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The UN is Not Doing Well
on Human Rights



NEW YORK--With righteous Italian anger of the radical variety, Emma Bonino, the European Union's commissioner for humanitarian aid, has turned on the institution she has long been a passionate supporter of. The UN, she said last week, faces "being tarnished for ever by shame" for its role in the Congo. "The saga of the commission of inquiry into the massacres has surpassed the degree of ridicule it has already earned."

Mrs. Bonino, who directs the world's biggest budget for humanitarian aid, had better be listened to, for knowing Mrs. Bonino, I can say this, "there's no fury like this woman scorned."

More to the point, she is right. We need to know what is going through the minds of the (relatively) new UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan and the (brand) new High Commissioner for Human Rights, the former president of Ireland, Mary Robinson.

How could the UN just decide to buckle and pull out its human rights investigators when the (fairly) new strongman of the Congo, Laurent Kabile, told them to? The UN human rights team was dispatched to the Congo in June to investigate reports that Mr. Kabila's rebels, in the battle to topple the long-time dictator, Mobutu Sese Seko, massacred Rwandan Hutu refugees.

When these UN human rights investigators were first deployed it was with the acquiescence of Mr. Kabila. But no sooner were they on the ground than they were obstructed and denounced at every turn.

Reports from human rights and intelligence sources make it clear that all this was a stalling tactic to give time for the mass graves to be exhumed, the bodies burnt and the evidence scattered to the wind and rivers. Witnesses have been intimidated and jailed.

Mr. Kabila's government has tried to bolster its case by denigrating the UN's self-image as an impartial, human rights organization. It has a point: The UN peacekeepers (mainly Belgians and Bangladashis) cut and ran from Rwanda three years ago after some of the peacekeepers were brutally murdered. Facing a de facto U.S. veto on the UN returning, it was left to the French to unilaterally send in their forces in an attempt, not greatly successful, to end the killings orchestrated by the Hutu militias.

The UN has two serious problems to overcome--its failing credibility as a human rights organization--which Mrs. Robinson has supposedly been recruited to solve--and its fading seriousness as a peacekeeper, for which the Clinton Administration's whimpishness in the face of the anti-UN hostility of the chairman of the U.S. Senate's foreign relations committee, Jesse Helms, has been largely responsible.

Its human rights weaknesses are something the secretary- general can do much to repair himself, since it has deep roots in the culture and mores of the institution itself, and had a willing supporter of the take-it-easy approach during the tenure of his predecessor, Boutros Boutros Ghali.

This was expertly documented in a report written two years ago by Article 19, the London-based International Centre Against Censorship. It showed in enormous detail how governmental manipulation of UN human rights committees had led to the suppression of a "substantial number of allegations of abuses in the five veto-wielding countries." This was not just the Soviet Union and China but the U.S., Britain and France too. It showed how UN operations in the field have often failed to report publicly human rights violations. In ex-Yugoslavia essential information that would have helped relatives trace missing victims during the ethnic cleansing was withheld. Most serious of all was that the UN forces in Somalia violated the Geneva Convention by refusing to disclose crucial information about the casualties they inflicted on local people. Not surprisingly, Canadian and Italian units of the UN peacekeepers from that operation have been accused of brutality and cruelty.

The UN's problem with peacekeeping is that its authority, finances and reach have been so mangled by consistent opposition from the U.S. during the Clinton presidency that it does not have the spine to stand tall. A new secretary-general is not enough. The rot has gone too far for that. We are now paying the price for this in a number of arenas. There is a blunting of sensibilities following one televised ethnic war after another, in which the world community seems politically helpless. It also affects issues like the aftermath of the Gulf War where there is a growing unwillingness by rank and file member countries to support the continued and intrusive monitoring of Iraq's war machine by the UN. Saddam Hussein's gain here is going to be America's big loss.

Intellectually, this state of affairs doesn't add up. With the end of the Cold War and with the number of smaller wars declining dramatically each year, this should be the time for great UN activism in pursuit of helping the world peace process along.

Instead, this quite unique historical opportunity for a great peace and the advancement of universal human rights is being wasted and frittered away.


October 15, 1997

Copyright © 1997 By JONATHAN POWER

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