An Eye on Human Rights

After five years in the United Nations system, I did not think anything at the Commission on Human Rights could surprise me. I was wrong. The level of politicization and cynicism was far greater than I expected.

While there were many lowlights during the six-week session that concluded April 18, the two most striking were: China's muscle-flexing to deflect criticism and the resulting derailment of the commission's machinery; and the Palestinian representative's baseless charge against Israel, along with the international community's unwillingness to censure him.

These failings overshadowed some important developments. Norway called for multilateral sanctions against Iran for the latter's refusal to lift the fatwa against author Salman Rushdie. Italy sponsored a resolution against the death penalty that was adopted decisively. And a trio of nongovernmental organizations craftily read out a statement by the leader of the East Timor resistance, Jos Ramos-Horta, who, though a Nobel Peace Prize winner, had been refused a chance to speak before the commission. Unfortunately, these and other highlights were lost in the din.

China historically has let it be known that votes cast at the UN against its interests would not be taken kindly. Witness hapless Guatemala, which has supported Taiwan's bid to become a member of the United Nations. China vetoed a reasonable Security Council draft resolution to send peacekeepers to Guatemala to help implement long-awaited peace accords there. China later relented, but its point was made.

The Commission on Human Rights has treated China with kid gloves, yet China entered this year's commission with a "take no prisoners" approach. Intimidation tactics included interrupting several speakers on the floor. On numerous occasions, China challenged the chairman, Amb. Miroslav Somol of the Czech Republic, on "procedural" grounds. A chairman with greater confidence in interpreting the commission's rules of procedure would have been able to rule against such baseless challenges immediately.

China's use of a "no action" motion to again defeat a (Danish-led) draft resolution critical of its human rights record was a triple blow. First, it undermined the commission's ability to debate issues of fundamental importance. Second, it eroded respect by the "peoples of the United Nations" for the entire UN system. And third, it undercut the US's credibility as a leading advocate for human rights, since the US failed to state explicitly its willingness to sponsor the resolution.

Palestinian observer Nabil Ramlawi's baseless declaration before the commission that Israel had infected 300 Palestinian children with the AIDS virus, and member states' refusal to counter forcefully this modern day "blood libel," marked the proceedings' nadir.

Despite the stated intention of the chairman to circulate as an official document his letter of support for the Israeli ambassador's protest, it has yet to be issued as an official UN document. More than a month has passed since the chairman wrote his letter. To add to the injustice, the chairman, bowing to Arab pressure, subsequently wrote to Mr. Ramlawi apologizing for any embarrassment he may have inadvertently caused him. This was theater of the absurd.

Countries that believe that countering such lies only gives them greater exposure are wrong. The UN has since published Ramlawi's statement as if nothing happened. Failure to correct the record gives a green light for others to level similar libels. The UN's tacit compliance must not continue. The official record must be kept straight.

* Eric G. Berman is executive director of United Nations Watch in Geneva.

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