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Credibility Gap Widens at U.N. Rights Commission

Cuba’s Election Helps Raise Eyebrows in Geneva

GENEVA, MAY 3, 2003 ( The U.N. Human Rights Commission wrapped up its annual six-week meeting here last week. The review of human rights around the world was dogged by controversy, in part because of the announcement last January that Libya was this year’s commission president.

The commission also came in for harsh criticism after Cuba was re-elected as a member, the Associated Press reported April 29. The election came shortly after Cuba’s government slapped 78 journalists, librarians and opposition leaders with lengthy prison terms. Authorities also executed three hijackers who had tried to seize a ferry without bloodshed and flee to the United States.

The commission’s 53 members are divided by regions. The elections take place by members of the U.N. Economic and Social Council. This is the same body that two years ago ousted the United States from the Human Rights Commission for the first time since Washington helped found it in 1947.

Latin American countries chose Cuba, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Honduras and Peru for six open seats. Therefore, no vote was necessary and all six countries were elected by acclamation. “Having Cuba serve again on the Human Rights Commission is like putting Al Capone in charge of bank security,” said White House spokesman Ari Fleischer.

Tuesday’s vote also saw Russia re-elected to another three-year term on the commission with no opposition, in spite of criticism over its human rights record in Chechyna. Saudi Arabia and several African countries with poor human rights record also won seats.

Homosexual “rights” on hold

One divisive issue at this year’s meeting was an attempt to introduce the concept of homosexual rights. The commission voted 24-17 to postpone consideration of the contentious subject until next year, the U.N. Wire reported April 28.

Brazil, backed by many European countries and Canada, had introduced a resolution that “calls upon all states to promote and protect the human rights of all persons regardless of their sexual orientation,” the Catholic Family & Human Rights Institute’s Friday Fax reported April 25. The proposal also called on the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights “to pay due attention to the phenomenon of violations of human rights on the grounds of sexual orientation.”

The Friday Fax commented that pro-family legal scholars considered it highly likely that activists would use the resolution to help advance their campaigns to legalize homosexual marriage and to create hate-crimes legislation. It was also feared that it could permit attacks against the Catholic Church relating to employment practices.

Giving Sudan a pass

The meeting saw a total of 86 resolutions, 18 decisions and three statements by the chair. Among the decisions taken were these noted in an April 25 U.N. press release:

— The commission defeated a proposal to hold a special sitting to discuss the war in Iraq. But it did adopt a resolution condemning the systematic and grave violations of human rights and international humanitarian law by the Iraqi government over many years.

— In another resolution, the commission requested the High Commissioner to prepare a report on the question of protecting human rights while combating terrorism.

— The commission asked the U.N. secretary-general to appoint an independent expert to aid and advise the Transitional Authority of Afghanistan on human rights matters.

— The commission requested the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to expand its activities in Haiti by setting up an office in that country.

— The meeting rejected a resolution, adopted in previous years, expressing concern over the human rights situation in the Sudan. It also put an end to the mandate of the commission’s Special Rapporteur on that country. The commission also rejected draft resolutions critical of the human rights situations in Zimbabwe and the Chechen Republic of the Russian Federation.

— A resolution on the situation of human rights in North Korea expressed deep concern about reports of “systematic, widespread and grave violations of human rights, including torture, public executions, imposition of the death penalty for political reasons, the existence of a large number of prison camps.”

— A resolution called upon the Myanmar government to fulfill its obligations to restore the independence of the judiciary and due process of law, and to take further steps to reform its justice system.

— The continuing conflict in Congo also came in for attention. A resolution condemned the massacres that had occurred in the province of Ituri, as well as the cases of summary execution, torture and arbitrary detention throughout the country.

Cuba’s crackdown on political opposition during the Geneva meeting provided a test for the commission. The meeting appointed a personal representative of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to look into the situation. But the meeting rejected a resolution from Costa Rica, backed by the United States and the European Union, demanding freedom for the dissidents who had been sentenced to jail, Reuters reported April 17. The next day Cuba said it would not allow any visit by the U.N. envoy named by the commission, Reuters said.

“One of the most hypocritical”

The decision to halt the special monitoring of Sudan drew sharp criticism from the Washington Post. Describing this year’s commission meeting as “surely one of the most hypocritical on record,” an April 18 editorial in the Post also criticized the lack of action on Zimbabwe and Chechnya. “If the commission is going to continue to act against the interests of the world’s weak and persecuted, we ought not to lend it any further credibility,” concluded the editorial.

An opinion article April 28 in the Wall Street Journal by Anne Bayefsky, professor of political science at York University, Toronto, and a member of the governing board of UN Watch, observed that the commission’s proceedings are dominated by partisan political considerations. For example, an overwhelming majority voted in favor of a resolution sanctioning the use of “all available means including armed struggle,” suicide bombing included, as a legitimate tactic against Israelis.

In fact, more than a quarter of the commission’s resolutions condemning a state’s human rights violations passed over the last 30 years have been directed at Israel. In all this time there has never been a single resolution on China, Syria or Saudi Arabia, noted Bayefsky.

Human rights groups were also disappointed. Human Rights Watch, in an April 25 press release, commented: “An ‘abusers club’ of governments hostile to human rights has further consolidated its position.” It noted that a “powerful grouping of hostile governments who have joined the commission in recent years, including Algeria, Libya, Sudan, Syria and Zimbabwe, joined with China, Cuba and Russia to oppose several important country initiatives.” That same day, Amnesty International declared in a press release that the “U.N. Commission on Human Rights fails once again to protect victims of human rights violations.”

The groups also assailed the United States and European countries for their lack of effort in pursuing resolutions critical of human rights abuses, even though such attempts had been defeated in past years.

Doubts over the efficacy of U.N. action on human rights mirrors concern over the organization’s functioning in general. The noble ideals and important international mechanisms established decades ago are now often corrupted by an entrenched bureaucracy and partisan politics. Renewing the original spirit is an increasingly urgent task.

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