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Libya to Chair Human Rights Group; Will Israel Even Feel the Difference?

January 22, 2003
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Israel and Jewish groups are outraged that Libya has been chosen to chair the U.N. Human Rights Commission — though they say the group’s treatment of the Jewish state can’t get much worse than it already is.

The commission “can’t do anything but run a smear campaign against Israel, which is what they already do,” said Ariel Milo, spokesman of the Israeli Mission to the United Nations. “And the fact that Libya of all countries becomes the chairman of the committee is proof of the irrelevance of that committee.”

The U.N. Human Rights Commission is a subsidiary body of the U.N. General Assembly that addresses human rights issues, including matters of political, social, economic and humanitarian concern.

Unlike the U.N. Security Council, its resolutions are not legally binding.

U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan’s recent appointment of Sergio Vieira de Mello of Brazil as high commissioner, replacing Mary Robinson — whom Jewish groups considered overtly pro-Palestinian — may offset the effects of Libya’s chairmanship.

De Mello, who took office in September 2002, “seems to be more in sync with the West in terms of the war on terrorism, and that is a net plus for Israel,” one American Jewish official said.

As commissioner, de Mello is the top U.N. official dealing with human rights, with an office to investigate and monitor human rights around the world. He works with the UNHRC, but is not in charge of it.

That will be the job of the Libyan delegate, who as chairman will organize the agenda of the UNHRC’s six-week session, which deals with specific human rights questions and issues resolutions on them. This year’s session will run from March 17 through April 25.

Messages seeking comment from Libya’s U.N. mission in New York were not returned.

The ascendancy of Libya — under U.N. sanctions for its role in the hijacking and explosion of Pan Am flight 103, and blasted by human rights groups for torturing prisoners and reportedly engaging in slave trading — is a major upset to many Jewish groups that monitor the United Nations.

“The election of a repressive, terrorist-supporting dictatorship to lead the world’s foremost human rights body brings the moral decay of the United Nations into sharp relief and makes an utter mockery of the values it is supposed to uphold,” said Avi Beker, secretary-general of the World Jewish Congress. The WJC and other Jewish groups praised the United States for calling for a vote to reject the nomination.

Still, the Libyan ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva, Najat al-Hajjaji, won 33 votes Monday in a secret ballot of the 53-country commission. Seventeen countries abstained, and three, including the United States and Canada, voted against the nomination.

Each year, chair of the commission rotates among the five regional groupings, which nominate a representative country. The African group recommended Libya for the post.

For the next year, Libya will be able “to influence the agenda of the commission,” said Andrew Srulevitch, director of U.N. Watch. For example, the length of time devoted to an agenda item lambasting Israel largely will depend on Libya, he said.

Srulevitch said the appointment could go in either of two ways: The Arab countries might “restrain themselves on the Arab issue” for public relations gain, or they could “pillory” Israel and the West to further their foreign policies.

“I don’t think anyone knows, because it really is going to depend on what side of the bed Gadhafi wakes up on,” Srulevitch said, referring to Libyan leader Muammar Gadhafi.

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