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UN: Rights Watchdogs Express Concern At Commission's Moves

  • Robert McMahon

Monitoring groups say this year's session of the UN Human Rights Commission has seen a retreat in the enforcement of human rights standards. They say votes by the commission not to condemn rights violations in Iran, Zimbabwe, and Russia's breakaway Chechen Republic mark a clear setback for safeguarding human rights. Rights watchdogs say the reasons for this include the first-time absence of the United States, the weaker stance of the European Union, and the growing presence of rights abusers on the commission.

United Nations, 24 April 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Long before the 58th session of the UN Commission on Human Rights began in Geneva last month, rights activists expressed concern about the composition of the body.

The UN's Economic and Social Council last spring voted new members to the 53-member commission that included noted rights abusers Sudan, Togo, and Sierra Leone. In that same vote, the United States was dropped from the commission for the first time since its founding in 1947.

With the U.S. on the sidelines this year and new rights abusers on the commission, the normal practice of "naming and shaming" countries with poor records declined sharply.

The previous two commission meetings had condemned Russia for rights abuses in Chechnya, but this year Russia escaped censure by one vote. Iran had faced 18 straight years of scrutiny by the commission, but won support this year, also by a one-vote margin, against a motion that called for the country to stop the use of torture and end religious discrimination.

Zimbabwe benefited from a "no-action" motion supported by African and Middle Eastern states after the European Union had called for allowing rights monitors into the country.

The moves represent a new trend by targeted states to band together to defeat single-country resolutions, says Joanna Weschler, the UN representative for the nongovernmental organization Human Rights Watch. She tells RFE/RL that states that begin to feel pressure on human rights have started competing to join the UN commission, the world's highest rights body.

"When you look at the membership of the commission right now, it includes several extremely problematic countries, countries with very bad human rights records, and those countries now have made it a priority to prevent the commission from dealing with individual countries as much as possible."

The states that have frequently voted together during this year's six-week session to defeat country resolutions include Algeria, Burundi, China, Cuba, Kenya, Libya, Nigeria, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Syria.

The commission, which concludes its work on 26 April, is responsible for preparing reports on human rights abuses, appointing special rapporteurs and sometimes voting on the performances of individual countries. Its actions are not legally binding but they carry moral weight in the international community.

But that moral authority has now been undermined by an increasingly politicized commission, says Alfred Moses, chairman of UN Watch, a Geneva-based NGO that monitors the performance of UN agencies.

"It doesn't reflect an objective look at human rights. What it reflects are the political interests of the countries represented there and they vote according to their national interests. It's driven by the national political considerations really extraneous to any objective standard of human rights."

Moses, a former U.S. ambassador to Romania, also criticized the commission's repeated moves to condemn Israel for its military actions against Palestinians without condemning terrorist attacks on Israelis.

Spokeswoman Veronique Taveau of the office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, tells RFE/RL that a number of member states this year raised the issue of the politicization of the commission.

"The commission has always been a difficult exercise and the situation at the moment in the world doesn't facilitate the work of the commission this year. But still, it's a very important mechanism and even if NGOs criticize the work of the commission, the commission has to go forward and exist as a human rights mechanism."

States previously targeted by the UN commission have in the past criticized it for arbitrary and intrusive practices. Iran's representative in Geneva this year, Paimaneh Hastaie, told the commission after the vote ending scrutiny of her country that the time has come for the panel to abandon what she called its "biased agenda."

Hastaie, echoing the defense of other accused rights violators, said Iran should be allowed to advance its human rights agenda on its own.

"The ongoing popular reform process in Iran is a home-grown, self-sustaining, and irreversible process. It is bound to lead to further institutionalization of the rule of law, democracy as well as promotion and protection of human rights. External pressure and interference would hamper the normal trend of this process."

But Weschler, of Human Rights Watch, called for new leadership on the commission among countries that have stated a commitment to human rights to resume the practice of targeting individual countries for reform. She also expressed the hope that one day the UN regional groups that select members to serve on the commission will base the worthiness of candidates on their human rights records.

"There is probably a need for governments which are committed to human rights to re-examine what has happened at this session and come up with new strategies, new commitments."

The United States is expected to regain its seat on the commission in the next vote of the Economic and Social Council, planned for early May.

Rights monitors also cited some positive actions by the commission this year, including votes to extend by one year the assignment of human rights special rapporteurs to Iraq and Afghanistan. The commission also adopted a resolution approving the optional protocol to the Convention against Torture which creates a system of prison visits meant to prevent torture. The protocol must still be voted on by the UN General Assembly and ratified by more than 20 countries before taking effect.

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