Little known throughout the world and often misunderstood, the United Nations Human Rights Commission is the most important international organ dealing with the rights of the oppressed.
Less known and often confused with it is its sub-commission of independent experts.
Founded over 50 years ago as the commission's think tank, the sub-commission was to prepare in-depth studies and recommendations for the commission's 53 rotating member governments.
Although many of its experts have turned out to be tied to the politics of their home governments, others have taken their independence seriously, allowing the sub-commission to tackle questions that the commission, heavy on politics, has avoided.
This has been cause for much hope among human rights activists but has also brought down upon the sub-commission the wrath of governments whose views it has challenged. That wrath, to which the United States is no stranger, now threatens the sub-commission's existence.
A glance at this year's session suggests why. It began drafting an international convention (treaty) on human rights responsibilities of transnational corporations. Corporate behavior, the U.S. maintains, should be dealt with by the World Trade Organization, known for favoring the corporate balance sheet to the exclusion of everything else.
A heated discussion about restrictions that countries attach to human rights treaties targeted Uncle Sam. For example, when the United States ratified the treaty guaranteeing civil and political rights, it attached so many reservations that, U.N. legal counsel claims, the intent of the treaty was nullified.
A more heated debate dealt with abuses in Iraq, due to the sanctions that the United States and Britain have pushed almost obsessively.
In March, the commission, to clip the sub-commission's wings, shrank its sessions from four weeks to three, prohibiting it from voting country-specific resolutions. Thus, the sub-commission's proposed resolution, "Humanitarian situation in Iraq," violated the new rules.
Calling this resolution blatant contempt of the commission's authority, the United States pushed for another "reform" to limit the sub-commission yet further.
Saudi Arabia, apparently at the behest of the United States, surely with its knowledge and approval, sent a letter to commission members seeking to suspend the sub-commission pending a "reform."
But the Iraq resolution was only an excuse, for it was ultimately amended, mentioning "the Iraqi people." The real cause of the U.S. ire lay in another, related, vein.
Last year the sub-commission had mandated one of its own, Marc Bossuyt, to study human rights abuses of civilian populations in countries subject to sanctions. The report, delivered at this year's session, covered sanctions imposed by a regional group (by Central African countries on Burundi), by the international community (by the United Nations itself on Iraq) and unilaterally (by the United States on Cuba).
Two of the three directly involved the United States, and the report's conclusions about the sanctions regime in Iraq cast a dark shadow over the United States and Great Britain.
David Weissbrodt, the sub-commission expert from the U.S., was dismissive of it, questioning its "professionalism." Whatever its limits, it makes impressive reading, sounding like an indictment for crimes against humanity. Its force rattled both the United States and United Kingdom, present as observers.
Invoking a "right to reply," the U.S. observers said they were "greatly disturbed by the paper," adding, "Any observer who understands the facts can only find the report to be incorrect, biased and inflammatory. It risks the credibility of the sub-commission."
The U.S. claim that "the United States has worked hard to ensure that the welfare of the Iraqi people is protected" drew derision from government observers (off the record) and rights activists, many of whom have long clamored that the sanctions have been catastrophic to the point of being genocidal.
The United States and Britain pursued the matter in a joint, 312-page fact sheet, widely distributed. (Some 2,000 human rights activists attend the sub-commission along with more than 200 governmental and international observers.) It asserted, for example, that "humanitarian concerns can be met under the 'oil for food' program," contradicting recent on-the-scene investigations by the International Red Cross and the United Nations Children's Fund.
Far from risking the credibility of the sub-commission, the Bossuyt report risks, once again, the credibility of the United States before the international community. And this time, it seems to have hit home.
While the United States may not be out to eliminate the sub-commission, if the forum survives to continue its controversial work, in whatever form, it will be effectively hobbled if the U.S. has its way.
Robert James Parsons, based in Switzerland, writes on international issues for the Geneva daily, le Courrier.
Copyright 2000 SF Examiner