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(Geneva) The UN Human Rights Council's review of the human rights records of 16 countries, which was completed today, exposed both endemic abuses and attempts to thwart the review by some of the world's most serious human rights violators, Human Rights Watch said.

"The Human Rights Council's review is a good litmus test of a government's real commitment to human rights," said Juliette de Rivero, Geneva advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. "For example, China and Cuba went out of their way to deny that they ever violate rights, while Mexico and Germany agreed to discuss difficult aspects of their records."

China rejected any criticism of its record as politicized, refused to speak of its difficulties and turned down 70 recommendations put to it to improve its human rights record. Cuba denied the existence of political prisoners and falsely claimed that all those serving sentences had previously been prosecuted with all the guarantees of due process.

This session of the "universal periodic review" process, which began on February 2, looked at the human rights situation in Germany, Djibouti, Canada, Bangladesh, Russia, Azerbaijan, Cameroon, Cuba, Saudi Arabia, Senegal, China, Nigeria, Mexico, Mauritius, Jordan, and Malaysia.

Saudi Arabia will give its public position at the council's June 2009 session on the more than 60 recommendations put forward about its record. Other states recommended, for example, that it abolish discriminatory practices against women, such as strict gender segregation and limitations on freedom of movement, and that it allow women the right to vote. Saudi Arabia rejected on the spot, though, recommendations for a moratorium on the death penalty and an end to corporal punishment.

Russia also will respond in June to the recommendations made during its review. These include an appeal to provide access to Ingushetia for the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances and the UN experts on torture and extrajudicial killings.

As part of the universal periodic review, the Human Rights Council examines human rights situations in each UN member state once every four years. The review provides a chance to draw attention to, and make recommendations about, human rights violations in all UN member states. States under review submit written reports concerning the human rights situation in their country; nongovernmental organizations also make submissions and UN experts present a compilation of their recommendations.

"The universal periodic review provides a unique opportunity for states to make a difference in the lives of those facing human rights abuse," de Rivero said. "Yet some states reviewing the records seemed more committed to scoring points with their allies by praising their efforts than to addressing real human rights concerns that exist in all countries."

The review consists of a three-hour debate during which the government under review responds to the questions, comments, and recommendations put forward by other UN member states. Some governments have demonstrated substantial ill-will in their approach to this process. Cuba, for example, notably failed to conduct consultations with civil society, as encouraged in advance of the review, and then cynically maneuvered the speakers' list for the review to ensure that states likely to be least critical of its record dominated the discussion. Some of the world's most notorious human rights violators - including Zimbabwe, Burma, Uzbekistan and Sudan - were the most effusive in praising human rights progress by countries such as Cuba, China and Russia.

"The review proved that repressive countries like Cuba will not tolerate criticism," de Rivero said. "What is more surprising still is that so many governments are willing to be complicit in that silence by engaging in meaningless praise that does nothing to protect victims' rights."

Despite efforts to undermine the discussion of the rights records of several of the countries under review, the session succeeded in exposing key human rights concerns in each of the countries reviewed. 

For example, governments criticized killings of journalists, suppression of freedom of expression and lack of accountability for violations in Russia, including in Chechnya. A number of governments decried Saudi Arabia's discriminatory system of male guardianship over women, and encouraged the kingdom to allow the establishment of nongovernmental organizations and to abolish the death penalty for children. In the case of China, numerous governments raised concerns about media freedom, called for access to China by UN experts and appealed to China to reveal the number of executions it carries out, as well as to place a moratorium on executions.

"The review also provides an important opportunity to push for change in countries that are more open to international scrutiny regarding their rights records," de Rivero said. "Mexico, for instance, has received a clear message that it should stop using its military justice system to investigate, prosecute, and try army abuses."

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