The UN Commission on Human Rights remains the principal human rights body of the United Nations with the responsibility for universal protection of fundamental rights and freedoms. As in other sessions, the 53rd Session of the Commission dealt with the major human rights violations anywhere in the world.
One of the outstanding aspects of the Commission is the presence and the activities of Non-Governmental Organizations. They are numerous and they represent various spectrums of the human rights community from Amnesty International to the World Organization Against Torture. There were over 200 NGOs on the list of attendance with over one thousand names of delegates representing NGOs at the Commission. NGOs provide factual and detailed information on human rights violations worldwide, intervene at the Commission with strong statements which identify the perpetrators and lobby effectively on behalf of the victims of human rights abuses. Some governments tend to view NGOs as a nuisance since NGOs do not always respect the niceties of diplomatic language. There have also been attempts to stifle the speech of NGOs at the Commission and the new rule which limits interventions to five minutes is part of this effort. If NGOs were not present and active at in Geneva, the Commission would lose a great deal of credibility and would end up serving more the governments than the people whose rights they are violating.
In a different vein, there were more attempts by some developing countries to dilute the authority and to undermine the competence of the Commission. For example, they would require that all resolutions be adopted by consensus rather than by vote, they questioned resolutions which had been approved in previous Sessions, and resorted to tactics which tended to obstruct the Commission’s work.
The Commission was never more “politicized”. This was evident especially in dealing with the resolutions on China and Rwanda which will be discussed below.
Another example was the action of some countries to prevent dignitaries from speaking at the podium which is a privilege reserved for visiting Ministers of State, Special Rapporteurs and other eminent persons. At the 53rd Session, an attempt was made by Israel to prevent the Palestinian National Authority’s Minister for Higher Education, Mrs. Hanan Ashrawi from making her statement from the podium. Israel was unsuccessful and after a long wait Mrs. Ashrawi delivered her speech from the appropriate place.
On the other hand, the Indonesian government was successful in preventing 1996 Nobel Peace Prize Winner José Ramos-Horta from speaking on the issue of human rights violations in East Timor.
Since many of the human rights violations raised at the Commission take place in developing countries, some of those countries retaliated by accusing developed countries of preferring confrontation over dialogue and cooperation. They argued that by raising the issues and naming the violators, developed countries were “politicizing ” the Commission.
The environment at the Commission lacked the leadership that is expected of that body and was more confrontational. A vacuum was created by the resignation of the first High Commissioner for Human Rights José Ayala Lasso a few weeks before the 53rd Session. To further exacerbate the situation, the Director of the UN Centre for Human Rights in Geneva, Ibrahim Fall had recently been moved to the UN Headquarters in New York. Another key element was the election of Miroslav Somol of the Czech Republic as the President of the Commission. He admitted himself not knowing the human rights field and he turned out to be a weak chairman at a time when solid direction and sound guidance was required.
Some government delegations took a more confrontational approach at this Session when their countries’ human rights record was referred to or criticized. For example, the head of the Chinese delegation interrupted on a point of order any podium speaker who referred to the situation of human rights violations in his country. He interrupted the declarations of the Deputy Prime Minister of the Netherlands who was speaking on behalf of the European Union, the US Ambassador to the UN, Mr. Bill Richardson, and the Canadian Secretary of State for Africa and Latin America, the Hon. Christine Stewart.
Statement on Rwanda
In his statement on Rwanda, the Dominican Representative, Philippe LeBlanc, OP referred to the many reports tabled at the Commission by Special Rapporteurs on Rwanda, Zaire and Burundi and by NGO groups which described clearly the gravity of the situation in the region. He urged the Commission to renew the mandates of the three rapporteurs. He also stated that the violations of human rights in that the Region demand the constant attention and ongoing action of the Commission.
He brought to the attention of the Commission a common declaration and a plan of action which was adopted at a Conference in Support of Democratic Opportunities in the African Great Lakes Region, held in Montreal Canada in January 1997. The Conference brought together representatives from 20 human rights, women’s and development organizations from Zaire, Rwanda and Burundi, plus pan-African, international and Canadian human rights organizations. The three UN Special Rapporteurs were also present as observers. He referred to four elements of the action plan which are essential for action in the Region:
- That democracy cannot prosper without putting an end to the use of violence as a tool of political intervention.
