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(Geneva, March 30, 2007) - The UN Human Rights Council closed its fourth regular session today having failed to take action to address many of the world's most urgent human rights situations, Human Rights Watch said today. The council adoption of a compromise text regarding the crisis in Darfur, however, was a welcome if small step forward.

"The council again chose talk over action on worsening human rights situations in countries such as Burma, Iran, Sri Lanka, and Uzbekistan," said Peggy Hicks, global advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. "The council's resolution on Darfur is a relatively bright light in an otherwise disappointing session."

The council adopted the Darfur text put forward by Germany, as amended, by consensus, after extended negotiations involving a competing Algerian draft. The resolution establishes a group composed of six currently-serving independent experts on a range of abuses - including violence against women, extrajudicial executions and torture - and led by the council-appointed expert on Sudan. The expert group is charged with working to ensure follow-up and implementation of existing recommendations by the council and its experts, by the council's predecessor, the UN Commission on Human Rights, and by other UN human rights institutions. The group is also charged with reporting back to the council in June. The text does not, however, criticize the Sudanese government directly for its role in orchestrating and perpetrating massive violations of human rights and humanitarian law in Darfur.

Several African states played a critical role in breaking the council's silence on Darfur. Six states - Cameroon, Ghana, Mauritius, Nigeria, Senegal and Zambia - called for council action in response to a report on Darfur from a high-level mission established by the council in December. These and other states, including Uganda and Mauritania, engaged constructively in discussions over the German text. A key test for the council will be whether these and other swing states such as India, Indonesia, the Philippines, and South Africa will engage similarly to address abuses in other locations in the future.

The council continued its practice of hearing detailed reporting from its independent experts on human rights violations who focus both on "thematic" issues, such as torture or violence against women, and on particular country situations. This segment of the council's agenda shines a spotlight on violations in many countries, an act which could itself help to protect human rights in some cases. However, the council again failed to take specific action to follow up on the experts' recommendations, often made in the face of massive violations, or to address the endemic failure of many states to cooperate fully with the experts.

In a particularly disturbing development, the council decided to end its scrutiny of Iran and Uzbekistan. Both countries had been subject to council monitoring under a confidential procedure known as 1503 (after the resolution that created it). The human rights situations in both countries have significantly deteriorated in the past year.

"The council's decision actually rewarded Iran and Uzbekistan for their crackdowns on human rights, and it risks fueling further abuses in both countries," Hicks said. "Rather than worrying how repressive governments will respond to scrutiny, council members should think of the thousands of victims in Uzbekistan and Iran who are hoping the council will make a difference."

The council also adopted a resolution on defamation of religions that could itself endanger human rights, Human Rights Watch said. The resolution, put forward by Pakistan on behalf of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, focuses on protection of religions themselves, particularly Islam, rather than the rights of individuals, including members of religious minorities. This approach, and a provision which notes that free expression can be limited based on "respect for religions and beliefs," could be used to justify encroachments upon freedom of thought, conscience and religion. More positively, the council adopted by consensus a European Union resolution which addresses elimination of all forms of intolerance and of discrimination based on religion or belief, and calls for the council to address this issue at its sixth session this June.

On a more positive note, 57 states led by Argentina joined together to urge the council to address violations of the human rights of women and girls in a more effective and integrated manner than its predecessor, the UN Commission on Human Rights. More than 30 states also supported the new "Yogyakarta Principles" on sexual orientation, gender identity, and human rights and urged the council to take action on these issues.

The common refrain of this session was the need to complete "institution-building," and the concern that too much activity on pressing human rights issues would undermine that focus. A review of the council's system of experts and of the Resolution 1503 procedure is scheduled to be completed by June 18. In addition, the council was given a year to establish a "universal periodic review" under which the human rights situation in all states will be examined.

"A substantial backlog of work has piled up as the council focused on building the new institution this year," Hicks said. "Let's hope the council has the energy and political will to get down to business once the institution-building phase ends in June."

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