Super Censors

June 30, 1995|By JONATHAN POWER

London -- "One of the fundamental purposes of the United Nations is to defend freedom of expression. Today that right is being violated by the U.N. itself. The same institution that framed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is now accused of suppressing information about human-rights abuses and has become a censor in its own right.''

This is the opening paragraph of an expose of the U.N. published earlier this week by Article 19, the London-based International Centre Against Censorship, and written by Richard Reoch, who for 20 years was director of information at Amnesty International.

The United Nations, he writes, has become a ''super censor'' which operates in a ''culture of secrecy, prejudice and complicity.''

He records in great detail how governmental manipulation of U.N. human-rights committees has led to the suppression of a ''substantial number'' of allegations of abuses in the five veto-wielding countries, including Britain and the United States. And that human-rights abuses in the well-known cases of Argentina, Haiti and the Philippines were disclosed only after changes in government from military dictatorship to civilian rule.

Mr. Reoch documents that U.N. operations in the field are often wanting in human-rights monitoring. U.N. operations in El Salvador failed to report publicly on human-rights violations. In Yugoslavia's break-up, essential information that would have helped relatives trace missing victims during the Serbian ''ethnic cleansing'' was withheld. Perhaps most serious of all, U.N. forces in Somalia, including the American contingent, violated the Geneva Conventions by refusing to disclose crucial information about the casualties they inflicted on local people.

The United Nations actually has a working Commission on Human Rights, meant to actively watch and investigate abuses. It is mostly a horror story of inactivity. After discussing Saddam Hussein's gas attack on Kurdish towns and villages in 1988, when more than 5,000 men, women and children choked to death, the commission decided that no action was required.

I have now experienced the deadly reach of the U.N. apparatchiks first-hand. This week was supposed to see the publication of a book, ''Vision of Hope,'' that I edited on the history and workings of the U.N. Although commissioned by the U.N., it was funded by corporate sponsors and, rather than being published in-house, was given to an independent commercial publisher who wanted ''an outsider's look'' at the U.N. All the contributors, including myself, have taken our names off the book after the U.N. forced on the publisher 70 serious cuts. This censorship amounts to a refusal on the part of senior U.N. officials to permit publication of historical facts, to allow commentary on reform of the U.N.'s structures, and to report allegations of conflict and corruption inside the U.N.

A number of friends have said, sort of comfortingly, ''Well, what did you expect?'' What I expected was the application of Article 100 of the U.N. Charter -- to which the governments of the world rededicated their allegiance at ceremonies in San Francisco Monday. It reads thus:

''In performance of their duties the secretary general and the staff shall not seek or receive instructions from any government or from any authority external to the organization. They shall refrain from any action which might reflect on their position as international officials responsible only to the organization.''

So on what authority did Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali and his undersecretary general for public policy, Gillian Sorensen, decide to delete any mention of the existence of the Dalai Lama?

Neither the General Assembly nor any other U.N. body has ever passed a resolution mandating the Secretariat to avoid or prevent any reference to the disputed territory of Tibet or its exiled leader. One can only assume they felt leaned on by China and hadn't the guts to resist.

Mr. Boutros-Ghali's predecessor, Javier Perez de Cuellar, I think, would have acted differently. He seized the end of the Cold War to throw open some of the windows of the U.N.

Every year the United Nations Development Program publishes its Human Development Report which points a finger at all manner of countries for shortfalls, both in their economic and political development. UNICEF, too, had an admirable track record under the directorship of the late James Grant, often accusing individual governments in its well documented reports of a wide range of transgressions.

Mr. Boutros-Ghali has decided to close off this light. I would ask him again, on whose authority?

Jonathan Power writes a column on the Third World.

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