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UN Human Rights Council Fails To Appoint Turkmen Envoy

Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov
(RFE/RL) -- The UN's Human Rights Council (UNHRC) has voted against appointing a special rapporteur for Turkmenistan.

The decision was met with disappointment among human rights campaigners, who have been lobbying for more scrutiny of Turkmenistan.

Former Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov, who died in December 2006, was notorious for his reclusive, authoritarian policies and dismal human rights record. Turkmenistan watchers say little has improved under the country's current leader, Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov.

"Unfortunately, nothing has changed for my friends in Turkmenistan," says Leonid Komarovsky, a former Russian journalist and a U.S. citizen who spent five months in a Turkmen prison after being accused of plotting to assassinate Niyazov in 2002. "Their situation remains awful. The election of an new president has not brought any changes. The current regime is as abominable as the previous one and continues to brutalize the Turkmen people. Such a regime has no right to exist."

Komarovsky, who was released without charges following pressure from Washington, says he was beaten and drugged while in prison.

Another Setback?

Some see the Turkmen decision as yet another setback for the Human Rights Council, which has been criticized for falling short of its mission to combat rights abuses worldwide. It's not the first time the UNHRC has been blamed for lacking teeth.

The council was established in 2006 to replace the UN Human Rights Commission, which itself was widely discredited for including some of the world's biggest rights violators.

Rights organizations say the Geneva-based body has since taken some positive steps, such as denying membership to Belarus and Sri Lanka, two countries with notably poor human rights credentials. But Sebastien Gillioz of Human Rights Watch says that on the whole, the council so far has failed to live up to its stated mission.

"On some issues, and mostly on country-specific situations, it's not delivering properly," Gillioz says. "There are some improvements, but on the core issues it still lacks responsiveness and adequate action. So I'm not sure we are really reconvinced about this council. But we're still working on it and making sure it gets on track and does what it's supposed to do."

The council, which is dominated by Muslim nations, has also been criticized for bias against Israel in its conflict with the Palestinians.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who is currently compiling a report on Israeli-Palestinian violence, urged the UNHRC on September 18 to show the same commitment to protecting citizens on both sides of the conflict.

Reasons Unclear

In the case of Turkmenistan, why the council decided against appointing a special rapporteur is still unclear, since the vote was taken behind closed doors. The council declined to comment on the decision to RFE/RL, citing the vote's confidential nature.

What is clear, however, is that Turkmenistan is not yet off the hook at the UNHRC.

"All UN members will be reviewed, and in December it's time for Turkmenistan, among others, to be reviewed," Gillioz says. "It's a public process, it's a political process, and a set of recommendations will be adopted after that review. In addition, the special rapporteur on freedom of religion, who visited the country a few weeks ago, will deliver her report in March. So there is a lot of pressure now on Turkmenistan, and that's a positive outcome for us."

During last week's vote, the body's 47 members also demanded that Turkmenistan responds to the numerous individual complaints that have amassed against the country since 2003. These relate to accusations of disappearances, arbitrary detention, torture, assassination, and press freedom violations.

The UNHRC will follow up on the matter at its next session in March 2009.

RFE/RL's Turkmen Service contributed to this report.

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