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U.N. Rights Body In Serious Decline
(Geneva, April 25, 2003) This year's session of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights has proved even more disappointing than last year, Human Rights Watch said on the last day of the six-week meeting in Geneva.

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Briefing to the 59th Session of the UN Commission on Human Rights
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"The commission appears to be in a really serious decline. Governments this year were even less outspoken in criticizing the worst human rights violators worldwide."

Joanna Weschler
U.N. representative for Human Rights Watch

An "abusers club" of governments hostile to human rights has further consolidated its position and blocked several important country initiatives, while the United States and to a lesser extent, the European Union have not exerted positive leadership.

"The commission appears to be in a really serious decline," said Joanna Weschler, U.N. representative for Human Rights Watch. "Governments this year were even less outspoken in criticizing the worst human rights violators worldwide."

Human Rights Watch criticized the United States, which rejoined the commission this year, for playing a destructive role on many issues. The European Union also failed to take firm and principled stand on many important votes, Human Rights Watch said. In a sudden about-face, the United States for the first time refrained from cosponsoring a resolution condemning Russia's abuses in Chechnya (the resolution was defeated by 21 votes against, to 15 votes in favor, with 17 abstentions). The United States also abandoned its traditional practice of sponsoring a resolution critical of China, citing leadership changes and unspecified human rights improvements.

The United States blocked any focused debate on the situation in Iraq and resisted human rights monitoring of Iraq's transition. It strongly opposed any call for accountability for past human rights abuses in Afghanistan, and criticism of continuing human rights problems in that country. The United States also fought unsuccessfully to prevent the commission from calling on governments to ratify the statute for the International Criminal Court.

Despite the overwhelming international consensus against the execution of juvenile offenders, the United States insisted that this principle be dropped from a resolution on children's rights. In 2002, the world's only known executions of juvenile offenders were carried out by the U.S. state of Texas, and the United States is the only country worldwide that continues to execute people who were under eighteen at the time of the offense.

However, this year's death penalty resolution condemns the practice more forcefully and makes clear that the execution of juveniles is absolutely prohibited by international human rights law.

The European Union, evidently preoccupied with its own internal divisions and relations with Washington, failed to stand firm and united on critical issues. Although the European Union was nearly the only sponsor of country resolutions, it often was not forceful enough. Resolutions on Russia, Zimbabwe and Sudan were all less critical than in previous years and ultimately were defeated. The European Union refrained from tabling a resolution critical of Iran, pointing to its newly established but unproven human rights dialogue with Tehran. It also did not introduce a resolution on China.

"The United States and European Union have complained loudly about the abusive governments that are members of the commission," Weschler said. "But on many issues they have been just as ready to subjugate human rights to their political interests."

A powerful grouping of hostile governments who have joined the commission in recent years, including Algeria, Libya, Sudan, Syria and Zimbabwe, joined with China, Cuba and Russia to oppose several important country initiatives. African governments, led by South Africa, worked as a bloc to oppose scrutiny of the human rights situation in Zimbabwe and Sudan.

Canada, Mexico, Costa Rica, Norway, New Zealand and Switzerland were among the few to hold a firm and principled line on many key human rights issues. Other Latin American and Caribbean countries who might be expected to champion human rights, such as Brazil and Argentina, failed to back important resolutions, and proved muted in their criticism of Cuba.

Some of the commission's significant achievements included first-time initiatives by the EU on North Korea, by the United States on Belarus and jointly by the EU and the United States on Turkmenistan.

"When the U.S. and the E.U. have the political resolve to censure human rights violators, they can make a powerful statement," Weschler said. "The problem is that they don't do it often enough."

In another positive development, a working group was established to elaborate an Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, that would allow for individual complaints. The commission will also consider a resolution on the need to uphold human rights while countering terrorism, although it failed to establish a dedicated monitoring mechanism.

"The upcoming elections for next year's session will make or break the commission," Weschler warned. "Several countries with terrible human rights records - such as Cuba, Iran, North Korea, and Saudi Arabia - are in the running."

Elections for commission membership will be held next week in New York. Human Rights Watch has argued that, as a prerequisite for membership of the commission, governments should have ratified core human rights treaties, complied with their reporting obligations, issued open invitations to U.N. human rights experts and not have been condemned recently by the commission for human rights violations.