Saturday, June 16, 2007

Cuba set to escape UN rights scrutiny

Caribbean Net News

Published on Saturday, June 16, 2007

By Richard Waddington

GENEVA, Switzerland (Reuters): Cuba and Belarus look set to be dropped from a blacklist of alleged rights violators as part of any deal on the workings of the United Nations' new human rights watchdog, diplomats and activists said on Friday.

The 47-state Human Rights Council, set up last year in a bid to burnish the U.N.'s image on human rights protection, is struggling for agreement on its rules of operation by a Monday deadline.

Some of the deepest divisions surround the submitting of individual countries to special scrutiny, so-called country mandates -- the "naming and shaming" of the Human Rights Commission, the council's discredited predecessor.

The council needs to decide both the fate of 11 existing country investigations, including those covering Sudan, Somalia and North Korea, as well as Cuba and Belarus, and whether or not such mandates can be created in the future for other states.

On the issue of the current mandates, the sources said there appeared to be agreement that nine could continue but probes into Cuba and Belarus, neither of which has allowed the U.N. special investigator to visit, would cease.

"It looks like we will lose Cuba and Belarus," said one diplomatic source close to the closed-door negotiations, which were set to continue over the weekend. "The Cubans will be celebrating on Monday."

Votes to censure Cuba on the old commission were very close, despite the 2003 jailing of dozens of dissident journalists, writers and members of associations, some for long terms.

Russia -- a council member -- has led demands for an end to the mandate of the controversial special envoy for Belarus, former Romanian foreign minister Adrian Severin, who recently reported a "constant deterioration of the human rights record" in the former Soviet bloc country.

A RED LINE

The eight European Union (EU) countries on the council have made it clear they will turn down a deal that has no provision for the creation of special country investigations, even if they end up accepting some existing ones will fall by the wayside.

"That is a red line," said one EU diplomat.

Human rights groups, such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, have also said the new council would be toothless if it lost the ability to put individual states in the dock.

"The council should have the possibility of picking up cases in countries with critical situations and should deal with them rapidly," Amnesty secretary-general Irene Khan told Reuters.

Developing countries have traditionally been suspicious of finger-pointing, noting that it is mainly the poorer and less politically powerful states that are singled out.

China, which the United States and rights' activists accuse of violating religious and political rights, routinely escaped censure at the commission while the United States itself was easily able to ward off any attempt to probe alleged abuses in the so-called war on terrorism.

But a consensus appeared to be emerging on the question of submitting all U.N. member states to regular scrutiny every few years, the so-called 'universal peer review', which is one of the major innovations of the new body, diplomats said.

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