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United Nations30.05.2003

UN Human Rights chief opposes exclusion of Reporters Without Borders

Sergio Vieira de Mello, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, has said he opposes any attempt to exclude Reporters Without Borders from the United Nations by challenging its current observer status.

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Sergio Vieira de Mello told a press conference in Geneva on 30 May that he opposed the call by the UN’s Committee on Non-Governmental Organisations for the consultative status of Reporters Without Borders to be suspended for a year.

He said: "I told our friend [Reporters Without Borders secretary-general Robert] Ménard that I had strong reservations about how his people behaved at the opening session of the Human Rights Commission, but I personally, as High Commissioner, oppose any attempt to exclude the organisation by removing its current status of observer. As you know, these decisions are not taken by us or by the UN secretary-general, but by a committee in New York that deals with such matters. I am against this sanction being taken against Reporters Without Borders.

"I strongly favour freedom of expression, one of the most basic human rights, and the right of NGOs to express themselves freely, as they did throughout the meeting of the Commission. Nobody has noticed that it is the only UN forum where all NGOs can say what they like and this should at least be recognised by the Commission. Reporters Without Borders has the right to say and write what it thinks but it must however respect certain rules, which it did not do at the opening session of the Commission and I regret that."

Reporters Without Borders threatened with year-long ban

It asked how such a decision could be taken seriously when every one of the countries that voted for the suspension - China, Côte d’Ivoire, Cuba, Iran, Pakistan, Russia, Sudan, Turkey and Zimbabwe - all abuse the most basic human rights. Cuba, which proposed the suspension, is on the UN Human Rights Commission but has not ratified the main international human rights agreements.

All this would be laughable, the organisation said, if it did not show up the decay of the UN system, which has some of the world’s worst human rights violators giving lessons to those who denounce their actions and defend their victims.

The NGO Committee recommended on 20 May that Reporters Without Borders be suspended for a year. To take effect, the move must be endorsed by the UN General Assembly’s Economic and Social Council, which will consider the proposal in July.

The call was made after Cuba complained that Reporters Without Borders had physically disrupted the opening of the 59th session of the Human Rights Commission in Geneva on 17 March, behaved in an insulting manner towards a member state and had acted in a way incompatible with the principles and aims of the UN Charter.

Nine of the Committee’s 19 members-states voted for suspension, while six (Germany, Chile, the United States, France, Peru and Romania) voted against and four abstained (Cameroon, Colombia, India and Senegal).

France had proposed taking no action so as to avoid what it called any hasty move and said it was essential, in the name of basic rights, principles and procedures, for the Committee to hear from Reporters Without Borders before suspending it. Since it was set up in 1966, the Committee has never suspended any member or observer without hearing its representatives. Several member-countries called the decision an ominous precedent.

Six Reporters Without Borders activists threw leaflets into the meeting room in Geneva on 17 March when the Commission’s new Libyan president, Najat Al-Hajjaji, made her inaugural speech. "At last the UN has appointed someone who knows what she’s talking about!" the leaflet said sarcastically. The press freedom organisation was denouncing the mockery of a country such as Libya being in the chair and asking what credibility the Commission could have when led by a country that committed the worst human rights abuses on a daily basis.