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Robinson to Head UN Fact-Finding Mission

6 April 2002

The Islamic countries that support the Palestine National Authority persuaded the United Nations Commission on Human Rights to send a fact-finding mission to investigate alleged rights violations committed since Israel launched a military offensive in the Palestinian territories Mar 29.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson, will head the mission, to leave immediately and return in time to present conclusions and recommendations before the end of this year's six-week sessions of the Commission on Human Rights, APR 26.

With the adoption of that decision, presented by Algeria on behalf of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), the Commission established the criteria - summarized by Ecuador's delegation - that this, the UN's top human rights body, cannot wait for peace before defending human rights in the occupied Palestinian territories.

The resolution approved Friday by the 53-member Commission with 44 votes in favor, two against (Canada and Guatemala) and seven abstentions, is based on the 'grave concern' of the member states about reports of 'serious, widespread and flagrant violations' of human rights.

The Robinson-led mission will coincide with the presence of the envoys from the U.S. government, who are engaged in mediation efforts that focus on the security standpoint.

Former military general Anthony Zinni, sent by US President George W. Bush, is currently in the region, and Friday met with Palestinian president Yasser Arafat at the latter's compound, home to the Palestine National Authority, where he is confined by the Israeli military.

Zinni's access to the West Bank city of Ramallah was authorized by Israel's Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who a day earlier had denied permission to the two leading foreign policy officials of the European Union (EU).

Spain's Foreign Minister Josep Piqué, who currently holds the rotating leadership of the EU Council of Ministers, and the EU's Foreign Policy Chief, Javier Solana, also a Spaniard, had to leave the Middle East without completing their mission.

The EU member countries that hold seats on the UN Commission on Human Rights were divided in their vote on whether to send the fact-finding mission to the Palestinian territories.

Britain and Germany chose to abstain, while Belgium, France, Italy, Portugal, Spain and Sweden voted in favor The remaining abstentions belonged to Armenia, Cameroon, Croatia, Czech Republic and Russia.

Bush announced Thursday that US Secretary of State Colin Powell would head to the Middle East next week, also as part of a negotiating commission.

The two Washington envoys intend to apply Bush's strategy to cool down the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, the first stage of which is laid out by the Tenet Plan, named for the director of the US Central Intelligence Agency, George Tenet. In essence, it consists of attempting to end the violence through a security agreement.

The second stage is the Mitchell Plan, after the former US Senate's majority chief, George Mitchell, and calls for negotiations oriented towards political accords.

The United States, which this year holds only observer status on the Commission for Human Rights, advised against the Robinson mission, asserting that Washington's two initiatives and the resolutions approved by the UN Security Council are sufficient for handling the Israeli-Palestinian situation.

Kevin E. Moley, head of the US delegation, suggested that the Commission on Human Rights should give up its efforts in the Middle East and concentrate instead on protecting human rights worldwide.

During the Commission's heated debate on the matter, Canada and Guatemala backed the position of the United States, and through procedural maneuvers attempted to prevent the creation of the fact-finding group that will travel to the conflict-ridden region next week.

The Canadian delegation said the appropriate UN body to respond to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is the Security Council.

Robinson said, 'I am ready in principle to head the mission,' but stressed that she would require the 'full cooperation of Israel and the Palestine Authority.'

She also stated that the trip will depend on whether security conditions will allow the mission to be carried out.

Israel has kept Arafat surrounded in his Ramallah offices and has begun to attack other West Bank cities, including Bethlehem.

Peter Hansen, director of the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), described the region's situation Friday as 'extremely serious'.

Hansen, in a telephone conversation, speaking from Jerusalem, said that in the last few hours there had been massive destruction of refugee housing, infrastructure and medical installations. He added that the suffering affects both Palestinian and Israeli citizens.

The resolution approved by the Commission on Human Rights voices concern about the violations of the right to life, the arrests and detentions of civilians, and the restrictions on freedom of movement and of press freedoms.

The Israeli military, says the resolution, uses disproportionate and indiscriminate force against the Palestinian people and their leaders.

Gustavo Capdevila, Geneva
Published by Inter Press Service © 2002 IPS

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