Stephanie Nebehay, National Post news services
Martial Trezzeni, The Associated Press
Mary Robinson, UN Commissioner for Human Rights

April 27, 2002

GENEVA - The top UN human rights forum ended its annual session yesterday with activists charging that it had fallen hostage to abusive states that ganged up to stop scrutiny of Iran and Chechnya and ignore Zimbabwe.

Mary Robinson, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, said the six-week meeting of the world body's top rights watchdog was "very difficult" and "very worrying."

Ms. Robinson said she was concerned by trends to weaken the commission's role as a defender of liberties.

During its session, the 53-member commission did not discuss China's repression of the Falun Gong spiritual movement and Muslim minorities, dropped its criticism of Russian abuses in Chechnya, ended a decades-long investigation into Iran's alleged abuses and blocked moves to examine alleged abuses in Zimbabwe.

Human Rights Watch said that the "biggest fish" to be let off the hook was China -- whose record was not examined by the commission.

The New York-based group blamed the European Union (EU) for failing to galvanize support to "name and shame" violators. It also charged that the United States, hampered by its observer status this year, had not lobbied effectively on Chechnya.

Members of the commission include Algeria, China, Cuba, Democratic Republic of Congo, Indonesia, Libya, Nigeria, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Syria -- states regularly accused of violations against their own civilians.

"It was a difficult session. The Commission on Human Rights became hostage to a group of human rights abusers who defended themselves and each other from scrutiny," Rory Mungoven, advocacy director of Human Rights Watch, told a news briefing.

"The United States and European Union and governments who should champion human rights were very half-hearted and inconsistent in standing up to the assault," he added.

"It was the first time in years no country even brought a resolution on China despite the continued and deteriorating human rights situation," he added.

"Tonight we'll see celebrations in Moscow and Beijing but certainly not in Grozny or Lhasa," he added, referring to the capitals of Chechnya and Tibet.

The commission repeatedly condemned Israel for its military incursion in the West Bank, raising moans from some activists and diplomats by devoting up to 50% of debating time to the issue while largely overlooking suicide bombings of Israeli civilians.

It attempted to send a fact-finding mission to Israel, but was grounded by the Jewish state's refusal to co-operate.

The commission deplored abuses in Iraq, Myanmar and Sudan, and asked its investigators to continue work on them.

But Melinda Ching, spokeswoman for Amnesty International, saw little room for cheering after the annual exercise.

"The negatives certainly outweigh the positives," she said.

"The commission has failed to protect victims of appalling violations living in China, Indonesia, Iran, the Russian Federation, Saudi Arabia, Togo and Zimbabwe."

"Arguably this commission became the forum for defending governments' records rather than examining them," Ms. Ching said.

Several human rights groups were also dismayed that Mexico withdrew a resolution urging that counterterrorist measures be compatible with international humanitarian law.

The UN human rights commissioner would have been responsible for monitoring and analyzing those measures, according to the resolution.

The United States -- which has been criticized for its treatment of suspected al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters at the Guantanamo Bay naval base in Cuba and its detentions of Middle Eastern nationals who violated visa regulations -- opposed the resolution.

"This could have been one of the most important outcomes from this commission, but instead has become one of its lowest points," a group of activist organizations said in a statement.

"From Illinois in the United States to Xinjiang in China, counterterrorist measures have placed human rights at risk," it said. "The commission's silence on this critical issue sends a dangerous signal that in the fight against terrorism anything goes."

Mexico told the commission only hours before it was due to end that it was withdrawing its text because it had run out of time to negotiate possible changes.