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NGOs see new U.N. rights council open to abuse

Written by: Staff

GENEVA, Feb 24 (Reuters) Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) welcomed today a United Nations blueprint for a new Human Rights Council but warned that it left room for states committing abuses to continue as before.

Some said a clause, apparently reflecting Islamic pressure, that insists news media and NGOs have ''an important role to play'' in promoting respect for religion could be used to block discussion of the rights records of Muslim countries.

''The text provides potential safeguards against current practices of corruption of the UN Commission on Human Rights ...

and its impotency in reacting to human rights crises,'' said the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH).

The council, yet to be approved by UN member states, could only succeed if all governments showed the political will to subject their own rights records to review and a willingness to implement its findings, the Paris-based FIDH said.

The Geneva-based UN Watch, a strong critic of the 53-member Commission, said the draft would do nothing to ensure that ''notorious (rights) offenders such as Libya, Cuba and North Korea'' did not just switch from the old body to the Council.

''What it means is that when the Council created by this draft meets for the first time in Geneva, the faces around the table will look awfully familiar,'' said UN Watch executive director Hillel Neuer.

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan admitted the compromise draft, unveiled on Thursday by General Assembly president Jan Eliasson after months of back-stage negotiations, fell short of his original proposals last year.

APPROVAL URGED But he urged quick approval of the text, saying it was a credible basis to push ahead in replacing the largely- discredited Commission which meets once a year for six weeks and is often an arena for bitter ideological wrangling.

The International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU), which has played a leading role in pushing for the Commission to speak up on rights violations in Muslim countries, said the draft offered a loophole for such discussion to continue to be blocked.

The clause on the role of media and NGOs ''leaves the door open for the Organisation of the Islamic Conference to stop NGOs discussing human rights abuse by OIC states on the grounds of 'failure to respect' religion,'' IHEU president Roy Brown said.

But Brown expressed relief that much stronger wording sought by the 57-nation OIC had not been included in the text.

The OIC had wanted the draft to say that ''defamation of religions and prophets is inconsistent with the right to the freedom of expression'' -- reflecting demands that Danish publishers of cartoons portraying the Prophet Mohammad be prosecuted.

UN Watch also voiced concern on this issue, saying the clause on NGOs and media ''would impose demands on the media to respect religion'' while omitting ''any mention of freedom of speech or freedom of the press.'' REUTERS CH PM2030

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