UN human rights post : S’pore helped to strike the deal

SINGAPORE played a key role in forging a compromise between developing and Western countries to create the United Nations human rights commissioner’s post last month.

A Singapore Foreign Ministry official involved in the UN human rights conference in Vienna told The Sunday Times that Singapore was asked to chair the working group to try and strike a deal between the two sides.

Singapore’s permanent representative to the United Nations in New York, Mr Chew Tai Soo, chaired the working group for several days when they hammered out a compromise.

The official said that the United States, China, European Union, Costa Rica and Sri Lanka thanked Mr Chew for his contribution to the successful outcome of the negotiations.

Noted the official: “This shows that we are considered an honest broker. We did not have any particular axe to grind and we did not have vested interests in this whole thing.”

The creation of the post, first proposed by Uruguay in 1952, was the main proposal to emerge from the Vienna conference last June.

Western countries, led by the US, had pushed for a watchdog figure with the power to launch investigations.

But many developing countries such as India, China, Iran and Cuba expressed reservations about opening a human rights commissioner’s office.

They wanted to make sure the person in the post would not be able to undercut national sovereignty, and would respect cultural differences and the right to economic development.

In a trade-off, Asian countries managed to limit the commissioner’s powers, while the West created the post they had lobbied for strongly and preserved the freedom to make aid conditional on human-rights performance.

According to the UN General Assembly resolution, the human rights commissioner will coordinate UN human rights activities. He could engage in dialogue with governments but his reports could not compel or oblige countries to change their practices.

The Foreign Ministry official said Singapore saw merit in the proposal from the beginning. “We think it is useful to promote more civilised and humane standards of conduct across the world.”

He said Singapore’s initial concern with the creation of such post, which has since been resolved, was procedural – who would pay for the post and how the commissioner would relate to the other parts of the UN system.

He noted that initially, UN Secretary General Boutros Ghali opposed the idea of a human rights commissioner because the mandate was so broadly defined that it was seen as a rival secretary-general.

Singapore, he added, wanted to be sure that the commissioner “would not just be a gesture in the direction of human rights but a serious attempt at effectively and realistically promoting human rights”.

The new commissioner will be nominated by Dr Ghali at a date to be fixed. He will serve a four-year term, which can be renewed once. The nomination must be approved by the General Assembly.

UN Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights Ibrahima Fall of Senegal and Nobel Peace Prize winner Oscar Arias of Costa Rica have been mentioned as possible candidates. But diplomats say the contest is still wide open.

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