

U.S. Ambassador Kevin Moley generally had been maintaining a quiet presence, befitting his position this year as an observer at the UNHRC session. But Moley said on 20 March in a speech that, in effect, Robinson and the other delegates should stick to human rights issues and leave antiterrorism strategy to more knowledgeable bodies. "Terrorism is best addressed by states and in the appropriate UN fora that deal with terrorism."

Weschler of Human Rights Watch disagrees: "Perhaps the most central issue [of this year's session] is the issue of the potential impact of the antiterror struggle on human rights, which has been in some countries quite visible. In other words, because there is the obligation now by virtue of a Security Council resolution that was passed in September for governments to take all sorts of measures to combat terrorism, some governments are using this overall campaign for domestic purposes."

The reason for U.S. sensitivity on the topic is evident. International critics have expressed concern over U.S. treatment of suspected Taliban and Al-Qaeda terrorists at a prison camp in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and over Washington's declared intention of trying foreign nationals in military tribunals, among other human rights issues.

The United States lost its seat on the commission last year for reasons never made explicit. Many people blamed a perceived U.S. government trend toward unilateralism. The vote came after the failure of the United States to appoint a permanent ambassador to the commission. Ambassador Moley's assignment has redressed that. There was also the U.S. withdrawal from the Kyoto climate change accord, the U.S. insistence on deploying a national missile defense system, and Washington's refusal to ratify a treating creating a permanent International Criminal Court.

In any case, it now appears that enough other candidates for commission representation have pulled out so that the United States will be unopposed for regaining the seat it had held each year since 1947.

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