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.

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.

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.

"The commission has always been a political body," says Yvonne Terlingen, UN representative for Amnesty International. "[Member states] are thinking of human rights, but they also have their other issues and relationships, like economic interests. That's why some countries are always able to go scot-free."

One country that did not escape denunciation is Israel, a perennial target of vitriol. Israel has been the subject of some 30 percent of commission resolutions, say supporters.

"The UN has played a seminal role in determining who's a villain, who's a victim," says Anne Bayefsky, an international lawyer at Columbia University and director of refugee studies at York University in Toronto. "Because the commission misidentifies where the priorities ought to be, it doesn't give a true picture of human-rights abuse."

Meanwhile, some observers renewed criticism that the US has sacrificed the cause of human rights in its war on terror. Washington did not push for resolutions against Russia or China, and some charged it wished to avoid further straining relations already bruised over war in Iraq.

Critics of US policy say America also protects its friends, regardless of their ruthlessness; favors the death penalty, executing even juveniles; has trained some of the past and present juntas that torture dissidents; and detains some 660 prisoners at Guantánamo Bay without charges.

"I think the US, in its own way, is at least as serious a violator as those other countries on the commission," says James Paul, executive director of the Global Policy Forum, a UN watchdog.

Still, no one questions the need for reform. UN officials themselves have voiced concern about the forum's credibility.

Any of the 191 UN member-states is eligible to serve, regardless of its track record. They must be nominated by their regional grouping, of which there are five, and garner enough votes.

Some US officials talk of creating a "democracy caucus" within the UN to draw the line with nondemocracies, while more hard-line voices say the UN should be closed to dictatorships.

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan has asked the new UN high commissioner for human rights, Sergio Vieira de Mello, to look into possible reforms, says spokeswoman Annick Stevenson. He is also concerned about credibility, says Ms. Stevenson, but parts ways with some activists.

"The high commissioner thinks it is not a bad thing in itself if a country that violates human rights sits on the commission," Stevenson says. "It's the best way to catch their attention and make them aware of the issues."

Critics point out that the commissioner, unlike his predecessor, came from within the UN bureaucracy and may be disinclined to ruffle feathers. And his "big-tent" idea to include human rights violators is flawed, they say. "[Those states] are already inside the tent," Ms. Weschler says. "They're very effective at making sure there's less human rights debate and less talk about victims and abuses."

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