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June 8, 2006

Iraq's Chairing of UN Rights Committee Faulted

by Thalif Deen

UNITED NATIONS - The 191-member General Assembly is expected to elect Iraq as chair of a key UN committee dealing with human rights and social development.

But the proposed election comes at a time when both the United Nations and several human rights organizations have accused successive U.S.-backed governments in Baghdad of either committing or ignoring human rights abuses in the military-occupied country. The 54-member Asian Group, of which Iraq is a member, endorsed the country's candidacy after politically troubled Nepal was forced to withdraw its candidature last month, primarily because of its own poor human rights record and absence of rule of law.

"We had two evils before us," one Third World diplomat told IPS, "and we decided to choose the lesser evil."

The endorsements by regional groups for various UN key committees – and this time for the upcoming 61st session of the General Assembly, which begins September – are traditionally approved by the Assembly without a vote.

Iraq's chairmanship of the Third Committee, as it is officially designated, is expected to be ratified by the UN's highest policy-making body later this week. The election is virtually an accomplished fact.

"It is true that Iraq has been nominated by its regional group to chair the Third Committee," Pragati Pascale, spokesperson for General Assembly President Jan Eliasson, told IPS.

Asked for Eliasson's comments, she said: "These elections are a General Assembly process, run according to its rules of procedure, and it is not the president's role to comment on individual candidates or those elected," she said.

Last month, the General Assembly rejected Iraq's candidacy for the newly created Human Rights Council. In an Assembly of 191 members, Iraq received only 52 votes, the lowest of all the declared candidates in the Asian Group. The number of required votes for a seat in the Council was 96.

Since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq more than three years ago, successive Iraqi governments have failed both to prevent the growing violence by militias and to protect the human rights of the people of the country.

In a report released early this year, the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) said: "The enjoyment of human rights in Iraq continued to be severely undermined by growing insecurity, high levels of violence, and a breakdown in law and order resulting from the action of militias and criminal gangs."

The study also said that the right to life continued to be severely affected by the ongoing insurgency and terrorist attacks, as well as by revenge killings and action by armed groups.

"Women, children, and professionals, including academics and judges, were increasingly targeted by the ongoing violence," it added.

The report also pointed out that, according to Iraq's ministry of human rights, there are still more than 28,700 detainees held in the country, mostly by the U.S.-led multinational force, the Iraqi ministry of justice, the ministry of defense, and the ministry of the interior, among others.

"The general conditions of detention in Iraqi facilities are not consistent with international human rights standards," the report added. "The number of detainees held in the country continues to remain high and a source of discontent for the population at large."

Last week, the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists urged Iraq's new Prime Minister Nouri Kamal al-Maliki to take immediate steps at bringing the country "in line with international standards for a free press, and to take swift action to ensure the ability of journalists to carry out their work without official interference."

Meanwhile, a non-governmental organization called Monitoring of Human Rights in Iraq (MHRI) issued a statement early this week "appealing to all member states of the United Nations to prevent this shameful plan and reject the human rights violating regime, as they did when the Human Rights Council was elected."

The statement said the election of the Iraqi regime, whose interior ministry is accused of permitting militias to run torture chambers out of the basement of the ministry building, "would be a scandal of great proportions and an insult to all human rights defenders of the world."

Phyllis Bennis, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Institute for Policy Studies, says that in the vote for membership in the new Human Rights Council, the United Nations did the right thing in defeating the candidacy of occupied-Iraq's government.

"However, much the Iraqi people may want democracy and however many Iraqis took great risks to vote, a government chosen and operating under conditions of foreign military occupation can never be fully legitimate," Bennis told IPS.

The UN chief Kofi Annan has himself declared the U.S.-British invasion of Iraq to be "illegal" – changing the government's name from "interim" to "transitional" to "constitutional" does not change its legitimacy when the nation's sovereignty is still compromised, said Bennis, author of Before and After: U.S. Foreign Policy and the September 11 Crisis.

"Further, Iraq's government continues to be complicit in massive human rights violations. From the appalling conditions of prisoners, many held without charge or trial, to the depredations of sectarian militias operating within government ministries, the government in Baghdad remains a poster child for governmental human rights violations," Bennis said.

The United Nations understood that, she said, when Iraq received the lowest number of votes of any country running for a seat on the Human Rights Council.

"But now it appears that the United Nations may be forgetting about that reality. Iraq stands about to be elected to chair the UN General Assembly's Third Committee, which among other things oversees the work of the Human Rights Council."

If it succeeds, said Bennis, the same human rights-violating government in Baghdad will be in a potentially even more powerful position to influence the UN's human rights work by chairing the oversight committee.

That could mean pressuring the Council not to investigate past and potential future human rights violations by the Iraqi government

The new Human Rights Council was actually created out of concern that the old Human Rights commission had been discredited – because it included some well-known human rights violators such as Sudan and Zimbabwe as members, she pointed out.

The new Council, elected by super-majority votes of the General Assembly, is supposed to be "more credible" than the old commission.

"But if Iraq's non-sovereign, human rights-violating government becomes chair of the committee charged with overseeing the Council's work, the credibility of the UN's human rights work overall will suffer," Bennis said.

(Inter Press Service)

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    Thalif Deen has been Inter Press Service's U.N. Bureau Chief since 1992. A
    former Information Officer at the U.N. Secretariat and a one-time member of
    the Sri Lanka delegation to the General Assembly sessions, he is currently
    editor of the Journal of the Group of 77, published in collaboration with
    IPS. A Fulbright-Hayes scholar, he holds a Master's degree in Journalism
    from Columbia University in New York.

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