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UN: Rights Commission Starts Work Amid Concern Over Credibility

  • Mark Baker

Today marks the start of the UN Human Rights Commission's annual working session. For six weeks, the commission -- the world's foremost body on human rights -- will review the human rights situation around the world. But observers say the commission may be losing credibility. Its 53 members -- including chair Libya -- comprise some of the world's worst human rights violators. Rights groups say the commission must take steps to ensure its effectiveness.

Prague, 17 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The UN Human Rights Commission starts its annual session in Geneva today amid mounting concern over the commission's credibility.

The commission is considered the world's foremost body on promoting and protecting human rights. Its 53 members meet annually in the spring for a six-week session to discuss the state of human rights around the world.

This year's session will be chaired by Libya, a controversial selection that rights groups say has an appalling rights record of its own. Libya remains under UN sanctions for its role in the 1988 airliner bombing over Lockerbie, Scotland, that killed 270 people.

Libya won the chair not on merit but because of its location in Africa. By tradition, this year's chair was to be an African country, and Libya had earlier lobbied hard for African support. Libya's selection was confirmed this year over strong objections from the U.S. and Canada.

Rights groups say the session comes at a time when the body's credibility is coming under increasing scrutiny. They say among the commission's members are some of world's worst human rights violators. In addition to Libya, members include Algeria, Sudan, Zimbabwe, Cuba, China, and the Russian Federation, which is under fire for the war in Chechnya.

Kenneth Roth, the executive director of the U.S.-based rights watchdog Human Rights Watch (HRW), said these countries in many cases have joined the commission not to further its work, but to frustrate it. "Increasingly, the membership of the commission looks like an abusers' defense society because increasingly the governments flocking to the commission are not those determined to uphold human rights but those determined to frustrate the work of the commission to avoid their own condemnation," Roth said.

The UN was not available for comment. In the past, the UN has said it is up to the members -- not the UN -- to have a fruitful session.

Last year's session is generally regarded as one of the commission's least successful ever. It failed to condemn, among others, repression in Zimbabwe, a hard-line crackdown in Iran, and the abuses in Russia's crackdown in Chechnya. A number of other initiatives were defeated.

The commission did succeed in appointing special rapporteurs for Iraq and Afghanistan and a special representative to report on the situation in Bosnia and Serbia and Montenegro. They will issue reports later in the session.

It's not clear yet whether the U.S. will pursue a special resolution that will ask China to improve its human rights record. The U.S. traditionally takes the lead role on this, but officials have not yet committed themselves one way or the other.

Roth said his group is afraid that the current situation in Iraq may force the U.S. to blunt its criticism of countries like China and Russia, which hold permanent seats on the UN Security Council. "The U.S. traditionally takes the lead on the China resolution, and one of our concerns there is that the U.S. is so worried about gaining approval of an Iraq resolution at the Security Council that it's not going to press hard," he said.

But last week, U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the U.S. would not make Iraq part of its rights policy. He said it would look at rights issues "on their merits" -- presumably not connected to any U.S. policy objectives in Iraq. "We will look at each of these situations on their merits and decide what the appropriate action is in the UN Human Rights Commission session," Boucher said.

Commission watchers say Iraq is bound to play a role, however. They say the strongest forces for change on the commission are the U.S. and the nations of the European Union, and that any divisions over Iraq could blunt progress in reforming the commission.

Human Rights Watch has urged the commission to take specific action in a number of countries, including Turkmenistan, Russia, and Iran.

In Turkmenistan, the group is calling on the commission to adopt a strong resolution condemning human rights violations. HRW says the resolution should also request the UN high commissioner for human rights to visit Turkmenistan.

In Iran, HRW is urging the commission to reestablish a special procedure to monitor and report on the rights situation. It said the commission should call on Iranian authorities to facilitate UN visits.

In Russia, HRW is asking the commission to adopt a strong resolution on Chechnya that condemns violations of human rights and international humanitarian law by both parties. It also urging Russia to renew the mandate of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's Assistance Group in Chechnya.

This year's session is scheduled to end on 25 April.

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