Recent columns by Barbara Crossette:

UNICEF in the Crosshairs (September 2, 2003)
"The Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute, noting the appearance of frank educational materials about sex in UNICEF-supported programs and a greater emphasis on the education of girls ... worries that 'UNICEF has moved beyond simple, and universally acceptable, programs.'"

The Wrong Kind of American Exceptionalism (August 18, 2003)
"The Europeans are powerful enough to stand down the United States, but many other countries are not. They are left to fight lonely battles against a punitive American government that has already suspended military aid to several dozen countries."

Bush Close to Backing $1 Billion Loan to U.N. (August 11, 2003)
"U.N. headquarters was built for an organization of about 50 members. It now has 191 member nations. In some offices, there is barely room to push back a desk chair without hitting the next desk."

Equal Rights For Homosexuals Contentious at U.N. (August 6, 2003)
"Gay U.N. employees say that the organization not only will not recognize long-term relationships in providing benefits but also does not help a gay partner get a visa to accompany an employee to a new posting."

Ahead of Information Summit, U.N. Should Examine Itself (July 28, 2003)
"At headquarters, information specialists are constrained by the refusal of member nations to invest in bringing the United Nations fully into the age of electronic media."

More from U.N. Notebook.

U.N. Notebook | September 8, 2003
from U. N. Wire Human Rights at U.N. Obscured by the Shadow of Politics

by Barbara Crossette

UNITED NATIONS—It is never hard to find critics of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights. The question is whether the criticisms are too often directed at passing outrages like Libya being elected to the commission's chair only months before accepting responsibility for the 270 deaths in the terrorist bombing of Pan Am 103. Often deeper, more persistent faults are missed, or deliberately overlooked. There is, for example, the perennial failure to recognize, not to mention condemn, abuses of such a magnitude that they should be impossible to miss.

Like so much about the United Nations, the commission is nothing but a hollow shell filled by countries, by governments. Politics quickly becomes the determining factor when agenda items are proposed—or not. Thus the decision every year about whether to put China in the spotlight—it escaped this year—is decided not on the merits of the Chinese government's human rights record but on whether or not Europe and the United States can agree to bring abuses to the commission's public attention.

In years when China was on the agenda, Beijing was almost always successful at rounding up enough countries to vote for a "no action" motion—an inventive piece of diplomatic skullduggery that kills debate before it can begin.

The issue of missing agenda items is relevant now because of the quiet appearance in the United States of a new book-length report, Reduced to Ashes: The Insurgency and Human Rights in Punjab. That's Indian Punjab, not the Pakistani counterpart, from which we hear frequently about "honor" killings of women, the abuse of child laborers or sectarian killings. In India, the state of Punjab was the scene of a rebellion in the 1980s by Sikhs, a religion whose followers produced both exemplary military leaders and the green revolution.

The story of how the Sikhs became disaffected with India's central government is long and complex. It is told succinctly in Reduced to Ashes, published by the South Asian Forum for Human Rights in Kathmandu, Nepal. Suffice it to say that by 1984, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi sent the Indian army into Sikhdom's holiest shrine, the Golden Temple in Amritsar, to root out armed Sikh militants. It was a fatal move. Four months later, she was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards.

Those of us who were in New Delhi in the days that followed her death can never forget the terror that reigned as Sikhs were massacred in marked neighborhoods across the city. I saw charred bodies in ditches, a Sikh scalped and left to die on a train at Old Delhi station, where other bodies were lined up on platforms, and Sikh families everywhere sick with fear, cowering in their homes or Sikh-owned businesses. This was not primarily a religious pogrom. Most people then and now saw it as politically motivated, with henchmen from the assassinated prime minister's Congress Party leading the charge. No politician of real importance was ever called to account, however. One of them, P.V. Narasimha Rao, who was the home minister in charge of the ineffectual police, went on to become prime minister in 1991.

In more than 17 years of the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile, 2,095 killings and deaths under torture were recorded, with another 1,100 "disappeared" people who are also thought to have died, according to the Chilean truth and reconciliation commission. In India, human rights activists and journalists estimate (and have largely documented) that in the three days after Gandhi's assassination on Oct. 31, 1984, about 3,000 Sikhs were slaughtered in the Indian capital and other cities. In the decade that followed, according to India's own Central Bureau of Investigation, another 2,097 bodies were "illegally" (that is, without proper documentation) cremated in and around Amritsar by the police or other officials. Sikhs see them as more victims of the Indian state, murdered outright or killed in shady circumstances or faked "encounters" with the police or military and then hurriedly burned. Thus the title of the new report, Reduced to Ashes.

