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United Nations21.08.2003

UN sub-commission puts human rights on back burner

Barely a dozen journalists turned up for a 15 August press conference in Geneva given by Halima Warzazi, head of the UN Sub-Commission on the Protection and Promotion of Human Rights, at the end of the sub-commission’s 55th session. Even though it was the holiday season, such a clear lack of interest reflected the tired image of this group of "independent" experts and of the whole UN human rights apparatus.

Ms Warzazi recognised, in her speech closing the session, that all the goals had not been achieved and the expectations of NGOs had not been fully satisfied. But she said optimistically that the extent of the problems made what little had been achieved all the more valuable. She mentioned the 43 statements and documents the sub-commission had approved this year without needing a formal vote.

She appeared at the press conference with the four other senior sub-commission members to present a glowing version of its work, taking care to sweeten the journalists by stressing their important role in publicising the work of the experts and the sub-commission to promote human rights worldwide. She admitted that resolutions could no longer refer to specific countries, but said allusions to human rights could be incorporated into all the sub-commission’s work.

Restrictions on the sub-commission have reduced it to glossing over specific cases and sticking to generalities instead of dealing with hard facts. Everything is mentioned - globalisation, the right to development, clean drinking water, extreme poverty, minorities, indigenous peoples, slavery, the delivery of justice, security and people-trafficking. On corruption, for example, the sub-commission encouraged political leaders to be, in their own countries, examples of honesty, integrity and honour to underpin governance based on solid ethics. Easier said than done, however.

The sub-commission has declined as the Human Rights Commission itself has declined. As the Commission’s main subsidiary body, it is meant to be a think-tank to help the Commission’s work, but its 26 supposedly independent experts but are appointed by their own governments. Despite its limitations, victims of human rights abuses could get a hearing from the sub-commission, which dealt with basic human rights matters that did not always reach the Commission itself. For example, it passed resolutions about the Tiananmen massacre in Beijing (1989) and about Tibet (1991). This was already seen as excessive by some countries which refused to allow the sub-commission to meddle in their affairs (in fact, defend human rights). So they steadily chipped away at its powers, notably in 2000 by obtaining a shortening of its annual session from four to three weeks and by getting the Commission to ban the 26 experts from passing resolutions on rights violations that named specific countries. Today, the sub-commission cannot even make reference to country-examples to illustrate points in its publications.

This virtual paralysis reached a peak during debate on the second item of this year’s agenda, about human rights violations around the world. Evidence from NGOs and sometimes moving accounts by victims are now rarely heard, much less listened to. Several NGO representatives have been concerned about these developments since the sub-commission was banned last year from taking up specific cases. Its experts have also voiced such concern. When a body loses the power to punish, it loses its relevance, said Romanian expert Iulia Motoc, calling on all parties to think about the issue of who uses sub-commission’s documents and studies.

Algerian expert Leila Zerrougui said she joined her colleagues in noting that item two of the agenda no longer interested anyone and that even the experts had no desire to speak on it. She noted that the Commission had even cancelled the sub-commission’s right to make an appeal on behalf of someone in imminent danger of execution. Brazil’s Paulo Sergio Pinheiro quipped that soon the sub-commission would be asked investigate the future of human rights on the moon.

So it was not surprising that at the press conference sub-commission head Warzazi refused to discuss the plight of Moroccan journalist Ali Lmrabet, recently sentenced to three years in prison for "insulting the king." She curtly declined to answer and said Moroccan human rights organisations were the ones to ask, not the head of the sub-commission.

She also declined to answer a question about Reporters Without Borders, which has defended Lmrabet and which she accused of "abuse" for putting out a report on the shortcomings and ineffectiveness of the UN human rights apparatus. After this exchange, she said she would seek from the relevant bodies further sanctions against the organisation, whose consultative status with the United Nations has already been suspended for a year after it denounced Libya becoming the head of the Commission.