U.N. committee wants to silence group that frees slaves in Sudan

Swiss-based organization is targeted by nations with shaky respect for rights

September 08, 1999|By Jay Hancock | Jay Hancock,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

UNITED NATIONS -- In a decision closely watched by human rights groups, a United Nations committee recommended yesterday that an organization that is working to free Sudanese slaves be barred from speaking at U.N. proceedings.

The U.N. Committee on Non-governmental Organizations voted 14-1 to revoke consultative status for Christian Solidarity International. CSI, based in Zurich, has excoriated Sudan's government for allowing human bondage and has bought the freedom of thousands of Sudanese slaves.

Yesterday's decision, opposed on the committee only by the United States, reflects what human rights advocates call growing pressure from some U.N. members to thwart CSI and other organizations. Earlier this year, for example, China succeeded in blocking speaking privileges for Human Rights in China, a nonprofit group.

"For CSI, absolutely it is going to be a blow," said Iain Levine, a U.N. representative for Amnesty International, another humanitarian group. "And it comes at a time when human rights organizations have come under, let's say, increased scrutiny."

The committee's recommendation on CSI will be sent to the United Nations' Economic and Social Council. The council had rejected the committee's earlier vote to withdraw CSI's accreditation, saying CSI had not been given sufficient notice to defend itself. It asked the committee to reconsider the matter, and yesterday the committee did so in rejecting CSI's speaking privileges.

The committee that met yesterday is dominated by developing nations, many of which have been criticized for human rights violations of their own. Among those voting against CSI were China, Colombia, Ethiopia, Pakistan, Senegal, Tunisia and Turkey.

John Eibner, a top CSI official, lamented the vote. But even if it is affirmed by the Economic and Social Council, Eibner added, CSI will continue to expose Sudanese slavery in other ways, including more slave rescues.

U.N. accreditation "provides a forum for us to put across our views about slavery and other human rights violations," he said.

"If one is plugged into the international state system, we can make our concerns known in a very direct way."

CSI is most widely known for helping to bring the subject of slavery in Sudan to the world's attention and for organizing the purchase and release of more than 11,000 slaves. Two reporters from The Sun accompanied CSI staffers to Sudan in 1996 and wrote the first comprehensive account of slavery in that nation.

Recently, CSI's practice of purchasing freedom for slaves has been criticized by other humanitarian groups as providing an economic incentive for new enslavements.

CSI's troubles at the United Nations began in March, when it invited John Garang, a rebel Sudanese leader, to speak to the U.N. Human Rights Commission in Geneva. Garang's Sudanese People's Liberation Army has been fighting Sudan's government for more than a decade, seeking autonomy for Christian and animist minorities in southern Sudan.

Garang's forces also try to protect Christians and animists from abduction into slavery by northern raiders. It was in that role that CSI says it asked Garang to speak.

Sudanese delegates objected, however, when Garang identified himself as the chairman of the Liberation Army and delivered what even a U.S. envoy, Michael Gallagher, described yesterday as an "intemperate speech."

Sudan contended that Garang had broken a U.N. rule that barred him from mentioning his rebel affiliation when he spoke at the United Nations.

A Sudanese delegate to yesterday's meeting described Garang as a "terrorist, outlaw and secessionist."

The dispute demonstrates a fundamental tension between two values often championed by the United Nations: concern for human rights and respect for national sovereignty.

CSI and other human rights groups often enter Sudan without permission from Khartoum. They insist it is necessary to save lives and to document abuses by a repressive regime. But Sudan protests the incursions as a violation of its borders, echoing other authoritarian states that criticize human rights groups for perceived interference in internal affairs.

"My own organization has serious doubts about whether inviting the leader of an insurrectional rebel movement against a member of the United Nations is [merely] a technical, procedural error," said Fabio Ocaziones, Colombia's delegate at yesterday's meeting.

Eibner stressed that in testifying to slavery and other atrocities in Sudan, Garang had something of grave importance to tell the United Nations.

"CSI looks to him as a unique witness to events in Sudan," Eibner said. Inviting him before the United Nations "is a perfectly legitimate thing for a human rights organization to do."

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