PUCL Bulletin, June 2001

UNCHR annual session, a mixed bag
-- Amnesty international

At the closing of it's annual session in Geneva, the United Nations Commission on Human Rights (CHR) took positive steps to tackle "disappearances", called again for a moratorium on executions, appointed a new Special Rapporteur on Indigenous People and took strong action on Chechnya and Iran. However, it failed in its principal duty to protect victims of appalling human rights violations who happen to live in powerful countries like China, Indonesia and Saudi Arabia. Equally disconcerting was the Commission's premature decision to drop consideration of human rights violations in Rwanda and attacks on several of its own Special Rapporteurs.

If the CHR is to live up to its role as the world's primary human rights body it must protect human rights on their merits rather than protect the narrow self-interests of the governments that make up the Commission. Sending increasing numbers of top government officials to pay lip- service to human rights in Geneva, does not stop governments continuing to commit grave violations at home.

A key achievement of the Commission was its consensus decision to appoint a working group to fill a crucial gap: to establish a treaty to prevent, effectively investigate and halt enforced disappearances. These appalling human rights violations continue in every region of the world. The initiative to push for this initiative was led by GRULAC, the Group of Latin American countries and France, which tabled the resolution.

The resolution was adopted despite strong opposition from the United States and Canada. They argued against the proposal under the pretext that other treaty bodies already covered the issue. An independent expert will now review existing legal norms, take account of the draft Convention On Enforced Disappearances already prepared by the Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights, and submit findings to the working group.
Amnesty International (AI) also welcomed the Commission's decision to reiterate its call for a world-wide moratorium on all executions and for the death penalty not to be imposed on anyone who committed the crime when younger than eighteen years. The resolution was adopted with 27 votes in favour -- the same number as last year -- and 18 against, five more than last year, eight new Commission members among them. There were 66 co-sponsors to the resolution. AI regrets that 60 countries disassociated themselves from the resolution in a statement made by Saudi Arabia.

The Commission continued to ignore gross and persistent abuses in some of the most influential countries. Saudi Arabia, a member of the Commission, ranks among the countries with the highest numbers of reported executions (at least 123 during 2000). Floggings, amputations and secret trials continue at an alarming rate. Yet AI's attempts to raise this grave situation met, at most, with embarrassed silence by governments keen to preserve their economic ties and strategic alliances with Saudi Arabia.

Following the pattern of recent years, China used procedural rules once more to halt any scrutiny of its human rights record by presenting a motion to take no action on a resolution on human rights in China. The motion was adopted with 23 votes for and 17 against. That happened a week after China launched an anti-crime campaign leading to the swift execution in the following 12 days of no less than a reported 350 people believed to have been summarily tried.
The Commission adopted a consensus statement by the Chair on East Timor, but it ignored the call by UN experts and three Special Rapporteurs to establish an international criminal tribunal on East Timor or even consider particularly serious human rights abuses committed in Aceh and West Papua in Indonesia.

Despite Canada's efforts to maintain the already weak mandate of the Special Representative on Rwanda, the Commission, in a move initiated by Kenya, removed Rwanda from its agenda. The situation in Rwanda remains extremely volatile and demands the continued close attention of the Commission. Reports of "disappearance" and torture or ill-treatment of detainees continue, and many of the estimated 125,000 people held in detention mostly accused of taking part in the 1994 genocide, are held for several years without charge or trial in conditions that amount to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.
Equally deplorable is the Commission's failure to act on the explicit recommendation of the Commission of Inquiry (CoI), jointly established by the UN and the OAU, to appoint a Special Rapporteur on Togo to investigate allegations of numerous extra-judicial executions in the country in 1998.
The Commission did not even press the government to invite two Special Rapporteurs to visit the country, as the CoI had recommended.

An encouraging sign was the Commission's determination to extend the mandate of the Special Representative on Iran, especially since he has been unable to visit the country since 1996. Amnesty International was concerned about continuing reports of arbitrary arrests and imprisonment of prisoners of conscience. The resolution was adopted with 21 votes for and 17 against, one more in favour than last year.

The Commission adopted a strong resolution on Chechnya/Russian Federation. The resolution, adopted by 20 members in favour and seven against, with 19 abstentions, condemns the continued use of disproportionate indiscriminate force by the Russian military and other breaches of international humanitarian law and human rights. The Commission underlined the slow pace of investigations by national bodies but failed to establish an international commission of inquiry without which there will be no effective investigations into past grave human rights abuses and without which the perpetrators cannot be brought to justice.

Amnesty International welcomes in particular those 33 countries that have extended open invitations to all thematic mechanisms of the Commission to visit their country at any time, in true spirit of effective of cooperation with the Commission's human rights experts. All members and observers next year should follow their example. The organization firmly believes in the principle that, once appointed, these thematic mechanisms should be able to function entirely independently from the Commission, although within the framework set by the Commission for their work. Amnesty International hopes that this principle will be fully observed in future.

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