- That civil societies in the three countries are called to play a central role in democratic transitions.
- That Women’s groups should be encouraged in their role as carriers of a will and a demonstrated capacity for reconciliation.
- That the respect for human rights is essential in all true process of democratic transformation.
The resolution on Rwanda had traditionally been led by the Canadian delegation. However, at this Session, it was decided within the African group at the Commission that the Rwanda delegation would be responsible for drafting the resolution. The first draft which circulated unofficially recommended ending the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on Rwanda René Dégni-Segui. This would mean the loss of a strong and outspoken Rapporteur who was mandated to investigate human rights violations in Rwanda and to report to the Commission and to the UN General Assembly on his findings. There was no question in anyone’s mind that the authorities in Rwanda would accept nothing less that Dégni-Segui’s departure as Special Rapporteur. NGOs at the Commission including the Dominican Representative lobbied on the issue throughout the Commission session and strongly recommended Mr. Degni-Ségni’s re appointment for another mandate in view of the situation in Rwanda.
On the eve of the vote at the Commission, the African group tabled a resolution which had dropped the original proposal and replaced it with a watered-down proposal that effectively resulted in ending Dégni-Segui’s mandate as the Special Rapporteur on Rwanda. The proposal which was adopted invited “the President of the Commission to appoint a special representative who would be responsible for making recommendations on the way to improve the human rights situation in Rwanda, to facilitate the creation in Rwanda of an independent and effective national human rights commission, and further to make recommendations on situations which would call for providing the Rwanda government with technical assistance in the field of human rights”.
The compromise solution was provided by the Canadian delegation even though much pressure had been brought by the NGOs to ensure that the mandate of the Special Rapporteur René Dégni-Segui would be extended. The final resolution adopted by consensus was seen by many as a victory for the government of Rwanda and a setback for the people of Rwanda.
Statement on Shantinagar and Khanewal, Pakistan
In his statement on Pakistan, the Dominican Representative declared that thousands of militant Muslims had attacked two Christian villages in Shantinagar and Khanewal in Pakistan in February 1997. These incidents were inconsistent with, and a violation of, the provisions of the Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities, and other human rights treaties. In Pakistan, minorities represent 3 per cent of the total population, of which Christians constitute 1.55 per cent. He echoed the call by the Justice and Peace Commission of the Major Superiors of the Catholic Church in Pakistan, to, inter alia, ensure that those responsible for the human rights violations in Shantinagar and Khanewal, and the government, rebuild and restore all the churches, schools, hostels and dispensaries destroyed.
Dominicans working in the region of Shantinagar and Khanewal had provided to the Dominican Representative detailed information on the attack on the Christians living in the region and had requested that the issue be raised at the international level. The issue was raised at the UN Commission under item 17 of the agenda which deals with “rights of persons belonging to national or ethnic, religious and linguistic minorities”.
Statement on Chiapas, Mexico
The Dominican Representative’s statement on Mexico said that there had been a general deterioration in Mexico’s human rights situation. There was growing concern of a hidden civil war in Mexico, particularly in places such as the north of Chiapas. Impunity was another serious issue. The existence of para-military groups also threatened the population. He said that it was imperative for the Mexican government to continue to pursue peaceful negotiations in Chiapas and to take steps to reduce the level of military action in the state. He further brought forward five recommendations for consideration from the Las Casas Human Rights Centre in Chiapas.
The issue of human rights violations in Mexico is raised mainly by NGOs and has yet to find acceptance as a major issue at the Commission. The Dominican Representative’s statement relied mainly on information provided by fr. Pablo Romo, OP and the Fray Bartolomé de Las Casas Centre in Chiapas.
