- The Washington Times - Monday, August 12, 2002

Palestinian malnutrition

The United Nations is so concerned about the eroding humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank that Secretary-General Kofi Annan last week named a "personal humanitarian envoy" to advise on the issue.

Catherine Bertini, the American who ran the World Food Program (WFP) for a decade, left for a 10-day tour of the region this weekend.

Mrs. Bertini will evaluate the "nature and scale" of the crisis and "review assistance activities already under way, or planned, and identify any new measures that are needed," Mr. Annan said in a statement.

Aides to Mrs. Bertini said she expects to meet local nongovernmental organizations as well as Israeli and Palestinian leaders, though nothing has been fixed.

The appointment comes after a survey funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development that has found a widespread humanitarian crisis in the occupied territories. The report said that one in every five Palestinian children younger than 5 were malnourished after Israel's two-year economic blockade of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Representatives of the Quartet the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations agreed at a meeting three weeks ago that the international organization should take the lead in humanitarian efforts.

The statement indicated that Mrs. Bertini would report to Mr. Annan, who would pass along her findings to the group.

The position has the support of the Security Council and is welcomed by humanitarian agencies.

However, U.N. diplomats said the Israelis were uneasy about the appointment of another U.N. official to monitor the region and refused to allow the Secretariat to refer to Israel, Palestine or the Middle East in the job title.

The United Nations has a sizable presence in the region: Staffan de Mistura for southern Lebanon, Terje Roed-Larsen, who is Mr. Annan's envoy to the Palestinian Authority; and Peter Hansen, who is commissioner of the U.N. agency that tends to Palestinian refugees. Mrs. Bertini is the fourth high-level U.N. official with a Middle East mission, with the World Bank and various agency representatives.

The appointment seems obvious: The WFP for years has run programs in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and since June has fed more than a half-million Palestinians. For the past four months, WFP trucks have been a familiar sight at roadblocks in the area.

Libya as rights defender

Nongovernmental organizations are incredulous that Libya is seeking the chairmanship of the Geneva-based Human Rights Commission, and that it may just get it.

The Moammar Gadhafi regime was nominated by African nations for the post this year, a choice that appalls many in the human rights mainstream.

Joanna Weschler of Human Rights Watch (HRW) says Libya is one of several human rights abusers that don't belong on the HRC. "These are governments with human rights records that show … their agenda is not protecting citizens from human rights abuses but protecting themselves from potential scrutiny."

She said the choice could be reversed "if enough pressure and shame is applied to Africa" before the January vote.

The HRC meets for six weeks in the spring and sends investigators to look into countries, regions and issues.

Much of the agenda is established, but the chairman has latitude in scheduling meetings, promoting issues and influencing decisions. The prestigious post rotates through five regional groups, and this year it's up to African governments to choose their candidate.

HRW has sent letters to leaders in South Africa, Nigeria and Senegal co-sponsors with Libya of the New Partnership for African Development urging them to find another candidate.

The United States, which will be rejoining the HRC in January after a humiliating two-year absence, has had no comment on the looming election.

"We are looking into that," said one U.S. mission spokesman.

The State Department's 2001 human rights survey lists Libya as a dictatorship with a "poor" record that employs torture and summary justice to silence political opposition. Citizens do not have freedom of religion, association or speech, nor do they own private property.

The Libyan mission to the United Nations did not return calls for comment.

Betsy Pisik can be reached by e-mail to UNear@aol.com.

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