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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2674

New Human Rights Chief Faces Daunting Task

By Thalif Deen, Inter Press Service

United Nations, 29 July, (IPS): Mary Robinson, a former U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights (HCHR), who faulted countries such as the United States, China and Israel for transgressions of humanitarian law and civil liberties, was forced to retire after a 12-month renewal of her four-year contract because of intense lobbying against an extended tenure for her.

A former president of Ireland, Robinson was an outspoken critic of human rights abuses who even challenged Western nations on the legality of the 1999 bombing of former Yugoslavia by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) which resulted in civilian casualties.

She was succeeded by Louise Arbour, a jurist from Canada, who was an equally vociferous defender of human rights and who was refused entry into both North Korea and Myanmar (Burma).

The government of Sri Lanka rejected her request for a human rights field office in the capital of Colombo. When she visited Sri Lanka early this year, Arbour was asked why she wasn't visiting Guantanamo Bay, the now-infamous U.S. detention centre for suspected terrorists, some of whom claimed they were tortured there.

And when she met with U.S. Congressional leaders, they turned the question around: why is she not visiting Myanmar, which has been roundly criticized by the United Nations for human rights abuses? And why is she singling out the United States?

Navanethem Pillay of South Africa, whose nomination as the new High Commissioner for Human Rights was endorsed by the 192-member General Assembly on Monday, will be walking in a political minefield -- particularly at a time when human rights are being integrated into all activities in the U.N. system, including socio-economic activities.

She also takes office when the United Nations is commemorating the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and when the Security Council is deadlocked over human rights issues in Sudan, Zimbabwe, Myanmar and Israeli occupied territories.

Pillay, 67, will hold office for four years, following in the footsteps of Jose Ayala-Lasso of Ecuador; Robinson; Sergio Vieira de Mello of Brazil; and Arbour.

She will be based in Geneva overseeing a staff of over 1,000, spread across 50 countries, and with an annual budget of more than 150 million dollars.

Since 2003, Pillay has served as a judge on the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague, and in 1999 she was elected Judge President of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, where she served for eight years.

Palitha Kohona, a former chief of the U.N. Treaty Section, said the position of High Commissioner for Human Rights is one of the most important appointments at the United Nations.

"Ms. Navanethem Pillay has an impressive background and she comes from a Third World country where respect for human rights was a major challenge for many years: a challenge which was primarily taken up by Third World countries unlike many developed countries which turned their backs on it," he told IPS.

"As we leave behind the agonies of yesterday and strive for a more just and equitable world, we are confident that she will introduce the necessary balance to ensure that human rights are strengthened and advanced in a practical and effective manner across the globe," said Kohona, who is currently foreign secretary at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Sri Lanka.

Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch (HRW), said that Pillay will take up her appointment at a critical moment for human rights protection worldwide, and within the United Nations in particular.

"The U.N. Security Council has failed to take needed steps to confront human rights abuses in Zimbabwe and Darfur, thousands continue to be subjected to arbitrary detention in the war on terror, and states must be urged to implement newly adopted human rights standards relating to enforced disappearances, disability, and cluster munitions," he added.

Roth said the new high commissioner must be willing to take on those who abuse human rights -- "no matter how powerful they may be."

"Engaging governments through quiet diplomacy has a place in human rights protection, but experience shows that there is no substitute for strong public advocacy on the part of the high commissioner," Roth said.

Meanwhile, HRW has said that although key institutions of the United Nations relating to peace and security, and development are based in New York, there has been no full representation for human rights.

Roth said the high commissioner's office in Geneva is handicapped by not having an assistant secretary-general based in New York and the staff needed to carry out its mission in the field.

"[U.N. Secretary-General] Ban [Ki-moon] should use his authority to ensure those needs are met," he added.

- Inter Press Service (IPS) News Agency -

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