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POLITICS: Sri Lanka Dropped From Human Rights Council

Haider Rizvi

UNITED NATIONS, May 21 2008 (IPS) - Amid calls for additional measures to protect human rights, civil society groups that work closely with the United Nations say they are pleased with the outcome of Wednesday's election of the world body's Human Rights Council.

"What happened today means people do care about human rights," Steve Crawshaw, U.N. advocacy director of the U.S.-based Human Rights Watch, told IPS. "We are delighted that Sri Lanka failed to get elected."

Crawshaw's group, along with dozens of other international rights organisations, had launched an aggressive campaign against Sri Lanka's reelection to the council.

"Sri Lanka has a track record of torture and disappearances," said Crawshaw. "Governments like that do not belong in the world body's leading human rights institutions."

The 47-member Human Rights Council is the primary body responsible for addressing human rights violations. It was created by the U.N. General Assembly in 2006 to replace the much-criticised 53-member Commission on Human Rights.

The Geneva-based body, considered the third most important pillar of the U.N. system after the Security Council and the Economic and Social Council, is supposed to uphold "the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights".


Though not entirely satisfied with its performance, critics from international rights advocacy organisations say the new body has made some progress towards holding its members accountable.

"[It's] a step toward ensuring that the council can become a more progressive and effective instrument in the defence of human rights," said Morton Halperin of the Open Society Institute, a U.S.-based influential policy think-tank.

Like Human Rights Watch and 19 other major international rights organisations, Halperin's group strongly opposed the Sri Lankan government's bid for reelection to its council seat due to its questionable record on human rights.

"Notably, today's election saw the defeat of Sri Lanka's candidacy for another term on the council," Halperin said. "We welcome the General Assembly's seriousness. Today's defeat of Sri Lanka sends a clear signal that human rights abusers will face stiff scrutiny."

On Wednesday, the General Assembly elected 15 countries to serve three-year terms starting next month. Three of the newly-elected members – Burkina Faso, Chile and Slovakia – will be sitting on the council for the first time.

The other 12 members elected by the General Assembly are Argentina, Bahrain, Brazil, France, Gabon, Ghana, Japan, Pakistan, South Korea, Ukraine, Britain and Zambia. The term of office for all of these countries will begin on Jun. 20.

In the run-up to the council vote, some Noble Peace Prize laureates, including South Africa's Desmond Tutu and former U.S. president Jimmy Carter, had also raised objections to Sri Lanka's candidacy.

"The systematic abuses by Sri Lanka are among the most serious imaginable," said Tutu, with Carter noting in a statement last week that the government there "has one of the highest rates of enforced disappearances in the world."

Last Tuesday, Human Rights Watch and 19 other organisations sent a letter to all the U.N. member states urging them not to vote for Sri Lanka for membership to the Human Rights Council.

They charged that the Sri Lankan government had committed hundreds of enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings in its ongoing conflict with the separatist movement called Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

The rights groups said they had no doubts about the LTTE's own "long and horrific record of atrocities", but added that "does not justify" the government's own "rampant abuses" of human rights.

"It is not appropriate for highly abusive states which seek election in order to defensively prevent international scrutiny for their own serious violations," the letter said. "Such membership is destructive to the council."

In addition to Sri Lanka, rights activists also raised questions about some of the elected members whose human rights records are subject to question. "Pakistan has made promises, although it had problems," said Crawshaw. "Well, we'll see."

Though many rights activists like Crawshaw would like to see increased U.S. participation in the U.N.-led monitoring of human rights violations, Wednesday's vote suggested there would be no change in U.S. policy under the current administration.

Contrary to its image as the champion of human rights, the U.S. had opposed the General Assembly resolution calling for the creation of the Human Rights Council, and thus remains in isolation with regard to the international discourse on human rights.

Meanwhile, in a statement, the Open Society Institute's Halperin expressed concern at reports claiming that some countries traded their votes for political considerations.

"Although this is a common practice in U.N. diplomacy," he said, "trading votes is unacceptable in the election of Human Rights Council members."

 
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