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6 June 08 - There was widespread consternation on Friday at the Palais des Nations in Geneva when the US mission gave up his observer status - a step backwards for human rights around the world, says Human Rights Watch.
Carole Vann/Juan Gasparini/Human Rights Tribune - The news that the US has completely withdrawn from the Human Rights Council spread like wildfire Friday afternoon (June 6) through the corridors of the Palais des Nations in Geneva. There was general consternation amongst diplomats and NGOS. Reached by phone, the American mission in Geneva neither confirmed nor denied the report. Although unofficial, the news comes at a time of long opposition by the Bush administration to the reforms which created the Human Rights Council in June 2006. Washington announced from the beginning that the US would not be an active member but its observer status would mean that it could intervene during the sessions. To date even this has rarely happened.
“We don’t understand the reasons nor the timing of the decision”, said Sebastien Gillioz of Human Rights Watch. “There have even been some positive signs during this Council. For example Belarus was not re-elected as a member in 2007 nor Sri Lanka this year”.
The stupefaction was made greater by the fact the US actively took part in the universal Periodic Review (UPR) process where 32 countries were scrutinized by their peers in April and May. In particular a series of recommendations were made regarding Romania, Japan, Guatemala, Peru, Tunisia, Ukraine, Indonesia and others.
Diplomats are equally concerned. If the current president of the Council, Doru Costea, declined to comment, his predecessor, Luis Alfonso De Alba said that he didnt see any reason to justify such a decision. Several observers mentioned Washington’s growing discontentment with the influence of the Islamic and African countries in the Council.
“It is an aberration”, said Peter Splinter of Amnesty International. “It seems that the government has lost its mind. How could it believe it is going to improve human rights by running away? It is like those who say, ‘I don’t like the way this town is governed so I’m not going to vote’”.
For Human Rights Watch (HRW), the US has shown very little commitment to human rights in general. The working group against arbitrary detention gave up going to Guantanamo last month because Washington would not allow its members to have face to face meetings with detainees. For its part, the Rapporteur against racism, Doudou Diene, has fought for years to be able to pay a visit and only recently got permission.
But Eric Sottas, director of the International Organisation against Torture sees it as a a political gesture. “The US has always clearly shown its opposition to the Council. This is a slightly more public way of putting pressure on it in order to raise the stakes. What is more the Bush dynasty is coming to the end of its mandate,” he said. “It reminds me of the time when the Nixon administration, which backed Pinochet in Chile, chastized the UN for criticising the Chilean dictator. But when Carter was elected in 1977, the American government took the floor at the Human Rights Commission to ask forgiveness. After a presidency like that of Bush, you can expect some important changes in US policy on human right.”
HRW is still worried about the withdrawal. “The message is worrying”, says Sebastien Gillioz. “ Ever since September 11, 2001, the US has constantly interpreted international standards in an “ a la carte” manner that has eroded human rights. Its behaviour has served as an example to a stream of states, including Pakistan, Egypt and other, who are not embarrassed to review human rights standards on homosexuality, abortion, capital punishment. It is a step backwards.”
Translated from the French by Claire Doole