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U.N. panel now taking aim at human rights advocacy groups

NEW YORK (BP)–The U.N. oversight committee that booted the United States from the U.N. Human Rights Commission is trying to ban several private human rights advocacy groups from participation in the United Nations.

Those targeted include Freedom House, the Family Research Council, the Baptist World Alliance and the Simon Weisenthal Center.

“First, they silenced the United States’ voice on the human rights commission. Now, they are going after U.S.-based human rights advocacy groups,” said Freedom House President Adrian Karatnycky.

The effort is being orchestrated in a 19-nation subcommittee of the 54-nation U.N. Economic and Social Council (Ecosoc), which has become increasingly polarized between democratic nations and others such as Sudan, Sierra Leone, China and Cuba.

The subcommittee is responsible for accrediting nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and renewing accreditation every four years. Accreditation is needed for NGOs to participate in U.N. discussions.

Accusations that the United Nations is targeting private human rights groups come at a time of growing congressional impatience with the world body.

The House of Representatives has voted to withhold $242 million in U.N. dues next year unless the United States gets back its seat on the U.N. Human Rights Commission. In a recent secret vote by the full Ecosoc committee, the United States lost its seat for the first time ever.

Freedom House, an NGO group founded by Eleanor Roosevelt in 1941, lately has upset Russia by questioning its military actions in Chechnya, angered the Chinese with criticism of religious intolerance, alienated Cuba by pressing for freedom of speech and enraged Sudan by challenging its bid for membership in the Security Council on human rights grounds.

All four governments are represented on the NGO subcommittee, and each has challenged Freedom House and other prominent human rights groups in their efforts to either win accreditation or renew existing credentials.

“It is inappropriate,” said Robert Maginnis, vice president for policy of the Washington-based Family Research Council, whose application for accreditation has been deferred for the third time. “We are a pro-life, pro-faith, pro-family organization that has shown a commitment to human rights,” he said.

At an Ecosoc subcommittee hearing the week of May 14, Maginnis said, the Family Research Council representative “was on the hot seat for an hour and a half” defending the group’s positions against abortion and sex trafficking.

The subcommittee recommends which groups should be recognized to participate in U.N. forums and meetings. The recommendations then are forwarded to the full Ecosoc committee for a vote.

Longtime observers say it is getting harder for bona fide human rights advocates to win accreditation with the current composition of the Ecosoc subcommittee.

They note that Russia will challenge any group criticizing its actions in Chechnya, China will automatically block any group that characterizes Tibet or Taiwan as independent of Beijing and Cuba opposes any group that criticizes the Castro regime.

Cuba’s representative, for example, recently accused Freedom House of lending its accreditation badges to Cuban dissidents, while Beijing’s representative criticized the group for failing to say in its reports that Taiwan is a province of China.

Joanna Weschler of Human Rights Watch said that repressive governments were emboldened two years ago, after Sudan successfully won the ouster of Christian Solidarity, the group that buys and then liberates Sudanese slaves.

“Complaints are rare, but they are increasingly growing and intensifying,” said Weschler, who said that Human Rights Watch was denied accreditation for several years in the early 1990s.

Freedom House’s Karatnycky praised the U.S. counselor on Ecosoc, Richard Williams, for battling to renew the group’s accreditation.

But Maginnis of the Family Research Council, which is applying for accreditation for the first time, said he wishes U.S. delegates would have defended his group more vigorously against what he views as political attacks.

“Because we are … perceived to be aligned with the Bush administration, and given the situation on the human rights commission and the backlash against President Bush, we were a handy whipping dog to go after,” he said.

A State Department official said problems arose with the Family Research Council’s application for accreditation.

“They’re hung up on procedural issues. There are no substantive objections within the committee,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. But some characterize procedural objections as a fig leaf to hide an attempt to stifle criticism of human rights abuses.

“The complaints against us [Freedom House] are largely procedural, like the allegation that we improperly obtained a certain translation service for a meeting in Geneva,” said Michael Goldfarb, Freedom House’s spokesman.

“They are seizing on alleged technical infractions as a means of censuring organizations. At heart, it’s really a freedom of speech issue. There seems to be a climate of stifling open legitimate and substantive debate of important human rights issues and abuses,” he said.

Several groups, such as the Simon Weisenthal Center and Baptist World Alliance, didn’t even realize that their applications were in danger of being rejected.

“I suspect they only want more information,” said George D. Younger, the U.N. representative for the Baptist World Alliance. “Our operations are transparent and not politically motivated.”

The group, based in suburban Washington, represents 162,000 churches in 116 countries.

“To the credit of the U.N. system, the staff are extremely sympathetic to NGOs, and the Secretary-General [Kofi Annan] stresses the importance of hearing the views of civil society,” Karatnycky said. “But the members of Ecosoc are another story.”
Used by permission of The Washington Times. Pisik is a Times staff writer.

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  • Betsy Pisik