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World: UN Rights Commission Ends Session Amid Much Criticism

The UN Human Rights Commission ended its annual session amid criticism it did too little for the victims of abuses worldwide. Rights groups say governments hostile to human rights blocked several important country initiatives, while the U.S. and, to a lesser extent, the EU failed to exert positive leadership.

Prague, 28 April 2003 (RFE/RL) -- As the main human rights body of the United Nations, the Commission on Human Rights is charged with promoting and protecting rights around the world. Yet according to activists, the UN body ended its annual six-week session in Geneva on 25 April doing too little for the victims of abuses.

Aaron Rhodes, the executive director of the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights (IHF) in Vienna, said he did not hold high expectations for this year's commission, which was chaired by Libya and counted as members many of the world's worst human rights offenders.

"The results are what one might expect. So I don't personally feel disappointed," Rhodes said. "I think as human rights defenders we have to use every possible tool at our disposal even though the Human Rights Commission is subject to a lot of political forces about which we might have regrets. We have to do our best to try to convince the members of this commission. It's important that they uphold human rights principles. So I would say that I'm not personally disappointed, nor is our organization disappointed, but things could always be better."

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Sergio Vieira de Mello himself complained in his closing speech of political maneuvering and said he felt the delegates lost sight of the goal of protecting human rights.

Lotte Leicht, the European director at U.S.-based Human Rights Watch (HRW), said governments this year were less outspoken in criticizing rights violators than they have been in previous years.

"This commission disappointed us even more than last year in a way that we saw an even greater tendency for country members of the commission to join forces not in actually scrutinizing human rights and coming to both resolutions and decisions on how to correct wrongs. But rather to prevent that human rights problems around the world actually be debated or that the UN be involved in solving and accommodating those problems. That is a very negative tendency," Leicht said.

HRW criticized the U.S., which rejoined the commission this year after a one-year absence, for not playing a constructive role on many issues. Meanwhile, Leicht said the EU, preoccupied with its own internal divisions and relations with Washington, failed to stand firm and united on critical issues.

"We also saw how several country initiative resolutions [previously] sponsored by the European Union were weakened in the language of these resolutions," Leicht said. "We saw a tendency for [language] in resolutions referring to the need for accountability for abuses, establishing mechanisms to report and to investigate abuses, for those mechanisms to be taken out of the resolution language all together. That [happened] on the basis of immense U.S. pressure."

Human Rights Watch and another rights watchdog, Amnesty International, say the commission's failure to adopt resolutions on the human rights situation in Chechnya, Sudan, and Zimbabwe is particularly disappointing. The U.S. for the first time refrained from co-sponsoring a resolution condemning Russia's abuses in Chechnya.

"What was a tremendous negative development in the commission was that we saw for the first time the United States not co-sponsoring that very resolution. And we saw the resolution -- like it was the case last year where it lost with one vote -- the resolution lost with several votes this year. It really showed that there is no backbone in the commission when it comes to abuses committed by large and important and strong countries," Leicht said.

The U.S. also abandoned its traditional practice of sponsoring a resolution critical of China, citing leadership changes and unspecified human rights improvements.

The IHF's Rhodes explained that such a picture "is usual. It's a mixed picture because the EU and the U.S. are also subject to some political considerations with regard to the Human Rights Commission. And the human rights community has expectations with regard to these entities that they will take very strong positions on human rights because human rights are such a central part of the political [nature] of these societies. But at the same time the actions are inconsistent very often. And one can see that principles do play a secondary role for some political considerations."

At the same time, a powerful group of governments, including Algeria, Libya, Sudan, Syria, and Zimbabwe, joined with China, Cuba, and Russia to oppose several important country initiatives. African governments, led by South Africa, worked for instance as a bloc to oppose scrutiny of the human rights situation in Zimbabwe and Sudan.

Some of the commission's significant achievements this year included first-time initiatives by the EU on North Korea, by the U.S. on Belarus, and jointly by the EU and the United States on Turkmenistan.

"It's good that the Human Rights Commission made a resolution condemning Turkmenistan for [violations] of human rights going on there," Rhodes said. "Of course, the resolution could have been stronger and there wasn't any effort to follow up with a monitoring program or anything like that, but at the same time, by making that resolution there was a show of solidarity with the human rights defenders in Turkmenistan and all the people who form a community of concern about that country."

Elections for commission membership will be held this week in New York. HRW argues that as a prerequisite for membership, governments should have ratified core human rights treaties, complied with their reporting obligations, issued open invitations to UN human rights experts, and not have been condemned recently by the commission for human rights violations.