Darfur crisis 'graver than Middle East' - Annan

United Nations secretary general Kofi Annan urged the global body’s human rights watchdog today to deal with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict impartially and said it was time to focus attention on ”graver” crises such as Darfur.

Annan’s statement to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, Switzerland, came only a day after the 47-nation body rejected an attempt to hold the Sudanese government responsible for halting atrocities in its volatile Western region, where more than 200,000 people have been killed and 2.5 million others displaced since the Darfur conflict began in 2003.

The council, which has criticised only Israel in its six months of existence, turned down by a vote of 22-20 a resolution from the European Union and Canada telling the Sudanese government to prosecute those responsible for killing, raping and injuring civilians in Darfur.

Instead, it accepted a proposal from African countries supported by Muslim nations that called on all parties to the conflict to end human rights violations.

The council has already passed six resolutions criticising Israel for issues ranging from its recent invasion of Lebanon to its four-decade occupation of the Syrian Golan Heights.

Annan, in a statement read out by UN human rights chief Louise Arbour, said he hoped the council “will take care to handle this issue in an impartial way, and not allow it to monopolise attention at the expense of others where there are equally grave or even graver violations”.

“There are surely other situations, besides the one in the Middle East, which would merit scrutiny by a special session of this council,” he said. “I would suggest that Darfur is a glaring case in point.”

Yesterday’s showdown at the council, which replaced in June the widely discredited Human Rights Commission, followed months of negotiations between Western countries and the so-called African Group led by Algeria on what approach to take towards Darfur, which the United Nations has called the world’s worst humanitarian disaster.

The African resolution suggests no blame for President Omar al-Bashir’s government, which has been accused of unleashing brutal militiamen known as janjaweed in fighting Darfur rebels. The janjaweed are widely alleged to have destroyed hundreds of villages, killing the inhabitants, raping women and stealing livestock.

More than a third of the council’s membership belongs to the 57-nation Organisation of the Islamic Conference. With the support of China, Russia, India, Cuba, African countries and – on some occasions – Latin America, they have come to dominate its proceedings.

“If this council is to fulfil its vocation, and take its place as one of the paramount bodies of the United Nations, giving human rights a priority on a par with that accorded to peace and security and to development, its work must be marked by a strong sense of purpose,” Annan said.

“That will only happen if the council’s members are willing and able to build coalitions based on principle, and on a determination to uphold human rights worldwide.

“Do not let yourselves be split along the fault line between north and south, between developed and developing countries.”

Annan urged countries to be prepared to go against others in the region to uphold human rights. That is rare at the council because countries tend to vote in blocs, but Ghana, Mauritius and Zambia all abstained from the African resolution yesterday.

“Only by showing such courage and rigour can you avoid disappointing the many people around the world who look to the UN for support in their struggle for human rights, and driving them to turn elsewhere,” Annan said.

The African resolution praised Sudan’s government for co-operating with a UN-appointed expert on the human rights situation in the country.

But campaign groups fear that some countries may be trying to limit the ability of special invetigators appointed by the council.

On Monday, these countries demonstrated their dominance in the body by forcing through a resolution recommending a “code of conduct” for the experts, who have been assigned to some of the world’s worst rights abusers and often anger the governments they report on.

There has also been concern that the council would like to exert greater control on Arbour’s human rights office in Geneva.

Annan said it was important that the council address specific human rights situations and “avoid any innovation that would erode or undermine the independence” of the so-called special rapporteurs or the UN high commissioner for human rights.

“The rule of law cannot be left to the discretion of governments, no matter how democratically elected they may be,” Annan said. “It requires them to subject themselves to vigilance and constraint by independent institutions, such as courts and ombudsmen. By the same token, an intergovernmental body such as this council cannot ensure the protection of human rights by taking all decisions into its own hands.”

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