New calls for reform of UN rights commission
Cuba's reelection last week to the Commission on Human Rights is drawing criticism from rights groups.
UNITED NATIONS, N.Y.
At its most selfless, the UN Commission on Human Rights helped establish crucial international standards and jurisprudence. But that sort of credibility has been deeply strained with Libya chairing the 53-member panel.Skip to next paragraph
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The same country was condemned by watchdog groups like Freedom House and Human Rights Watch for denying its citizens basic rights. It came as no surprise to UN watchers that the commission concluded its annual six-week session last week with elections entrusting three-year seats to countries like Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Zimbabwe, Congo, China, and Cuba - the latter reelected amid its worst crackdown on pro-democracy activists in decades.
While US conservatives tend to brand such world bodies as "irrelevant" or a hindrance to US policy, many other nations pay heed to their words and deeds. The commission wields the power to damage national reputations, give voice to victims, embolden reformers, and bludgeon enemies. Why else would countries jockey for seats at the table, some observers note.
But the only requirement for being on the commission is belonging to the UN, and calls for reform are growing in number and volume. Even traditional supporters, such as human rights groups, say the commission is in "serious decline."
"When you have countries like Libya, Cuba, and Sudan sitting there, it's ludicrous," says a Bush administration official. "It puts a stain on the UN and calls into question the credibility of the world body as a whole."
The commission - responsible for the Universal Declaration on Human Rights and the International Criminal Court - has grown in prominence since the end of the cold war. Its annual session has become the big event of the human rights calendar, drawing to Geneva thousands of activists, who lobby for issues to be highlighted on the commission agenda and to send monitors or investigators to crisis zones.
But activists say the session this year was particularly frustrating: African members stymied debate of Zimbabwe. Latin Americans prevented a resolution critical of Cuba. Europeans allowed the defeat of a resolution condemning Russia for alleged abuses in Chechnya. Arab and Muslim states supported the Russians, not their Chechen coreligionists, say observers, in return for Russian backing of their pet issues. And the commission voted to end the monitoring of Sudan, although a UN investigator had reported no improvement over the past year.
The commission has gradually been hijacked by members bent on squelching criticism, says Joanna Weschler, UN representative for Human Rights Watch. "Because of the commission's relative success over the past decade, governments with serious reasons to feel threatened by the system have essentially mobilized to make the system less effective."
The commission also passed what activists view as toothless resolutions on Burma, Congo, and Sierra Leone, and nonbinding calls for monitors for North Korea, Belarus, and Turkmenistan.