Annan urges UNHRC to act on Darfur

GENEVA (AP) — UN Secretary General Kofi Annan urged the United Nations’ human rights watchdog on Monday to focus its attention on Sudan’s war-ravaged region of Darfur, even as Muslim states demanded the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) address the Pope’s recent comments on Islam and alleged Israeli rights violations.

“Do not disappoint the hopes of humanity,” Annan told the 47-nation body in a speech read out by UN human rights chief Louise Arbour, pressing for urgent action on Darfur.

Annan’s statement — read to open this year’s second session of the Geneva-based council, which replaced in June the discredited UN Human Rights Commission — said that Darfur deserved the same diligence as that given to the Middle East, where the council has already twice condemned Israeli rights violations in Gaza and Lebanon.

Such selectivity has drawn criticism from Israel and the United States — both only observers to the council — and other Western nations. Advocacy groups also have clamoured for greater action on other cases of alleged rights abuses.

“At the present time I feel I must draw your attention especially to those [violations] to which the people of Darfur are being subjected and which threaten to get even worse in the near future,” Annan’s statement said. “I trust you will focus the same vigilance on violations and abuses wherever they may occur.” At least 200,000 people have died and more than 2 million people have been displaced in the Darfur conflict, which began in early 2003 when ethnic African tribes revolted against the Khartoum government. The government is accused of unleashing Arab militiamen blamed for rapes and killings. Despite a May peace agreement, aid workers and rights groups say the violence has increased in recent months.

Arbour, the UN high commissioner for human rights, offered an even stronger account of the need for action in Darfur, where she said rapes and other abuses were increasing.

“Despite the peace agreement, violations of human rights are perpetrated on a large scale by government forces and their associated militia, as well as by rebel groups,” she said. “Combatants routinely make a mockery of the principles of international humanitarian law — not only are armed groups failing to discriminate between civilians and combatants, they specifically target civilians who are from tribes and groups perceived as hostile.” While Western countries like Canada, Finland and Switzerland also mentioned Darfur rights abuses, the 57-nation Organisation of the Islamic Conference focussed its criticism on Pope Benedict for his remarks on Islam and asked that religious tolerance be addressed at the council’s current session,  which    runs    until  October 6.

Anger has been intense in Muslim lands since the Pope’s speech last week that characterised some of the teachings of Islam’s founder as “evil and inhuman” and referred to spreading Islam “by the sword.” Churches have been set on fire in the West Bank and there has been concern the furore sparked the shooting death of an Italian missionary nun in Somalia.

“The statement was regrettable as it showed lack of understanding, albeit inadvertent, about Islam and the Prophet,” Masood Khan, Pakistan’s UN ambassador, said on behalf of the conference. “Such a tendency also threatens deeper alienation between the West and the world of Islam and hurts the ongoing efforts to promote dialogue and harmony amongst religions.” Monsignor Silvano Tomasi, the Holy See’s representative to the UN in Geneva, told the council that Benedict’s speech “should be read in its entirety” and criticised inflammatory headlines in the media misrepresenting the pontiff.

Both Khan and Palestinian delegate Mohammad Abu-Koash also urged the council to focus attention again on Israel’s human rights record, which has taken up much of the rights body’s three-month existence. In October, it will hear from four UN rights experts who were sent to Israel and Lebanon to investigate alleged atrocities committed during the Israel-Hizbollah war.

The replaced commission came to be discredited because it admitted countries with poor human rights records — such as Sudan, Libya, Zimbabwe and Cuba — who tried to shield each other from censure.

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