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Switzerland sets out stance for human rights conference

Middle East violence is likely to feature high on the agenda during the session

(Keystone)

Switzerland is to play an active role in the annual session of the United Nations Human Rights Commission, which gets underway in Geneva on Monday. But the country's ambassador to the UN says he expects talks over the next six weeks to be difficult.

"We intend to intervene on several topics that we consider to be important," says the Swiss permanent representative to the UN in Geneva, François Nordmann.

While it is not yet clear how many resolutions Switzerland will sponsor, Nordmann has identified a number that will certainly win Swiss support. These include resolutions on the prohibition of torture and the death penalty, as well as ones backing the rights of the child, women and indigenous people, and the right to development, education and food.

Nordmann said Switzerland would also co-sponsor resolutions condemning human rights abuses by certain countries "provided they are balanced and not political in nature".

The Swiss president, Moritz Leuenberger, will address the session on March 30, along with the UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan, and the French president, Jacques Chirac.

Nordmann told swissinfo he expected this year's session to be much more difficult than in 2000: "Last year, there was a different climate. There was more consensus leading up to the commission," the ambassador said.

That level of agreement has been missing in discussions on many thematic issues, Nordmann says, "partly because of a change of approach by a few countries".

Two major world events in the past year have placed a question mark over the current session: the collapse of the Middle East peace process and the accompanying violence; and the election of George Bush as president of a new Republican administration in the United States.

Nordmann says that it's not yet entirely clear what will be the new US position on foreign policy in general and human rights in particular, and that Switzerland would prefer to wait and judge it on its actions.

"I don't have a clue about their intentions. We are interested in seeing their position and how that influences the workings of the commission."

The continuing rift between Israel and the Palestinians is also likely to be discussed at length. These divisions were last addressed in October at a special session of the Human Rights Commission on the Occupied Territories.

"That session had consequences that we will see surface again in this session," Nordmann predicts.

During that special session, Switzerland made an unusually forceful intervention accusing Israel of using "disproportionate and indiscriminate force" and calling on it to respect the rights of civilians.

Nordmann says he would not hesitate to make the same statement again, pointing out that Switzerland's human rights policies are governed by juridical, and not political, motives.

The ambassador also noted that the run-up to this session has been complicated by disputes surrounding the forthcoming World Conference against Racism to be held in the South African city of Durban from August 31 to September 7.

Some developing countries are looking to the industrialised world to compensate them for colonial rule and slavery, and this issue has carried over into the discussions leading up to the human rights conference.

Switzerland is proud of its record on promoting human rights and democracy. Indeed it is one of the five central planks of its foreign policy. Yet so is the defence of Swiss economic interests abroad.

In some countries, such as China, Russia and Turkey, raising the question of human rights could have negative implications for Swiss commercial interests. François Nordmann acknowledges that there can be "elements of conflict" between the two positions.

"No country is purely idealistic. It has to defend its own interests, and each country defends them according to its own values," Nordmann says. "But we have a clear line on human rights and humanitarian issues."

"If you don't support a certain resolution, it does not mean it's the end of your human rights policy. There are other ways of achieving results. A resolution might be counter-productive, but a quieter dialogue might bear fruit," Nordmann explains.

The UN Human Rights Commission, with Mary Robinson at its head, has slowly gained in influence, despite being understaffed and underfunded. It is at the mercy of national governments, meaning that many of the resolutions are highly politicised.

But, while often derided as a toothless talking shop, the lengths that some countries are prepared to go to in order to block resolutions critical of them demonstrates the growing effectiveness of the commission.

Human Rights Watch, in its latest World Report, says that: "after several years of steady reform, the UN's main problem is ... the dire lack of capacity that the nations of the world are willing to permit it."

by Roy Probert


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