WASHINGTON – The annual meeting of the U.N. Human Rights Commission (search) opens on Monday in Geneva with the United States prepared confront critics ready to highlight the abuses by U.S. military personnel of Iraqi, Afghan and other prisoners.
In previous years, the United States has been free to focus on the rights shortcomings of other countries at commission meetings. But continuing disclosures about prisoner mistreatment dating back to last spring have required the administration to adopt a defensive strategy for the upcoming seven-week conclave.
As part of a damage control plan, U.S. delegates have devised a pro-active approach for the meeting. They will point to American efforts to hold accountable those responsible for behavior that the administration acknowledges has been reprehensible, U.S. officials say.
The scandals have triggered a spate of investigations and some low-level personnel have been punished. But thus far, senior military officers and civilian Pentagon officials have escaped blame. The U.S. team in Geneva will be led by former Republican Sen. Rudy Boschwitz (search).
The 53-nation meeting is taking place against a background of deep U.S. frustration with the commission, principally the result of an absence of standards for admission to the body. More than a third of the countries on the commission are led by undemocratic governments and two — Cuba and Zimbabwe — were among six countries listed by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice (search) as "outposts of tyranny."
Officials say the blame lies not with the United Nations but with particular U.N. members. Latin American countries selected Cuba to be on the commission, over U.S. objections. Zimbabwe was chosen by African countries.
"Only by reclaiming its role of exposing governments that systematically abuse human rights, and establishing measures to redress those situations, can the commission re-establish its relevance," the New York-based Human Rights Watch (search) said in a statement.
Earlier this year, Cuba and Zimbabwe served on a five-nation working group assigned to set part of the agenda for this year's meeting.
Cuba tried to get fellow working group members to get the U.S. prisoner abuse scandal on the agenda but the effort fell short by a 3-1 vote, with Zimbabwe abstaining. This, however, will not prevent that issue from being aired during the commission's deliberations.
The State Department reacted sharply in February to the appointment of Cuba and Zimbabwe to the working group.
"The United States believes that countries that routinely and systematically violate the rights of their citizens should not be selected to review the human rights performance of other countries," it said.
Cuban Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque raised the possibility last week that Cuba will introduce a resolution at the commission condemning the United States for prisoner mistreatment. For their part, U.S. delegates in Geneva are expected to introduce an anti-Cuba resolution. No U.S. decision has been made on a China resolution, although such resolutions have been almost routine in recent years.
Cuba maintains it has an exemplary rights performance, pointing to its record in providing health care and universal education to its citizens. China insists that economic development must transcend all other considerations such as Western human rights concerns.
Last May, when the U.N. voted to keep Sudan on the commission, U.S. Ambassador Sichan Siv expressed outrage, citing ethnic cleansing of black African farmers in Sudan's Darfur province.
But the Abu Ghraib scandal, which had exploded into public view just a week earlier, served as a handy riposte for Sudan's deputy U.N. Ambassador Omar Bashir Manis. He deplored the degrading treatment inflicted on Iraqi prisoners by U.S. military personnel.
Former Secretary of State Colin Powell later classified the abuses committed in Darfur as "genocide." More recently a U.N. Commission of Inquiry on Darfur said the violations there likely "constitute war crimes and crimes against humanity."
Sudanese Minister of Justice Ali Mohamed Osman Yassin will lead his country's delegation to the Geneva meeting. He is prepared to defend Sudan's record in Darfur.