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The UNHCHR is an insult to the memory of Sergio Vieira de Mello

By Jean-Claude Buhrer - posted Friday, 30 April 2004

Worse even than farce, it's a shipwreck. Such is the distressing spectacle of the 60th annual session of the UN Human Rights Commission meeting from 15 March - 23 April in Geneva. For many years now, human rights activists have struggled to find words strong enough to describe the slow but constant drift of the UN's main organ that is supposed to defend these rights. Just when it seemed it could not sink any further than the Libyan chairmanship in 2003, the year 2004 brought the collapse to a new low. It can be seen in the contempt for the numerous victims whose plight is ignored by indignation that is increasingly selective. It is an insult to the memory of the former high commissioner Sergio Vieira de Mello. And an insult to Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who last year warned: "it has to change".

More than ever captive to a group of countries for which respect of human rights seems to be the least of their worries, the Commission has at its leisure given itself over to its usual little games and its customary political horse-trading as if nothing had happened. As if 22 people had not died in the bombing of the UN headquarters in Baghdad on August 19. As if the High Commissioner had not paid with his life for a certain loyalty to his principles. Admittedly, the work of the Commission began with a tribute to Sergio Vieira de Mello and his team who died in the terror attack that was as widely supported as it was fitting. But with these formalities out of the way, routine quickly took over again.

Even 7 April, the day set aside to commemorate the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, did little to awaken people's consciences. It is true that the UN showed itself incapable at the time of holding back the worst and that the Hutu regime in Kigali took care to get itself elected both to the Human Rights Commission and to the Security Council in order to quietly prepare its evil designs. However, in a report dated March 1996 the special rapporteur on extra-judicial executions had described the situation in Rwanda as explosive and proposed immediate steps to restore peace and arrest those instigating massacres. The Commission noted these comments, but did not react. A month later, the massacres were under way in Rwanda. Recognising a little late the international community's "collective failure" in the Rwandan tragedy, Kofi Annan chose this 10th anniversary to launch an "Action Plan to Prevent Genocide", focusing attention on new threats looming in Ituri province in the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Darfur region of Sudan.


As usual, the re-election of half the 26 members of the sub-commission went through like a letter in the post. Among these re-elected, so-called independent, experts were two stars in the human rights firmament, Moroccan Halima Warzazi, outgoing chairperson of this brilliant apparatus, and Cuban Miguel Alfonso Martinez. Sub-commission veterans both, they distinguished themselves in 1988 by bolstering the regime of Saddam Hussein the day after the Halabja massacre. The images of the bodies of 5000 Kurdish women, children and old men lying on the ground in this ghostly area drenched with nerve gas by Iraqi aviation and artillery was burned on the world's memory. This did not however prevent Ms Warzazi, with the support of Alfonso Martinez, from proposing a "no action" motion on 1 September. This led to the sub-commission cutting short any discussion on a resolution "expressing serious concern at Iraq's use of banned chemical weapons".

In March 1989, using the same subterfuge, Saddam Hussein's Iraq, with a seat on the commission, succeeded in stifling all debates on the subject. After the carnage of the war with Iran, some 200,000 Shiites were then massacred during the uprising of 1991. Before taking up his post in Baghdad, Vieira de Mello said that Iraq had been a "double failure of the UN": of the Security Council, which had not managed to prevent the intervention, and the Commission which showed itself incapable of debating a scandalous situation for 25 years. The Commission certainly has a short memory.

Not until 15 April was the general torpor disturbed even a little, at the time allotted to resolutions on individual countries. Cuba had the honour of opening. Infuriated by the narrow adoption - 22 votes to 21 and 10 abstentions - of a resolution deploring 75 arrests last year of dissidents and journalists, a well-muscled official in the Havana mission set upon an exiled compatriot, beating him brutally about the head. UN security intervened and the victim was taken to hospital. His assailant was accorded diplomatic immunity. An effective illustration of the atmosphere; the boat is no longer drifting, it's on the rocks.

There was not a single resolution on Iran, to the disappointment of Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi, aghast to discover these little games. Zimbabwe and Russia escaped any censure, thus demonstrating the effectiveness of the coalition of interests between thug governments and freedom-destroying dictatorships. If Chechnya likewise was written off, it was also because, among its fellow religionists - 15 of the 53 Commission members are affiliated to the Islamic Conference Organisation - not one wanted to cross swords with Moscow. Only the Europeans, backed by the United States and Australia, came to the defence of the Chechens.

As was to be expected, not one of the 53 member countries wished to adopt a US resolution, very moderate as it was, criticising China, even more so since the text named Tibet and Sinkiang. In a packed hall, where Chinese officials and employees occupied seats with no role other than as cheerleaders, the Chinese ambassador choked with indignation as he promptly claimed his rights in demanding a "no action" motion. This on the pretext that his "request conformed to procedural rules and aimed to defend the Commission's credibility and principles". Pakistan, Zimbabwe, Russia, Sudan, Congo, Mauritania, Indonesia and Cuba, all paragons of democracy, rushed to the support of the Forbidden City representative.

Set against these crude manoeuvres, what real value can be put on the mini-successes that appear to be just for show? Of course, the Commission called - unanimously if you please! - for the release of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, along with all political prisoners in Burma. Admonishments were handed out to North Korea and Belarus along with the naming of special rapporteurs charged with carrying out investigations in these countries, while Turkmenistan was slammed for the second successive year.


The Commission also demanded - by 30 votes to 20 and five abstentions - the definitive abolition of the death penalty. Curiously the United States, Saudi Arabia and the Islamic countries, China and Zimbabwe voted "no". For the first time, a rapporteur was named to the fight against terrorism. Another first, the rapporteur on Education said he did not want his mandate renewed, citing the failure to put his recommendations into effect after his mission in China. And three independent experts publicly called for a retrial under international standards of a Tibetan monk condemned to death at a summary trial. How these resolutions will be carried out in practice is another matter.

At the close of the 60th annual session, the question becomes insistent: Is the Commission able to promote and protect human rights as explicitly set out in its mission statement? Driven by a recurring force of inertia, year after year producing resolutions that nobody bothers about and the application of which depends on countries that are at the same time judges and participants, what ultimately is its role or its relevance? Results that are more disappointing every year lead the most committed NGOs to ask these questions. If it fails to get a grip and quickly, the Commission is at real risk of foundering in futility.

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About the Author

Jean-Claude Buhrer is an investigative reporter with Reporters Sans Frontieres’.

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