UN rights group is accused of shielding its members

The United Nations has opened its annual scrutiny of human rights around the world, conscious of mounting pressure to show it can still offer some protection to the oppressed.

The Geneva-based Commission on Human Rights, which meets for six weeks, has been accused by critics, including a special UN team of experts, of being more concerned with shielding its own members from censure than with fighting rights abuses.

"There is a strong feeling that the commission has to be strengthened," said Makarim Wibisono of Indonesia, chairman of the annual session, that "members have to react, have to improve in addressing the question of human rights."

Much of the criticism focuses on the composition of the 53-member body, which includes states like Sudan, which has been accused of "heinous crimes" in its western Darfur region.

In a statement issued to mark the opening on Monday, the journalists' organization Reporters Without Borders said that four current members - China, Cuba, Eritrea and Nepal - had the largest numbers of imprisoned journalists in the world, 70 in total.

"The commission continues to discredit itself," the organization said. "No one can seriously claim today it does its job."

Organized in 1946, the body examines adherence to agreements concerning such topics as torture, arbitrary detention, women's rights, child pornography, and food and health.

But the most political heat has traditionally been generated by report cards on individual countries.

Activists say the commission has been failing on these, partly because many developing countries dislike singling out individual states.

The European Union will again seek criticism of North Korea, Myanmar and, together with the United States, of Belarus, said Renaud Muselier, France's secretary of state for foreign affairs.

But Muselier said he was unaware of any move by the European Union to censure Russia over alleged abuses by its security forces in the rebel region of Chechnya, he told journalists.

Activists said, however, that some members of the full 25-state EU, which traditionally takes the lead on Chechnya, were still pressing for a resolution.

On China, which the United States has criticized for repression of ethnic and religious minorities and other abuses, there was no word on whether Washington would make a move.

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

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