Why it's all going wrong for human rights

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It is supposed to be the world's supreme body for protecting human rights, the annual contest by the shores of Lake Geneva to see which countries are condemned and which escape censure.

Every spring the corridors of the Palais des Nations fill up with delegates and campaigners attending the yearly session of the UN Human Rights Commission. It is a hugely expensive exercise - after translation, reproduction and distribution, each page of official documentation costs over pounds 800, and last year the human rights body spewed out nearly 7,000 pages at a cost of pounds 5.7m. Yet each year the whole jamboree seems more futile.

"The Commission is becoming an increasingly weak body," said Nicholas Howen of Amnesty International. "It must act decisively or it risks becoming irrelevant." But decisive action appeared to be the last thing on the minds of the immaculately dressed diplomats trying to escape the sterility of the conference room in the so-called Serpent's Bar, one of many in the giant Palais.

The representatives of regimes likely to be attacked could be seen button- holing bored Western diplomats in a last-minute effort to avoid censure. But they were wasting their time. ''All the big decisions are taken in capitals," said one of the officials being importuned. "The key thing is to run an effective lobbying effort before the session even begins.''

Fearful of provoking reciprocal attacks, most countries at the Human Rights Commission will refrain from openly criticising others. Western states tend to put down critical resolutions, but only after they have taken their security, economic and political interests into account.

If past form is anything to go by, parts of the Commission's report will be positively searing, but they will be aimed at the usual suspects - the international misfits which lack political clout, such as Nigeria, Burma, Iraq, Sudan, Iran and Cuba. "The countries which get singled out," conceded one UN official, "are those with no powerful allies."

Others, like Turkey, will avoid the Commission's scrutiny. Amnesty International has for years been publishing evidence of the use of torture there, but as a member of Nato and a pillar of US security strategy, the Turks get away with it.

The Chinese, like the Turks, are particularly adept at side-stepping the Commission: for six consecutive years, Peking has managed to defeat resolutions critical of its human rights record. This year, as usual, the US and the EU are threatening to hold China to account, and the Chinese are complaining. "The Western countries act like school teachers handing out marks to their pupils," said the head of Peking's delegation, Wu Jianmin. "They are targeting developing countries. Is that fair?"

China insists that any resolution against it will again be defeated, and UN officials share that assessment. "In the end, countries are afraid to vote against China," said one. "They fear jeopardising access to the vast Chinese marketplace."

The cynicism with which the Commission's work is manipulated is exposed with remarkable clarity when a country once close to the West is demoted to pariah status. When still a major purchaser of Western arms, Iraq used to escape condemnation in Geneva. Saddam Hussein even launched a chemical weapon attack on the Kurdish village of Halabja with scarcely a reprimand. But now he is an international outcast, even the suggestion of an assault would risk the imposition of more UN sanctions.

As he prepared to step down as the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights this week, Jose Ayallo Lasso conceded that, like all UN structures, the body is permeated with narrow national interests. "There will always be political considerations," he said. "But you can achieve things with quiet diplomacy.''

Lacking a clear moral lead from their politicians, delegates while away their stay by Lake Geneva haggling over issues so arcane as to defy belief. This year, for example, there is an argument about the status that should be accorded to the East Timorese independence leader and co-winner of the 1996 Nobel Peace Prize, Jose Ramos Horta.

His supporters say that as a Nobel laureate, Mr Horta should address the Commission from the podium. But Indonesian diplomats insist that he should merely be allowed to use the microphone reserved for non-governmental organisations. The issue remains unresolved.

Owen Bennett Jones is the BBC Correspondent in Geneva