U.N. scraps Afghan position of human rights investigator

U.S. pressure led to world body's decision

April 23, 2005|By James Rupert | James Rupert,NEWSDAY

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan - Under U.S. pressure, the United Nations this week eliminated the job of its top investigator on human rights in Afghanistan after the official criticized violations by U.S. forces in the country.

American diplomats at a meeting in Geneva of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights pressed the group to end the mandate of Cherif Bassiouni as the United Nations' "independent expert on human rights in Afghanistan." During a year in that position, Bassiouni repeatedly criticized the U.S. military for detaining prisoners without trial and for barring almost all human rights monitors from its prisons in the country.

Washington moved to scrap Bassiouni's post partly because the human rights situation in Afghanistan is no longer troubling enough to require it, said a U.S. official who asked not to be named. "We don't want mandates where we don't need them," the official said.

Bassiouni's ouster came amid other acrimony as the commission's annual meeting closed yesterday. U.N. human rights High Commissioner Louise Arbour derided as "not credible" the commission's final report, which named only Belarus, Cuba, Myanmar and North Korea as grievous violators of human rights.

Bassiouni, a Chicago-based law professor with a reputation for frequently blunt speech, repeated the criticisms in a 24-page report presented at the meeting. He pointed to reports from Afghans, international agencies and the Afghan government's human rights commission of U.S. troops breaking into homes with no legal authority, arresting residents and abusing them in ways that "fall under the internationally accepted definition of torture."

International agencies working in Afghanistan "estimate that over 1,000 individuals have been detained," Bassiouni wrote.

The U.S. official accused Bassiouni of grandstanding "to bolster his resume," and said the professor's departure would give a greater role to the Afghan government's rights commission.

But in Afghanistan, the Afghan commission has cited U.S. forces, rather than Bassiouni, as the frequent obstacle to its work. Afghan officials say they have trouble even getting appointments with U.S. officers to discuss human rights cases. Also, U.S. forces bar the Afghan commission from visiting their prisons. They admit only the International Committee of the Red Cross, which does not publish its findings.

Human rights advocates say the U.S. policies that undermine human-rights reporting in Afghanistan seem to come primarily from the military rather than the State Department. The Pentagon has kept secret the results of its investigation into human rights violations at its bases in Afghanistan, despite an initial promise to reveal them.

In other countries with human rights problems as deep as Afghanistan's, "the commission normally passes a resolution to condemn the abuses and names a `special rapporteur' to keep investigating them," said Brad Adams, Asia director of the monitoring group Human Rights Watch. "But in Afghanistan, the U.S. has not wanted these mechanisms to come into play."

Now, the United Nations' monitoring of human rights in Afghanistan will fall to Arbour, whose global responsibilities "won't leave her time to focus on Afghanistan and make the visits to Kabul," Adams said.

Newsday is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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