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UN Rights to vote on condemning abuses in Belarus, Cuba, Sudan

4/14/2005 7:45pm

By SAM CAGE, Associated Press Writer

GENEVA, Apr 14, 2005 (AP) -- The U.N. Human Rights Commission will start the serious business of its annual six-week session Thursday, as its 53 members vote on whether to adopt resolutions condemning abuses in Belarus, Cuba and Sudan.
The resolution on Sudan is likely to be the most contentious, as African countries such as Libya, Zimbabwe and Sudan itself may put forward a "no-action" motion, said Loubna Freih, Geneva director of Human Rights Watch.

"We hope that the commission will finally take a proper step in the right direction in acknowledging the violations committed by the government of Sudan and its militias in Darfur," Freih said.

Last year, the commission stopped short of formal condemnation of Sudan, which is accused of responding to a rebel movement in the vast western region with a counterinsurgency campaign that has included wide-scale abuses against civilians. The two-year conflict in Darfur has left some 180,000 people dead, many through disease and hunger, and more than 2 million people displaced.

The key to a Sudan resolution is the attitude of more moderate members of the African group _ Ethiopia, Kenya, Nigeria South Africa, Human Rights Watch said.

"Do they go with the extremists in the African group?" Freih asked. "Or do they decide that it's time for the commission to take proper action?"

The commission also will consider a new resolution, co-sponsored by European nations and others, which criticizes Cuba's record on abuses and requesting that the global body keep the communist country's record under observation.

The United States has "really focused on Cuba. Which means that if they use their political might, the resolution should pass," Freih said.

Washington has taken a back seat on the Cuban resolution in recent years, letting other countries take the lead. Even though it is sponsoring a Cuba resolution for the first time since 1998, the United States has toned down the language.

The proposed resolution simply requests that the commission renew resolutions from previous years condemning Cuba's human rights record. The United States proposed the renewal of top U.N. investigator Christine Chanet's mandate to report to the commission on the human rights situation there.

In her report to the commission on abuses in Cuba, which Chanet presented last month, she noted that the government's release of 18 political prisoners last year was a positive step, but did "not signify the end of the repression" because other political detainees were still behind bars.

Chanet urged Havana to improve its treatment of political prisoners and said Cuba should stop penalizing journalists, academics and activists for acts of free expression.

Cuba has never allowed a U.N. human rights envoy to visit the communist island, claiming such visits could infringe on its sovereignty. Chanet prepared her report based on meetings with campaigners, human-rights investigators and other governments.

In past years the vote has almost always been close. The commission last year narrowly passed a resolution by other Latin American nations critical of Cuba's rights record. It was adopted 22-21 with 10 abstentions.

If the resolution passes this year, Cuba is likely to table a counter-resolution condemning U.S. treatment of enemy combatants at its military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Freih said.

The European Union has joined with the United States in co-sponsoring a resolution on Belarus, but it is receiving less attention than that on Cuba and may be blocked by Russia, which could propose a "no-action motion," effectively silencing any criticism, Freih explained.

The U.S.-EU draft resolution expresses "deep concern" that senior officials "have been implicated in the enforced disappearance and/or summary execution of three political opponents of the incumbent authorities in 1999." It also cited findings of observers that last year's elections fell "significantly short" of Belarus' European commitments to allow free and fair voting.

But there will be no vote on Russia's breakaway southern region of Chechnya.

"It was disgusting, really," that no one put forward a Chechnya resolution, Freih said.

"At the same time that we have found the crimes and the level of disappearances is so high that amounts to crimes against humanity, the European Union is not going to do anything on Chechnya," she said.

Also Thursday, delegates will consider resolutions condemning the governments of Myanmar and North Korea. Last year, the commission condemned politically isolated Belarus, Myanmar and North Korea.

Censure by the U.N. watchdog brings no penalties but spotlights a government's record, and delegations lobby hard in an effort to avoid it.

Freih criticized the lack of motions to condemn individual countries and reiterated campaigners' calls for reform of the Human Rights Commission.

"Again, we have only five countries under item nine (country-specific resolutions), and we are likely to have two or three no-action motions," she said. "It's pitiful. It's meaningless."

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