- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 14, 2003

NEW YORK Libya will take over as chairman of the U.N. Human Rights Commission next week, further damaging the credibility of the international body from which the United States was ousted two years ago.
The HRC's 53 member nations will begin their annual session on Monday by selecting a new chairman. The North African nation, which has one of the world's worst human rights records, is the only candidate for the post.
The session also marks the return of the United States to the commission after its ouster in the spring of 2001 in a vote by a separate U.N. panel. The expulsion prompted Congress to make payment of some dues to the United Nations conditional upon America regaining the seat.
The chairmanship of the panel routinely rotates among the world's major regions. This year, it is the turn of Africa, which has put forward Libya in apparent appreciation for its funding of regional initiatives.
Sichan Siv, the U.S. representative to the U.N. Economic and Social Council, said it was "appalling" that Libya should receive such a prestigious position.
"Libya has a very poor human rights record, and it is wrong for them to chair the committee once chaired by Eleanor Roosevelt," he said in an interview.
Mr. Siv said U.S. officials had been consulting "with our friends and allies" in Europe and Africa to try to find an alternative candidate, but without success.
In a largely symbolic protest, Washington will demand a roll call vote on Monday on Libya's candidacy, so that it and other governments can publicly distance themselves from the decision.
State Department spokesman Richard Boucher yesterday confirmed the U.S. plan to try and block Libya, citing in particular the country's poor human rights record and its presumed role as the architect of the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988.
"We cannot reward such terrible conduct with a leadership position, in this case, in the foremost international human rights body," Mr. Boucher said.
Libya's chairmanship is just the latest blow to the Geneva-based HRC, whose membership has swelled with governments that have questionable human rights records, such as Algeria, Chad, Burkina Faso, China, Cuba, Congo, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria, Vietnam and Zimbabwe.
"The greatest challenge for [the HRC] is going to be overcoming the tendencies of thugs to flock to it," said Ken Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. "Their first instinct is to avoid condemnation, and now two dozen of the 53 are just abusers. It's reached a crisis point."
The HRC, the cornerstone of the U.N. human rights effort, is an independent body that sends investigators to probe myriad abuses, including torture, summary executions, judicial interference and religious persecution.
At its annual six-week session, the body often has voted to condemn the human rights records of countries such as Sudan, Iraq and Burundi. Israel also has been a frequent target.
In recent years, Washington has tried, and failed, to win high-profile condemnations of Cuba and China. Both nations sit on the commission, where they have found sympathy and protection from other members.
As chairman, Libya will have the power to shape and schedule debates, but it will not control the agenda.
Ruled with an iron hand by Moammar Gadhafi since 1969, Libya routinely makes the list of worst human rights abusers. Its government quashes free speech and jails political opponents, according to the State Department's human rights report. There are no independent human rights groups, and the press is strictly controlled. Political prisoners report that torture is common.
It is widely assumed that Libya, a generous underwriter of the newly created African Union, sought the HRC chair to raise the country's influence and profile on the continent. The Libyan mission to the United Nations did not return calls on Friday.
"Libya bought the African Union and Africa repaid it with the chairmanship, that's the ugly deal," Mr. Roth said. "That doesn't bode well for the accountability deal that Africa is trying to strike with the West."
Mr. Gadhafi's admirers include former South African President Nelson Mandela, who visited Libya in 1997 and later honored its leader with South Africa's highest civilian order for foreigners.
Diplomats and human rights experts have warned for months that a successful bid by Libya would soil African ambitions to build credibility, as well as the reputation of the United Nations.
The HRC meets in the same complex as the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights. But that office operates independently and has no control over which nations join the commission.
"But that's a too-fine distinction for most people," acknowledged one senior U.N. official. "What kind of credibility are we going to have in the human rights sector when people can point at Libya in the chairman's seat?"
Human Rights Watch and affiliated groups have proposed the adoption of minimum eligibility requirements for membership to the body.
They say candidate governments should ratify all or most of the main human rights treaties, issue a standing invitation to HRC investigators, and not have been condemned by the commission in the recent past..

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