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See no evil.

The last time the United Nations held a summit specifically devoted to human rights was in 1968 in Tehran. Now, under pressure to bolster the safeguards it established at that meeting, it has been forced to hold another in Vienna.

In the months before the conference opened, governments began polishing up their human rights records in the vain hope of escaping embarrassing exposures about what has been going on in their name over the last 25 years.

Iran, for instance, announced three weeks before the summit began in June that it had set up a state-sanctioned human rights committee. Tunisia got in earlier, and agreed to host one of the regional preparatory meetings aimed at "guiding" the full sessions in Vienna.

At the African regional meeting in Tunis, President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali assured the other government representatives that human rights had been placed at the top of his country's political agenda as the "key values around which our style of government is built". He did not mention the 3,000 political prisoners in his jails sentenced after unfair trials, or the allegations of torture in his police stations.

Neither did any of the other delegates. When the Tunisian representatives took up the rights of women as a special theme, no-one whispered the case of Nour al Houda al Bahri, five months pregnant when she was strung up and beaten by the Tunisian police.

Delegates kept their mouths shut because they know the rules: human rights must be declared sacrosanct, but must not be dealt with specifically. Criticising the record of another country is absolutely forbidden in case it invites scrutiny of one's own.

The Middle East countries are in a particularly weak position to throw stones from their regional greenhouse. Even Algeria and Egypt, which made such progress in their human rights records a couple of years ago, have plummetted over the last 12 months. The rise of fundamentalism has brought torture back to Algeria and mass imprisonment to Egypt, as both governments try to control the militants.

The meeting in Tunis even slipped a clause into its final declaration calling for "international co-operation in the fight against all forms of religious intolerance and extremism", despite the strong objections from Zambia about its inclusion.

What most worried the Arabs in Tunisia and in Vienna was the threat of sanctions. There was some talk from the Scandinavian countries that governments which did not meet standards of international law could face UN aid cuts, but without the will from Washington to enforce such measures the proposal never looked like getting off the ground. (Just before the conference opened, the United States stamped on any hopes of a "money for good human rights" deal by renewing China's Most Favoured Nation status as a trading partner).

In fact, the UN was in no position to lecture its member states. Although some human rights issues remained fashionable in Vienna (Bosnian refugees, Malawi, the Kurds), the UN's real attitude to safeguards became clear when it was revealed that less than 1% of its budget goes on human rights issues.

Boutros Boutros Ghali, the UN secretary-general, admitted at the end of last year that "faced with the barbaric conduct which fills the news media today, the UN cannot stand idle or indifferent. The long-term credibility of our organisation as a whole will depend on the success of our response to this challenge." Shamed by its impotence over Bosnia, its failure to protect the marsh Arabs of southern Iraq and the continued braying of Saddam Hussein, the UN's own record on human rights looks worse than ever.
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Title Annotation:Current Affairs; human rights record of the UN
Publication:The Middle East
Date:Jul 1, 1993
Previous Article:Now it's Assad's turn.
Next Article:Algeria: politically bankrupt, financially embarrassed.

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