- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 14, 2004

NEW YORK — Diplomats and activists expect the global war on terror to dominate discussion at this year’s meeting of the U.N. Human Rights Commission, which opens today in Geneva.

The six-week session — a reliably boisterous international conference on human rights — will feature talks on “Islamaphobia” since September 11, Washington’s detainment of terrorist suspects at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and the proposed appointment of a “rapporteur” to monitor liberties in the age of antiterror legislation.

The 53-member commission also will hear evaluations and accusations regarding several countries whose human rights performance regularly attracts close attention, including North Korea, Zimbabwe, Cuba and Israel.

Diplomats say that China, Iran, Sudan, Burma and Russia may be added to the commission’s agenda as the session progresses, depending in large part on closed-door negotiations and horse-trading.

The session, which attracts representatives from countless nongovernmental organizations, victims’ rights groups and wary diplomats, runs through April 24.

“We’ll name and shame some of the bad folks and this year maybe we’ll get a couple of structural reforms on the agenda that will be productive,” said Richard Williamson, the tough-talking Chicago lawyer and diplomat who will head the U.S. delegation this year.

Among the U.S. priorities are protecting Israel from a variety of critical resolutions and securing for it a voice, however small, on the informal bloc of North American and Western European democracies; creating a caucus of democratic countries within the Human Rights Commission, and pushing for a resolution against anti-Semitism.

Censure by the commission is powerfully symbolic but carries no legal weight.

Washington has not introduced its promised resolution condemning China’s human rights offenses, although diplomats said it will be added to the agenda within the next few weeks.

The resolution, which does not have a co-sponsor, likely will criticize Beijing’s imprisonment of political dissidents, the one-child policy, and restrictions on media and religion.

The United States withheld a resolution at last year’s session after Beijing promised to make specific reforms and freed several political prisoners. But U.S. officials say they are disappointed by China’s refusal to follow through on more meaningful changes.

Beijing, as a member of the Human Rights Commission, defeats censure each year by introducing a no-action motion that is carried with support from other commission members with questionable records on civil liberties.

Mexico is expected to introduce a resolution to create a post to monitor human rights as governments crack down on dissident groups and terrorists.

Acting U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Bertrand Ramcharan favors creating the post, but the idea is opposed by the United States, Britain, Spain and Saudi Arabia, among others. Some nations are expected to reserve their support in reaction to Thursday’s terror attacks in Madrid.

Iraq likely will come up in several guises.

The commission has asked its special rapporteur for Iraq to report on the human rights situation that existed under Saddam Hussein’s regime, based on information that has become available since the March 20 invasion, including mass graves.

The Human Rights Commission has tried to investigate human rights abuses in Iraq since at least 1996, but its specialists never received visas from Baghdad.

Mr. Williamson said in a telephone interview that Washington would like to end the mandate for the Iraq rapporteur this year, saying there is “no more need” now that Saddam has been ousted and faces an Iraqi war crimes trial. Human Rights Watch, for one, wants to see the mandate renewed.

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