This month at an annual ritual in Geneva, officials from 53 governments are struggling to determine which states should be branded human rights violators. But, to the frustration of many delegates to the United Nations Human Rights Commission, the behind-the-scenes reality of negotiations often overlooks human rights.
Analysts bemoan the fact that economics and political strategy tend to take precedence - especially in the cases of China and Russia.
"This is not an august body of world harmony. This is political from the beginning to the end," says one European Union official of the six-week convention.
For example, the New York-based Human Rights Watch is lobbying various Western governments to introduce a resolution against Moscow for alleged war-time abuses in Chechnya. But the United States and its European allies have been slow to take action. They say they must first wait for a report from UN human rights chief Mary Robinson, who arrived in Grozny yesterday. On her agenda is an inspection of detention centers where Russian troops allegedly tortured Chechen civilians.
However, many activists fear that member states have already made up their minds against angering Russia, which holds a permanent seat on the UN Security Council.
"There is absolutely no doubt whatsoever that the extent and scale of human rights violations in Chechnya deserve UN condemnation," says Adam Berry at the Center for Peacemaking and Community Development, which operates in and around the breakaway republic. "But will any country dare to say so at the Human Rights Commission?"
On a similar note, there is the China question. The United States once again will try to get member states to rebuke China. But Washington's efforts this time appear as doomed as its previous eight attempts. Human rights activists complain that economic and political leverage allow some governments to escape international censure.
"In the past, China has offered economic incentives to some small developing countries sitting on the human rights commission. The Chinese government has in effect bribed them to oppose putting such a resolution on the agenda of the commission," states William Schulz, Amnesty International USA's executive director.
European Union officials agree that the human rights situation in China has deteriorated over the past year, pointing out a crackdown on the Falun Gong movement. However, they say that the EU will not cosponsor the resolution with the US and has not decided yet how it will vote.
"China is a strategically important country to the EU countries. Trade, economic status, security interests - for all of those reasons, they might think twice about publicly criticizing China in this forum," says Debra Liang-Fenton of the Washington-based US Institute of Peace.
London-based Amnesty International believes that similar considerations make Saudi Arabia untouchable in Geneva. "Saudi Arabia is a country with a whole series of very serious violations: everything from a judicial system that often doesn't even allow those who are accused to know the crimes of which they are accused, to rampant use of flogging and amputations," says Schulz. "Our suspicion is that this silence is motivated by economic concerns, trade concerns, and specifically concerns of oil...."
In response, Clovis Maksoud, the former ambassador of the League of Arab States to the UN says, "Some of the human rights activists judge everything by the standards that apply in their own respective countries."
Human rights observers are holding out hope, however, that ethics will win out over economics. Currently, they note, third- world members bear the brunt of virtually all of the negative attention. Why? These countries, they say, lack strategic interest to Western governments.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society