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Human Rights Watch
Friday, 17 January, 2003

Libya's Human Rights Record in Spotlight
U.N. Commission Needs Membership Criteria

The likely election of Libya to a key United Nations post on Monday will put a spotlight on its human rights record and on efforts by abusive governments to undermine the international human rights system, Human Rights Watch said today.

Libya looks certain to be elected chairman of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights, the world's top human rights forum whose annual six-week session will take place in Geneva in March and April. The Africa regional group has nominated Libya to chair the commission on a rotational basis. Some governments, including the United States, have opposed Libya's nomination and may call for a vote to signal their indignation, but no alternative candidate is likely to emerge by January 20, when the commission holds its preparatory meeting in Geneva.

The commission, which "names and shames" abusive governments, has grown more timid in recent years as countries with poor human rights records have vied to become members so they can block their own censure.

"Libya's election poses a real test for the commission," said Joanna Weschler, U.N. representative of Human Rights Watch. "Repressive governments must not be allowed to hijack the U.N. human rights system."

Weschler urged that countries seeking election to the commission should meet the following minimum criteria:

  • ratify the main human rights treaties,
  • fulfill obligations to provide reports on their compliance with conventions already ratified,
  • issue a standing invitation to U.N. investigators, and
  • not have been condemned by the commission in the recent past.
"No country has a perfect human rights record," said Weschler, "but every member should at least show a real commitment to cooperating with United Nations on human rights."

Over the past three decades, Libya's human rights record has been appalling. It has included the abduction, forced disappearance or assassination of political opponents; torture and mistreatment of detainees; and long-term detention without charge or trial or after grossly unfair trials. Today hundreds of people remain arbitrarily detained, some for over a decade, and there are serious concerns about treatment in detention and the fairness of procedures in several on-going high profile trials before the Peoples' Courts. Libya has been a closed country for United Nations and non-governmental human rights investigators.

Since its nomination by the African Union, Libya has indicated that it would invite U.N. investigators and international human rights groups to visit Libya. It has declared its intention to review the role of the grossly unfair Peoples' Courts, with a view to abolishing them, and announced several amnesties for prisoners.

While welcoming those initiatives as important indicators of Libya's intentions, Human Rights Watch called on Libya to formally issue a standing invitation to all the U.N. human rights monitoring bodies, following in the footsteps of forty member states that have done so already, and to promptly submit its outstanding reports to the U.N. treaty bodies.

"The Libyans have made some positive commitments in their election bid, but these should be put into practice before they take over the chairmanship," Weschler said.

Critical issues at this year's session will include the impact of the war against terrorism on human rights and the continuing grave human rights situations in Chechnya, China, Israel and the Occupied Territories, and Iran.

More Human Rights Watch analysis of this issue is available at:

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