Inside the glass house: by Thalif Deen

10th December 2000

Mary crosses rights threshold

Front Page
Plus| Business| Sports|
Mirror Magazine
The Sunday Times on the Web
NEW YORK — A former Nigerian ambassador to the United Nations was at an international gathering in Africa last year when he ran into one of his long lost friends who had just returned from a visit to New York.

“I met your boss,” he told a perplexed Nigerian envoy whose only “bosses” were at home: his foreign minister and his president.

“What boss?”, he asked his friend. “I don’t have a boss in New York.”

When his friend explained that he really meant the UN Secretary-General whom he had met during his visit to the UN, the envoy shot back: “He is not my boss. I am his boss.”

And the Nigerian envoy was right. But most outsiders, however, do not realise the limitations and restrictions under which a Secretary-General operates.

A creature of the world body’s 189 member states, the Secretary-General is really the Chief Executive Officer of the United Nations and has to do the bidding of member states.

But he has little or no authority to defiantly challenge or overule his creators or even blast them publicly for human rights violations.

Occasionally, he is known to sneak a punch at the poor or the powerless, but not at the rich and the powerful.

Along with his senior officials, the Secretary-General walks a thin line on key political issues and rarely criticises or stands up to errant member states — and certainly not against any of the five permanent members — the United States, Britain, China, France and Russia (and perhaps Israel).

Among high ranking officials, however, there have been few exceptions. One of them is Mary Robinson, the current UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, who has publicly castigated Russia and China, both for human rights abuses.

If ever she decides to run for the job of Secretary-General (she is one of several women mentioned as possible candidates in a future race), she may kiss her chances goodbye because she is sure to be vetoed either by Russia or China— or by both.

In its annual report released last week, the Washington-based Human Rights Watch said that among the positive developments in the rights arena last year was the first formal criticism by the Human Rights Commission of a permanent member of the UN Security Council, namely Russia, for its abuses in Chechnya.

A former president of Ireland, Robinson concurred with the Human Rights Commission.

Last week, Robinson came out swinging taking shots at Israel for its mistreatment of Palestinians in the occupied territories of West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem.

On a request made by the Geneva-based UN Commission on Human Rights, Robinson spent about eight days both in the occupied territories and in Israel trying to get a clearer and more objective picture of the crisis in the region.

At a news conference last week, she described the human rights situation in occupied territories as “bleak” because “there is no other word I can think that can be used at the moment.”

“And I must say that I was to a very real extent, shocked and dismayed and even devastated by the impact of the present conflict in the occupied territories, in particular,” she said.

She also submitted to the General Assembly a harsh report on the ongoing human rights abuses and called for an international observer force to monitor the situation in occupied territories.

While visiting Israeli settlements, her motorcade was fired at, probably as an advance warning to her.

But despite the potential threats, Robinson has submitted a scathing report against Israeli abuses.

She said land and water were both at a high premium (and mostly accessible only to Israeli settlers), and that she was “surprised” and “shocked” that Israelis continue to expand their settlements.

Pointing out that one cannot separate the human rights situation from the reality of Israeli-occupation, Robinson said there were daily acts of “discrimination, inequality, humiliation and powerlessness.” “And this has been intensified by the conflict, intensified by the excessive use of force, by the impact on children, on medical personnel, the use of the economic levers, the very serious economic impact,” she added.

She described a visit to a 15-year-old paraplegic who, for the rest of his life, will be unable to have the normal life of a teenager.

She also referred to a 14-year-old boy who had gone out to revenge the fact that his classmate had been blinded in both eyes.

The reality, she said, was one of “daily grinding humiliation, and that over time, it had an impact, particularly on young people, of building up a sense of utter frustration, anger, and that his came to boil in the recent intifada.”

She said these teenagers were not being “pushed” by anybody but were acting out of anger and frustration.

Not surprisingly, Robinson’s report has come under fire by Israelis who say she had strayed too far into Middle East politics.

The New York-based Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith, a Jewish non-governmental organisation, described Robinson’s report as “distorted and detrimental”.

“The violence could stop immediately if the Palestinians chose to stop it and commit to a negotiated settlement,” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the League. 

Index Page
Front Page
Mirrror Magazine
Editorial/ Opinion Contents


Front Page| News/Comment| Editorial/Opinion| Plus| Business| Sports| Mirror Magazine

Please send your comments and suggestions on this web site to 

The Sunday Times or to Information Laboratories (Pvt.) Ltd.

Presented on the World Wide Web by Infomation Laboratories (Pvt.) Ltd.
Hosted By LAcNet