Magazine article The Middle East

See No Evil

Magazine article The Middle East

See No Evil

Article excerpt

The last time the United Nations held a summit specifically devoted to human rights was in 1968 in Tehran. Now, under pressure to bolster the safeguards it established at that meeting, it has been forced to hold another in Vienna.

In the months before the conference opened, governments began polishing up their human rights records in the vain hope of escaping embarrassing exposures about what has been going on in their name over the last 25 years.

Iran, for instance, announced three weeks before the summit began in June that it had set up a state-sanctioned human rights committee. Tunisia got in earlier, and agreed to host one of the regional preparatory meetings aimed at "guiding" the full sessions in Vienna.

At the African regional meeting in Tunis, President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali assured the other government representatives that human rights had been placed at the top of his country's political agenda as the "key values around which our style of government is built". He did not mention the 3,000 political prisoners in his jails sentenced after unfair trials, or the allegations of torture in his police stations.

Neither did any of the other delegates. When the Tunisian representatives took up the rights of women as a special theme, no-one whispered the case of Nour al Houda al Bahri, five months pregnant when she was strung up and beaten by the Tunisian police.

Delegates kept their mouths shut because they know the rules: human rights must be declared sacrosanct, but must not be dealt with specifically. Criticising the record of another country is absolutely forbidden in case it invites scrutiny of one's own.

The Middle East countries are in a particularly weak position to throw stones from their regional greenhouse. Even Algeria and Egypt, which made such progress in their human rights records a couple of years ago, have plummetted over the last 12 months. …

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