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(Geneva) – The first session of the new country review mechanism of the UN Human Rights Council was undermined by inconsistencies and the timidity of some governments in reviewing others, Human Rights Watch said today. On April 18, 2008 the council concluded a two-week session in which it examined the records of 16 countries as part of the new Universal Periodic Review (UPR) process.

“The review’s greatest strength was to be its universality, with all countries facing scrutiny regardless of their region, size, or influence,” said Juliette de Rivero, Geneva advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “But some council members politicized their approach and applied different standards to each country under review.”

There was a marked contrast in the strength of criticism faced by some countries under review, with, for instance, the Czech Republic facing detailed questioning regarding the treatment of Roma, while on the other hand, few states challenged Tunisia and Algeria on their records. Other African states avoided talking about human rights problems in those two countries, instead congratulating both for their alleged achievements.

Human Rights Watch’s research, that of other nongovernmental organizations, and information from within the United Nations human rights system all point to ongoing serious and systematic violations of human rights in both countries. Of particular concern are crackdowns on peaceful dissent and free expression, and consistent and credible reports of torture and ill-treatment by members of the police and security forces.

Algeria’s interventions on Tunisia, Bahrain, and the United Kingdom provide a good example of the double standards applied by some. The Algerian ambassador trod softly with regard to both Tunisia and Bahrain, noting the difficulties the Tunisian government faced protecting human rights while combating terrorism and asking only if Tunisia believed it would be “a good idea to have a seminar” on that subject, while congratulating Bahrain for the progress it has made with regard to protection of women’s rights. In contrast, Algeria gave a strong, detailed statement when the United Kingdom was reviewed, raising concerns over its rate of incarceration of children, the violation of the UK’s commitments under the Convention against Torture, excessive use of pre-trial detention and the lack of protection for asylum seekers and migrants.

In addition to such inconsistencies, the review was marked by excessive praise and timid criticisms. While calling attention to best practices can be helpful, efforts to find something to commend in even the most dire situations undermined the credibility of the process. For example, Japan noted that Tunisia is “demonstrating major compliance with human rights” and is “one of the most democratic countries in the Arab world.”

Some states seemed determined to tread softly, and others failed to intervene at all in the process. Only 14 of the 27 EU member states spoke during the two-week review session.

“States often pulled their punches, apparently hoping that nice comments now would be echoed when they face review,” de Rivero said. “States need to focus on how the review can help victims the world over, rather than how they can help themselves.”

The Human Rights Council was created in 2006 to replace the much-criticized Commission on Human Rights, and the UPR is its most innovative and ambitious instrument. Though a number of UN expert committees exist to monitor human rights issues like torture and racism, they are only able to address the situation in countries that choose to put themselves forward for consideration. By contrast, the UPR is universal and will review the situation in all 192 UN member states over a four-year cycle.

In its first session the council reviewed India, the Philippines, South Africa, and the UK, as well as Algeria, Argentina, Bahrain, Brazil, the Czech Republic, Ecuador, Finland, Indonesia, Morocco, the Netherlands, Poland, and Tunisia.

The mixed quality of the assessments directly reflected the willingness of states to engage fully with the process, both when asking questions and when being reviewed. Where states were open to discussion and willing to talk about difficult subjects, the reviews were very productive; where they were not, the reviews were misleading and disconnected from the situation on the ground. It is therefore the responsibility of states that are committed to human rights to do more to ensure that the reviews are meaningful.

“The review can only help to end abuses if states take their responsibilities seriously instead of hiding behind pleasantries,” de Rivero said.

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