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Libyan gets top job at U.N. rights panel

©Associated Press
March 18, 2003

GENEVA -- Libya, a nation accused of widespread abuses of human rights, began its controversial leadership of the United Nations' top human rights body on Monday, leading to accusations that the entire meeting was a "masquerade."

"Censorship, arbitrary detention, jailings, disappearances, torture -- at last the U.N. has appointed someone who knows what she's talking about," Reporters Without Borders said of Najat Al-Hajjaji, the Libyan chairwoman of the 53-nation U.N. Human Rights Commission.

The group was expelled from the meeting after six members threw protest leaflets around the room during Al-Hajjaji's opening speech, but its general secretary was unrepentant. "We had already said we wouldn't participate in this masquerade. The United Nations has lost the last of its credibility," said Robert Menard.

The United States voted against the appointment in January, pointing to Libya's "horrible human rights record," and European countries abstained from the vote, but it still passed. The presidency traditionally rotates among regions, and Al-Hajjaji was the only candidate put forward by the African group.

In her speech Monday, Al-Hajjaji criticized Israel and warned that war against Iraq would damage human rights.

She expressed fears of a "catastrophic war that will destroy everything and will certainly violate all human rights and especially the right to life."

In a reference to the tightening of immigration rules to keep out terrorists, Al-Hajjaji said, "Some countries have taken coercive measures violating the rights of migrants and refugees and minorities and even the rights of those who seek visas."

The commission studies human rights abuses ranging from torture and killings to the failure of governments to ensure adequate food, housing and education for their people. Countries likely to face criticism this year include Sudan, Zimbabwe, Iraq, Cuba, Colombia and Russia, the last for its actions in Chechnya.

But with war looming, many countries are prepared to put aside some of the normal business to give more time for a discussion of the human rights implications of the conflict.

"We meet today at a time of unusual convulsion in world affairs," U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Sergio Vieira de Mello said.

He also expressed concern about antiterrorism measures in many countries.

"When security is defined too narrowly -- for example as nothing more than a state's duty to protect its citizens -- then the pursuit of security can lead to the violation of the human rights of those who are outside the circle of the protected," he said.

Nongovernmental groups are calling for the commission to appoint an investigator to look at the human rights implications of antiterrorism measures.

Foreign ministers and senior officials from a number of countries, including those most active on both sides of the argument over war in Iraq, are expected to speak in the next few days before the body gets down to its real business next week.

French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin is due on Thursday, as is Pakistan's Khursheed Kasuri. The United States will be represented by Jeane Kirkpatrick, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations in the Reagan administration.

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