UN Commission on Human Rights forsakes victims of human rights violations

The ICJ found that the UN Commission on Human Rights, which ended its yearly session last Friday, continues to be marred by extreme politicization.

In a statement released today, the ICJ stated that the work of the Commission has often been paralysed in a manner that prevents it from taking concrete steps to protect victims of human rights violations. Nevertheless, the ICJ still noted progress in some areas.

A most welcome evolution consisted in the adoption by consensus of the recently completed Declaration on the Rights of Human Rights Defenders. Though the final text in some areas falls short of NGO expectations, it ultimately strengthens the rights of human rights defenders and puts an end to 14 years of bickering in the UN Working Group. The objective is now for the draft Declaration to be adopted by the UN General Assembly at the end of the year. The challenge remains in the implementation of the Declaration in real terms, as human rights defenders continue to be killed, arrested, or denied freedom of speech and association.

Year after year, the ICJ has been obliged to criticise the fact that many countries continue to escape scrutiny and censure because of political and other considerations that have little to do with the respect of human rights. The impossibility of passing resolutions on the very serious human rights situations in Algeria, China, Mexico and Turkey is illustrated by the shadowy limitations which were placed upon the Commission in the backstage and orchestrated well before the yearly session had actually begun. This is a direct betrayal for the victims of human rights violations.

Another negative course lies in the failure of the Commission to consider the issue of human rights in Bahrain despite the deteriorating human rights record of that government. This is a slap not only in the face of victims of human rights violations in Bahrain, but also for the UN Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities, the subordinate body which had referred the matter to the Commission. This stands in total contradiction to the Commission’s own decision to accept referrals from the Sub-Commission in cases of countries which were hitherto unconsidered and where a human rights problem has recently emerged.

On the other hand, the Chairman’s statement on Colombia was most welcome. It expressed the concern of the international community for serious violations of human rights and of international humanitarian law in that country. The Statement sets the framework for the mandate of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in Colombia, which the ICJ actively supports.

But it is worrying that the role of UN human rights mechanisms were put into question on several occasions during the session. The ICJ hopes that the initiative of the Commission’s Chairman to review the mechanisms during the inter-sessional period, approved and entrusted to the Commission’s Bureau, will lead to their strengthening rather than weakening. The ICJ also hopes that the process will be transparent and will be conducted in consultation with all those concerned, including NGOs.

Debates on various questions were often hampered by the delay in the availability of relevant reports thereby giving the delegations inadequate time to examine them.

Four major resolutions were adopted in the area of economic, social and cultural rights – after years of oblivion. The first institutes a Special Rapporteur on the right to education, the second emphasised the importance of the right to food, the third institutes an independent expert on human rights and extreme poverty, and the fourth creates the follow-up mechanism consisting of an open-ended working group on the right to development and the appointing of an independent expert. The ICJ is pleased that the Commission is taking practical steps to redress the balance and selectivity with regard to certain categories of rights and that economic, social and cultural rights will now be taken more seriously.

The resolution on the death penalty which proposes a world-wide moratorium on the imposition of capital punishment and the abolition of capital sentencing on minors aged 18 or under at the time of committing a crime, is a welcome addition to last year’s resolution on this subject.

Concerning the rights of women and children, the Commission reiterated that sexual assault perpetrated against children or women in time of war is a war crime, and possibly a crime against humanity. This is a welcome contribution to the debate surrounding the world’s effort to establish a permanent International Criminal Court (ICC). The significance of the creation of an ICC was often highlighted during the session.

The resolution on advisory services is to be welcomed insofar as it does not exclude States that may benefit from such services from the scrutiny and monitoring by the Commission of gross violations of human rights. This is important because some States argue that because they get assistance from the UN they should ipso facto be exonerated from criticism. The Commission stated that the two are not antinomic. The Commission also called for enhancing the coordination between the UN and UNDP concerning advisory services in the area of human rights.

Some of the positive managerial trends recorded this year, can be attributed to the commitment of South Africa’s Ambassador Selebi who chaired the session. His desire to making the Commission more efficient has been noted. Some new methods were employed such as organising an open and flexible debate on gender during the official session of the Commission. The ICJ welcomes this interactive approach and encourages its more frequent use.

During the session the ICJ co-organized a Roundtable on the establishment of the International Criminal Court to highlight some of the issues which will be at the heart of the discussion during the meeting of plenipotentiaries in Rome from 15 June to 17 July 1998. The Round-Table, which was attended by more than 200 participants, was opened by Mrs. Mary Robinson, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

The ICJ participated in this 54th session of the UN Commission on Human Rights, which took place in Geneva from 16 March to 24 April 1998. The UN Commission is composed of 53 Member States. It meets each year for six weeks in Geneva to review human rights situations throughout the world and take action. This session coincides with the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights.

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