Apr 6, 2009

U.S. to seek seat on Human Rights Council

In but the latest sign of a subtle shift in U.S. foreign policy by the administration of Barack Obama, the U.S. has indicated that it will seek election to the United Nations Human Rights Council.

The announcement, delivered yesterday, reverses a policy of the Bush era which witnessed steady opposition to both the Human Rights Council and its forerunner, the U.N. Commission on Human Rights.

"The decision is in keeping with the Obama Administration's 'new era of engagement' with other nations to advance American security interests and meet the global challenges of the 21st century," remarked U.S. Acting Deputy State Department Spokesman Gordon Duguid on Tuesday.

Newly appointed U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, reaffirmed the decision to change tack, saying, "Those who suffer from abuse and oppression around the world, as well as those who dedicate their lives to advancing human rights, need the Council to be balanced and credible."

Countries such as Saudi Arabia, China, Cuba and Russia have all previously won seats to the Council.

Rice went on to add that "[t]he U.S. is seeking election to the Council because we believe that working from within, we can make the council a more effective forum to promote and protect human rights."

In stark contrast to the Obama initiative, the Bush administration remained highly critical of the Rights body and its predecessor, accusing the body of serving as a refuge for some of the world's worst human rights violators, including Burma.

Former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, John Bolton, previously summed up the Bush administration's rejection to the formation and projected ineffectiveness of the Council in 2006, articulating: "The real test will be the quality of membership that emerges on this Council and whether it takes effective action to address serious human rights abuse cases like Sudan, Cuba, Iran, Zimbabwe, Belarus, and Burma."

In support of the Bush position, a conservative Washington-based think tank, The Heritage Foundation, highlighted the fact that well known human rights abusers Burma, China, Cuba, Ethiopia, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria, and Zimbabwe all voted in favor of the new Council.

However, the shift in direction is supported by a number of international rights bodies, including Amnesty International.

Amnesty, in a paper proscribing changes to the means by which the then incoming Obama administration should conduct U.S. foreign policy, argued: "The new administration must be ready to end US isolation in the international human rights system and engage constructively with the UN Human Rights Council."

It is unclear what the change in U.S. approach may signal for the administration's Burma policy, a policy the State Department has indicated is under review.

The move from the State Department also comes on the heels of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's announcement that the U.S. is ready to meet with moderate members of Afghanistan's Taliban movement, and Afghan President Hamid Karzai's airing of the opinion that all sanctions should be dropped against the Taliban and its leadership.

The Human Rights Council consists of 47 elected members and is scheduled to undergo a systematic review in 2011. Obama's administration will run through the year 2012.


Forced relocation for border fence in Maungdaw

Some families in Maungdaw Township have been ordered by the Burmese army to relocate because their houses are located near army godowns where many goods, including barbed wire fencing and cement, are being stored, said a resident who is among those being asked to move.

“They ordered us last week to move from the village as our houses are close to the army godown but they did not instruct on where we have to go,” he said.

The households that have been asked to move are in Ka Yin Chaung Village in Maungdaw, and have been in the village for generations.

“In our village there are only ten houses, and among those, three have been ordered to relocate by army officials from the engineering battalion who came to our area recently to implement the border fence project,” the resident said.

The three households that have been ordered to move are those of Daw Thit Mu, U Sein Hla, and U Zaw Chay. All three are Arakanese Buddhist.

A relative of Daw Thit Mu said, “They do not know where they will be moving because they are unable to buy plots to build their new houses on because they are poor families.”

According to local sources, the three families are now facing many problems with the forced relocation, and have requested help from elders in Maungdaw.

This is the first time families have been ordered to relocate for the fence construction along the border, but many lands that are located near the fence site are being confiscated by the army authorities without compensation.