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New UN Watch Report gives former commissioner Arbour mixed reviews

Geneva, July 18, 2008 — The UN’s new human rights chief, Vanethem Pillay of South Africa, will need to fend off increased threats to individual freedoms around the world, UN Watch said today.

“We look forward to working with Judge Pillay in Geneva,” said Hillel Neuer, executive director of UN Watch, an independent human rights monitoring organization based there.

He identified three major challenges facing the UN’s new human rights commissioner.

“First, Pillay will need to use her unique bully pulpit to throw a spotlight on the world’s worst violations, including Sudan’s mass killings in Darfur, Burmese brutality, Chinese persecution, and Mugabe’s destruction of Zimbabwe,” said Neuer.

A UN Watch report (click for draft) to be released next week on Louise Arbour, Pillay’s predecessor, found that her UN statements in 2007 and 2008 addressed violations by 40 countries around the world, including Afghanistan, Nepal, Iraq, the U.S. and Sudan.

However, the report also found that Arbour kept silent on systematic violations by Russia and Egypt, and issued only one statement on China. Arbour has admitted holding back with certain governments. “Because Pillay is from Africa,” said Neuer, “we hope she will have the political leeway to go where some Westerners feared to tread.

“Second, Pillay needs to serve as a counter to the UN Human Rights Council, which is in a dramatic, downward spiral, and resist the latest attempt by its members to subject her office to their direction.”

In the past year, the council eliminated its protective mandates for victims in Cuba, Belarus, and Congo (DRC). At its March and June sessions, the council imposed new curbs on freedom of speech in deference to Islamic sensitivities, altering its mandate on freedom of expression and restricting what NGOs can say during plenary debates. Another resolution threatens retaliation against council experts who cite countries for violations.

“Pillay must vigorously defend the vital role at the council played by experts and human rights groups. The repressive regimes that dominate the council systematically harass NGOs, repeatedly interrupting them during debates.”

Third, Neuer noted that Pillay, who was born in Durban, now inherits the dubious post of secretary-general of the Durban Review Conference, the UN’s upcoming sequel to the 2001 world conference on racism in South Africa, which was itself accused of stoking racism and anti-Semitism.

France, the U.K. and the Netherlands have threatened to walk away from the April 2009 conference in Geneva if it appears headed to replay the fiasco of 2001. Canada has already announced that it will not attend, and the current U.S. administration has voiced a similar view.

“The preparatory sessions and the latest draft declaration for Durban II—a process chaired by Libya, with Iran as vice-chair—shows alarming signs that we are in for a replay of the worst excesses of 2001,” said Neuer. “Pillay has a singular responsibility, and hopefully the credibility, to ensure that the world anti-racism effort is not once again hijacked by the forces of hatred.”

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