Statements on Colombia
Fr. Omar Fernandez, OFM made a statement under agenda item 8 Question of human rights of all persons subjected to any form of detention or imprisonment. He stated that the practice of arbitrary detention persisted around the world and people were being deprived of their liberty for trying to obtain their human rights. He further declared that in many countries, powers were granted to the executive bodies which had led to legislation harmful to the international framework of human rights. An example of this was the terrorist legislation in Colombia and Peru. In the two countries people were accused of terrorism and detained under these laws for exercising their legitimate rights to engage in political opposition or to strike. Detainees were not guaranteed a fair trial under these laws. Secret witnesses and secret jurisdictions resulted in the criminalization of social protest. In Colombia, activists were detained for months and years, after which judges decided to drop cases with no compensation for the suffering caused. He recommended that the Commission should continue to follow-up on anti-terrorist and emergency legislation.
Fr. John Quigley, OFM made a statement under agenda item #9d -#9d-Human rights, mass exoduses and displaced persons - in which he said that the suffering of the millions of internally displaced people worldwide often passed unrecorded and was hidden by governments seeking to elude their responsibilities. He further stated that assistance to internally displaced persons should guarantee their protection, but attention also had to be paid to prevention. It was essential to consider and address directly the leading causes of internal displacement: internal political and military conflicts. The situation in Colombia was of special gravity. He stated that, in that country, countrywide paramilitary activity and inefficient governmental policies for assistance and prevention had produced more than one million internally displaced persons during the last ten years. Paramilitary activity was a key factor behind the violations of human rights in Colombia and the main reason for internal displacement. Paramilitary groups systematically destroyed rural communities from the inside throughout Colombia. Rural leaders were forced to flee or were killed; paramilitary groups had settled in most communities, making the return of those they had displaced impossible.
Philippe LeBlanc, OP declared under agenda item #10 Question of violation of human rights in any part of the world that in Colombia, the government had carried out a systematic pattern of human rights violations for years. Forced disappearances, in the majority of cases accompanied by torture and summary executions, were daily occurrences in many parts of the country. Arbitrary detentions were increasing in areas under military control; the situation had deteriorated considerably over the past year due to the offensive unleashed by paramilitary groups. He strongly
recommended that the Commission to continue monitoring the situation in Columbia and the role that the Permanent Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights will take in that country.
In response to the human rights situation in Colombia, the Chairman of the Commission on Human Rights, Miroslav Somol made a statement welcoming the opening of the permanent Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Colombia but remained deeply concerned that the situation of endemic violence and the situation of internal armed conflict affecting many parts of the country had resulted in serious consequences for human rights. The statement also recognized that the conflict in Colombia entailed serious and continuous abuses and violations of human rights and humanitarian law by both State agents and guerrilla groups. It also expressed deep preoccupation at the numerous cases of disappearances and called for the urgent adoption of more effective legislative, administrative, judicial or other measures to prevent or terminate acts of enforced disappearances.
Statement on Palestine
Fr. David Jaeger, OFM of the Custody made a brief intervention and tabled a longer statement under agenda item #4 Question of the violation of human rights in the occupied Arab territories, including Palestine. Fr. Jaeger stated that the Israeli-Palestinian Peace process must include as a priority the human rights dimension. He recommended that the Commission on Human Rights should offer assistance to governments in this area and to help them develop as a high priority education on human rights in schools.
Resolution on China
The debate surrounding the resolution on human rights violations in China [E/CN.4/1997/L.91] is both an example of the aggressive stance of the Chinese delegation at the Commission and the “politicization” of the Commission.
The resolution was actually never discussed because the Chinese delegation was able to muster enough support for its motion of non- action which had the effect of killing the resolution. China garnered 27 votes in favor of its motion on non-action, with 17 against and 9 abstentions.
The voting pattern was an indication of those countries which vote on basic principles and those who are motivated by economic and other factors. This was made more abhorrent since the forum for this activity was the Commission on Human Rights where all member states of the UN are called to face the test of their adherence or non-adherence to internationally accepted human rights principles.
The resolution on China had already created havoc within the European Union consensus on foreign policy. France was the first to dissociate itself from the resolution on China, followed by Germany and then by Spain and Italy thereby putting to the test the Maastricht agreement on a common foreign policy for the European Union. It was left to Denmark and Holland to campaign vigorously for the adoption of the resolution.
