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UN: U.S. And Rights Groups See Libya As Poor Choice To Chair Human Rights Commission

Libya is poised to assume the chairmanship of the world's leading body on human rights, the United Nations Human Rights Commission. This has angered the United States and human rights groups. U.S. officials point out that Libya is still under UN sanctions for its role in the airliner bombing over Lockerbie, Scotland. Rights groups say Libya has failed to uphold its own citizens' rights and is unlikely to prove a persuasive role model for others. Both say the controversy has put the commission's credibility at stake.

Prague, 17 January 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Visions of Muammar Qadhafi's Libya sitting atop the world's foremost commission on human rights is upsetting the United States and international rights groups.

Libya in March assumes the one-year rotating chairmanship of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, based in Geneva. The 53-country commission meets annually to probe rights abuses and set priorities for the coming year.

U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher, speaking on 13 January, laid out U.S. objections, saying the Libyan government violates its own citizens' rights and remains under UN sanctions for its role in the 1988 airliner bombing over Lockerbie, Scotland, that killed 270 people. "Libya's record as an abuser of human rights is well-known. It is also a country under UN sanctions, because it has yet to fulfill the conditions related to the bombing of Pan Am 103. We cannot reward such terrible conduct with a leadership position, in this case, in the foremost international human rights body," Boucher said.

Libya was selected as chair by the commission's Africa regional grouping. The chairmanship rotates annually among the commission's five regions.

The selection was subsequently confirmed by the pan-African group, the African Union. This group is reportedly heavily funded by Libya.

Boucher said that the United States on 20 January plans to force a vote on Libya's selection. Such a vote would be unprecedented in the more-than-50-year history of the rights commission. "In the past, selection of the chair of the commission has always been handled by acclimation. This year, the United States intends to call for a vote. We'll continue to make our position clear. We seek to actively engage and strengthen the moral authority of the [UN] Human Rights Commission so that it once again proves to be a useful advocate for human rights around the world," Boucher said.

Reports say any attempt to oust Libya as chair is unlikely to succeed but could serve to underscore opposition to the selection. Canada, for one, has said it will join the United States in voting against Libya.

Libyan Foreign Minister Abdel-Rahman Shalqam, in response to Boucher, said that while Washington can object to the choice, it cannot overrule it. The Associated Press quoted Shalqam as saying Libya will not "take lessons on human rights" from the United States.

The choice of Libya as chair has been widely condemned by human rights groups. Joanna Weschler of the U.S.-based rights group Human Rights Watch said the commission could hardly have picked a worse chair than Libya. "It's a horrible choice. And we are extremely unhappy with it. And we made our unhappiness known the moment the first leaks came out of the African Union meeting last summer, the summit of the new African Union," Weschler said.

Weschler said that Libya has a very poor record on human rights. "Libya has been a very closed country for a number of years. It has had all sorts of human rights problems, including lack of freedom of expression, lack of due process, disappearances, torture. It has had extremely flawed court procedures in the so-called people's courts," Weschler said.

In a recent report, Human Rights Watch writes that, "Libya has detained government opponents for years without charge or trial, prohibited the formation of political parties or independent nongovernmental groups, and muzzled its press."

Weschler said the choice of Libya is only the latest blow for the commission, which has seen its prestige and influence decline as its membership has expanded to include several other countries with questionable human rights records.

A UN official in Geneva, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, conceded that the selection of Libya dents the body's prestige but said the UN has no influence over the choice. The chair is decided by the commission's 53 members.

He said Libya's leadership is unlikely to affect the actual work of the commission.

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    Mark Baker

    Mark Baker is a freelance journalist and travel writer based in Prague. He has written guidebooks and articles for Lonely Planet, Frommer’s, and Fodor’s, and his articles have also appeared in National Geographic Traveler and The Wall Street Journal, among other publications.