Inside the glass house: by Thalif Deen

9th April 2000

UN's indispensable partners

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NEW YORK-Arundhathi Ghose, a former Indian ambassador, was at the UN delegate's lounge in Geneva sipping coffee when she spotted at the next table a leader of an Assamese separatist group accused of kidnapping her nephew.

"I was so blinded by rage, I wanted to leap over the table," she told a New York Times reporter, expressing her anger at the ease with which representatives of armed separatist groups find access to the UN as members of non-governmental organisations (NGOs).

Ghose was indignant that while her nephew was missing, a representative of the United Liberation Front of Assam, which was held responsible for his disappearance, was freely walking around Geneva.

"And we were going to have him - a criminal telling us about human rights violations?," she asked.

Mercifully, our man in Geneva, Ambassador H.M.G.S. Palihakkara, has not so far entertained any thoughts of throttling LTTE representatives who come to Geneva every year to pontificate on human rights violations before the UN Human Rights Commission.

But Palihakkara does relate a story of how a London based Tamil lawyer representing the LTTE once bluntly refused to shake hands with a Sri Lankan official of the Geneva based World Federation of UN Associations, who also happened to be a Sinhalese.

When the Tamil lawyer refused to extend his hand of friendship, the Sri Lanka official responded wittily: "Why?, are you an untouchable?", he asked.

Perhaps it was the ultimate insult heaped on a lawyer who was a member of the privileged Vellala caste in Jaffna.

Currently, there are thousands of NGO representatives, including lawyers, hangers-on, leaders of armed rebel groups, terrorists and criminals, who are provided with legal immunity as they arrive in Geneva to attend meetings of the Human Rights Commission.

Last week thousands of LTTE supporters, living in various parts of Europe, converged in Geneva to demonstrate outside the UN complex where the Human Rights Commission is currently in session.

Although most NGO representatives at UN human rights meetings are legitimate, the credentials of a microscopic minority are sullied.

Last year a Swiss based NGO was temporarily stripped off its credentials for permitting the leader of a Sudanese separatist movement to speak at a UN meeting as a representative of that organisation.

In a hypothetical Sri Lankan context, our envoy in Geneva would be appalled to discover one fine day that LTTE leader Vellupillai Prabahakaran has been accredited to address the Human Rights Commission as a representative of either Amnesty International or the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

Ambassador Palihakkara would be forgiven if he is tempted to fly over his desk and his country's name plate abandoning caution and diplomacy to the winds in order to choke the LTTE leader.

Clearly, no one can condone human rights violations in this day and age. And no government can be forgiven for human rights abuses.

But a logical question is whether armed groups, who have no qualms about killing women, children, worshippers in mosques and innocent civilians, have the moral right to send their representatives to lecture others on human rights abuses.? Since it is a sensitive political issue, human rights is always discussed under a highly charged atmosphere at the UN.

However, most Western nations take advantage of this sensitiveness by supporting free NGO access to UN human rights meetings because these organisations single out countries by name and attack them something diplomacy forbids.

But these same Western nations vehemently oppose the participation of NGOs, such as Greenpeace International, at meetings on disarmament because most of these NGOs are strongly anti-nuclear and want the elimination of all nuclear weapons and the imposition of stringent curbs on arms exports.

And that's a non-no for nuclear powers and the world's arms merchants, mostly from the industrial North. Clearly, it is a double standard.

Meanwhile, the NGOs who come in for lavish praise are mostly those involved in humanitarian work in the world's war zones. Last year, Secretary-General Kofi Annan said these humanitarian NGOs are often there on the ground even before the international community gives the UN the mandate to act.

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