This led China to announce on the day of the vote reprisals against Denmark and Holland. When the results of the vote on the non-action motion were announced, it was noted that the African and Asian countries had voted with China. However, all European country members of the Commission were able to save face by voting against the motion of non-action.
When the final tally on vote on the non-action motion was announced late in the evening on April 15, the Chinese delegation and their 20 or 30 members in the Assembly Hall applauded and shouted their approval to the stunned silence of the other member states and especially of the NGO community. This was a victory for a government but not for the people of China, nor the victims of human rights violations. However, the issue is not dead and the human rights situation of China will be raised again and again at the Commission until full disclosure and concrete action is taken by the international community. When the Commission meeting ended late Tuesday night, many left the hall dispirited and angry at the outcome
From a human rights perspective, the whole exercise was an example of a delegation using a procedural rule, the threat of economic reprisals and intense lobbying of other government delegations to ensure that their human rights record would not be discussed in the international body which is mandated to do just that. Underlying the motion of non-action was the notion that the Commission on Human Rights is incompetent to discuss human rights violations of members states. The whole exercise was an abuse of a procedure the purpose of which was not to stifle discussion of human rights violations at the Commission. In fact, rule
65.2 (non-action motion) is meant to prevent the proliferation of resolutions on one country or on one issue.
China was roundly condemned in the European press for its action at the Commission. For example, the editorial in Le Monde of Paris was entitled: Quand Pékin terrorise l’Europe-When Beijing terrorizes Europe-[in Le Monde, 17 April 1997; p.14] accused France and Germany of committing a sin against the spirit. It continued by saying that by
refusing to condemn China and allowing Israel for example to be condemned at the Commission, they had robbed the notion of human rights of all its meaning. The government of Canada was also condemned by NGOs and by the Canadian media for refusing to co-sponsor the resolution on China which it had done in previous years.
Resolution on the Death Penalty
A milestone was reached when the 53rd Session adopted a resolution on the abolition of the death penalty.
The resolution commits all states parties which have not abolished the death penalty to limit progressively the number of crimes which incur the penalty. The vote on the resolution was as follows: Those who voted against the resolution were: Algeria, Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, Egypt, United States of America, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, Pakistan and the Republic of Korea.
Resolution on Nigeria
The Commission adopted a resolution expressing its deep concern at continuing violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms in Nigeria, including arbitrary detention, as well as failure to respect due process of law. It also decided to appoint a Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Nigeria with a mandate to establish direct contacts with the authorities and the people of Nigeria and to report to the General Assembly and to the Commission on any information concerning this issue. The question of human rights and fundamental freedoms in Nigeria will be on the agenda of the next Session of the Commission. This was a contentious subject at the Commission and much pressure was brought to bear from NGOs to adopt a strong resolution. The result of the vote on the resolution was: 28 - yes; 6 - no; 19 abstentions (mostly African and Asian countries).
Resolution on East Timor
A resolution on East Timor was adopted even though the Indonesian Government had prevented the 1996 Nobel Peace Prize Winner José Ramos-Horta from addressing the Commission at the podium and notwithstanding the pressures they placed on many countries to vote against the resolution criticizing Indonesia for its human rights record. It should be noted that José Ramos-Horta did address a large gathering organized by Genève-Libertés which was attended by many NGOs and government delegations. The results of the vote on the resolution on Yes - 20; non - 14 (including South Africa) and 18 abstentions.
v. ) Situations under ECOSOC resolution 1503 (situations which appear to reveal a consistent pattern of gross violations of human rights)
Under Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) resolution 1503 the UN established a procedure for the consideration of communications (complaints) alleging that governments have committed a “consistent pattern of gross and reliably attested violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms”. This procedure is carried out in camera, but the Commission does name the countries which were considered without giving any details.
The 53rd Session considered in closed meetings the following countries:
Antigua, Botswana, Chad, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Gambia, Kyrgystan, Latvia, Lebanon, Lithuania, Saudi Arabia, Sierra Leone, Syria, Tanzania, the United States of America and Uzbekistan. The decision was made to discontinue consideration of the following countries: Antigua, Botswana, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Latvia, Lebanon, Lithuania, Syria, Tanzania, the United States of America and Uzbekistan.