Page last updated at 18:46 GMT, Thursday, 15 January 2009

UN human rights body challenged

By Paul Burnell
The Investigation

Jody Williams has no doubt about the hardest part of her human rights mission to investigate the Sudan government's record in Darfur - the pressure she claims she received from UN member states to produce a watered down report.
Israeli attack in Gaza
The Human Rights Council this week condemned the Israeli's Gaza operation

The Nobel Peace Prize winner headed a mission, mandated by the UN's Human Rights Council, which was denied access to Darfur by the Sudanese Government.

But in Ethiopia, it was able to meet the head of the African Union's peacekeeping mission, the UN's special rapporteur on Sudan and the former governor of Darfur.

In Chad, it met representatives of rebel groups in refugee camps and received a lot of documents alleging human rights abuses.

But back at the HRC's base in Geneva, the mission ran into several attempts to block its report or at least force a toned-down version.

Diplomatic pressure

"In Geneva, it was harder than in the refugee camps," Ms Williams told BBC Radio 4's The Investigation.

One member government's representative told her that the report ought to keep everybody happy.

"If you follow Darfur at all, trying to imagine how you could possibly draft a report that would keep gang-raped women in the refugee camps happy, or the widow and her child happy or the Sudanese government and the Janajweed, who have carried out these atrocities? Obviously it's impossible."

The council rejected the mission's recommendations.

The Investigation, BBC Radio 4, 2000 GMT, Thursday 15 January 2009.

It led Ms Williams to conclude, "From my experience, it is a club of 47 nations who see their main task as being to cover each other's butt instead of defending, protecting and promoting human rights in countries where governments violate the people they are supposed to protect."

The HRC's President Martin Uhomoibhi said his two-year-old organisation should not be judged on one mission.

"In my view, it is too early to be overly judgemental, cynical or critical. There are challenges in the council... perhaps it could do better but this will not come overnight. This will come when we learn to trust each other."

Spotlight on Israel

He added: "Gaps and loopholes are not matters that can be overcome by finger-pointing."

However the council's critics argue that it is fundamentally weakened by countries sharing either regional or ideological interests.

It is claimed that, in practice, Israel has received the bulk of HRC's attention, while the council has either ignored other countries or issued relatively mild observations about some regimes.

This week, the council held a special session on the crisis in Gaza. Half of the council's special sessions in its two year history have focussed on Israel. No other country has been looked at more than once.

Eighty percent of the council's condemnatory resolutions have related to Israel. The only other states who have been condemned are Burma and North Korea.

"It is about the only thing they do. There have been 20 separate actions against Israel," said Grover Joseph Rees, the US Ambassador who specialises in UN affairs for the State Department, which withdrew from membership last summer

"You can compare this with only three against Sudan. If you read the resolutions on Israel, they are full of language such as "condemns" or "demands". While if you look at Sudan, they are mostly taken up with thanking the government for its cooperation and hoping they will be a little better," said Mr Rees.

Refugees from Darfur
The HRC is accused of ignoring Darfur

But Hisham Badiry, Egypt's ambassador to Geneva said the HRC is reacting to valid issues.

"In physics, every action causes a reaction. If Israel stopped its actions, the council would stop criticising it."

He denied the council was ignoring other concerns. "The HRC deals with issues where they are raised. There are resolutions on Liberia and Burundi."

Others believe the greater focus on Israel not only damages the council's credibility, but also does little to help the Palestinians.

"I think the real tragedy is that there are very serious human rights issues in Palestine but there isn't a serious debate about this because it is all about repeated ideological posturing," said Richard Gowan, a policy fellow at the European Council for Foreign Relations, which studies UN affairs.

"The HRC is not good for the people of Palestine. It is only good for diplomatic chest beating as far as I can see."

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