India is a democracy, and so Indian human rights activists, among them the chief author of this book of documentation, Ram Narayan Kumar, could get access to public records, and were able to press the case for accountability all the way to the Indian Supreme Court, though no high-level charges have been filed against those in charge in Punjab. Governments at several levels are still stonewalling. It is hard to imagine this happening in any other functioning democracy.

Never in the course of almost two decades has the Indian government's attempt to annihilate troublesome Sikhs been the subject of debate at the U.N. Commission on Human Rights. No nation wants to take on India, particularly countries with economic stakes in its vast market. Now the United States wants Indian troops to play a major role in security in Iraq as it struggles to create a fragile democracy.

Jaskaran Kaur, an American graduate of Harvard Law School who, through the Harvard human rights program, assisted Kumar and his team in their research and is working on a book of her own, said that Sikhs, now armed with this published report, will try again to get world attention. Kaur predicted that they would skirt the commission and work instead through the U.N. system of independent human rights investigators, whose credibility is high.

"We want to bring the report to the relevant special rapporteurs, such as the rapporteur for extrajudicial executions, the independent expert on disappearances and the rapporteur on human rights defenders," she said. Human Rights Watch has publicized the report, and in India the Association of Families of the Disappeared in Punjab has formed to put pressure on authorities.

Around the world, there are, sadly, other cases of neglect like this. Only recently have powerful nations, especially the United States, been interested in condemning the 1988 gassing of thousands of Kurds in Iraq by Saddam Hussein's regime. Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, has long argued that repeated calls for attention by human rights groups were ignored or brushed aside by governments at the time. Hill people—the Montagnards—in Vietnam's Central Highlands, who say that their lands are being seized and they have been imprisoned, have begged for years for international attention. The murderous record of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, a rebel army in Sri Lanka that introduced large-scale suicide bombing to South Asia, has only recently been rigorously condemned, but mostly outside the U.N. system.

Peter G. Danchin, director of the human rights program at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs, wrote a summary of what the Commission on Human Rights accomplished in 2003 for a new book, Global Agenda: Issues before the 58th General Assembly of the United Nations, 2003-2004, a useful guide published every year by the United Nations Association of the United States. Danchin wrote that this year, Russia, Zimbabwe and Sudan escaped even toned-down censure as the United States held back from leadership on these and other issues. Iran got no attention because a monitor designated to report on the country had been barred for so long that the investigation was dropped.

Meanwhile, nations that Human Rights Watch labels an "abusers' club" are gaining in numbers and power as a see-no-evil voting bloc in the 53-member commission. Human Rights Watch lists only a handful of countries (among them Canada and Mexico, leaving a big hole in between) that act out of principle and not political expediency.

The moment is rapidly approaching when the commission, one of the oldest bodies in the U.N. system, will have no credibility at all. It seems that the only serious, honest jobs are being done by the rapporteurs concentrating on certain nations or specific abuses and the U.N. Human Rights Committee, an independent body of experts created to track compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights since 1977. The committee can hear individual complaints.

That makes these monitors the last and only hope of people like those families in Indian Punjab still waiting for their story to be told, said Jaskaran Kaur. "We are slowly learning who to approach and how," she says.

There is a tragic footnote to this story. The U.N. high commissioner for human rights does not control the Commission on Human Rights. But his or her moral influence might make a difference. Sergio Vieira de Mello, who was on temporary leave as high commissioner when he was killed so senselessly in Baghdad, had begun to show signs of trying to invigorate the system. It will be very hard to find someone with his personal authority and persuasive power to carry on that task.

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More on foreign affairs in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.

Barbara Crossette, a writer on foreign affairs and columnist for U.N. Wire, was The New York Times bureau chief at the United Nations from 1994 to 2001. U.N. Wire is a free daily online news service covering news about and related to the United Nations. It is sponsored by the U.N. Foundation and appears on the foundation site, but is produced independently by The National Journal Group. For information on National Journal Group publications, see

Copyright © 2003 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.