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UN 'bans critics from human rights forum': Dalai Lama excluded after pressure from Peking

THE largest international human rights conference in 25 years, which begins in Vienna on Monday, was overshadowed yesterday by allegations that UN organisers were bowing to demands from governments to exclude critics.

Apparently under pressure from Peking, the United Nations has refused to allow the Dalai Lama, Tibet's exiled spiritual leader, to take part as an official member. The Austrian Foreign Minister, Alois Mock, summoned the Chinese ambassador to protest against the ban. 'The Dalai Lama was invited by the Austrian government, and he is staying here as a guest of the government,' said Mr Mock. 'I summoned the Chinese ambassador and told him this.'

About 16 Sikh and Kashmiri human rights groups based in Britain, the United States and Canada have had invitations to the conference withdrawn, allegedly at India's insistence. The British, US and Canadian delegations yesterday protested to the UN about the decision, which one diplomat described as 'way out of order'. Graham Hand, head of the Foreign Office human rights department, said the delegations had complained that the UN had no authority to exclude the organisations, adding: 'We hope and believe that this will now be reversed.'

The Sikh Human Rights Group, based in Southall, Middlesex, received a letter on 21 May from Ibrahima Fall, secretary-general of the conference, inviting the organisation to participate as an observer. On 2 June, however, another letter, this time signed by John Pace, the conference co-ordinator, said: 'Our letter dated 21 May concerning an invitation to the World Conference on Human Rights was sent to your organisation due to administrative oversight. That letter may now be disregarded.' Jasdev Singh Rai, director of the group, said that when he telephoned Vienna to query the withdrawal, he was told by one of Mr Pace's staff that India had objected to the presence of his and several other human rights bodies.

Mr Pace told the Independent that he had whittled down the number of potential participants from around 18,000 non-governmental organisations (NGOs). Mr Rai's group was among a small number which had been eliminated at a late stage, but whose names had inadvertently been left on a mailing list.

A Western diplomat dismissed this, saying the UN had asked governments for their comments on applications from NGOs based on their soil. 'Western countries all refused to comment, on the grounds that we were not going to bar anyone. The rules are quite clear. There is no discretion for the UN to exclude groups on its own initiative.'

Mr Pace said, however: 'We are trying to put together an environment in which governments can decide how to implement human rights. Certain groups who want to focus on the human rights situation in one country - outfits of a denunciatory nature - are not compatible with trying to achieve a regional or international approach. This is an inter-governmental meeting. We can't focus entirely on governments having to defend themselves.'