Tempers Flare at U.N. Human Rights Council As Speaker Criticizes Cuba and Aspiring Member Venezuela
Former Venezuelan political prisoner Eligio Cedeno, left, U.N. Watch director Hillel Neuer and Human Rights Foundation president Thor Halvorssen in Geneva. (Photo: U.N. Watch)
A visibly angry Cuban delegate reacted after the speaker – a Venezuelan-born human rights activist – questioned the appropriateness of President Hugo Chavez' regime seeking a seat on the Geneva-based HRC in elections due later this year.
Venezuela and Pakistan are among countries preparing to contest seats on the council, when term limits will see some of its most controversial current members, including Cuba, Saudi Arabia, China and Russia, step down.
Speaking during a segment of the meeting dedicated to input from non-governmental organizations (NGOs), Human Rights Foundation head Thor Halvorssen told the council that his mother had been shot by Venezuelan security forces in 2004.
"Through the Human Rights Foundation, which I founded and direct, I have carefully monitored the Venezuelan state and have established that its current government is among Latin America's worst human rights violators," he said.
Halvorssen went on to allege abuses faced by political opponents and media critics of the government, charging that more than 150,000 people had been killed since Chavez became president in 1999.
"Despite all of this, Venezuela is now seeking election to this council," he said, recalling that the U.N. resolution establishing the HRC in 2006 called for members to be those countries that "uphold the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights."
"To elect Venezuela would shame and embarrass this council, and would allow Venezuela to shield its horrendous record of abuse."
Venezuela's presence would also, he said, "validate other authoritarian governments such as Syria, Iran, and one that disgracefully sits on this council – Cuba." As he said this, Halvorssen pointed in the direction of the Cuban delegation.
Cuban envoy Juan Antonio Quintanilla Roman jumped up, gesticulating and knocking his chair over in the process, as he demanded that the session's chairman, Gulnara Iskakova of Kyrgyzstan, interrupt the proceedings. When she did several moments later, Roman upbraided her for not having done so immediately.
Roman then turned on Halvorssen.
"The speaker is out of line," he said. "It is possible to refer to human rights situations in this council, but one cannot question under any context the aspirations or hopes of states to become members of the Human Rights Council.
"If you wish to refer to what you allege or believe to be a human rights violation you may do so but you cannot say that my country hasn't the right to be a member of this Human Rights Council."
He demanded that Halvorssen's statement be struck from the record.
A United States representative took the floor next, saying the U.S. "firmly believes that accredited NGOs must be permitted to speak in this council."
"Though member states, including ourselves, may occasionally disagree with the content of their statements, it is essential that civil society voices be heard here in an atmosphere of open expression," he said, urging Iskakova to ensure that Halvorssen's statement was reflected on the record of the meeting.
China's envoy said that NGO representatives "are not entitled to challenge the right of a country to become a member of the council."
Halvorssen resumed his statement: "In December, four authoritarian governments – China, Cuba, Saudi Arabia and Russia – will step down. You have a golden opportunity –
"Time is up," Iskakova interrupted, preventing him from finishing the last two sentences of his text. (According to the prepared version, he had intended to say, "You have a golden opportunity to prevent more human rights violators from soiling this council. Please block Venezuela's bid and uphold your own standards.")
Cuba's Roman again called for the floor, and demanded that the NGO "abstain from using disrespectful terms such as 'authoritarian regimes.' We do not recognize this NGO but we will not permit them to use this kind of language in this forum."
China's envoy agreed, asking how Halvorssen "has the right to point a finger at any country which is a member of the council, or which wishes to become a member."
The Russian and Pakistani delegates also supported Cuba's position.
Later during the session, former Venezuelan political prisoner Eligio Cedeno addressed the chamber, speaking on behalf of the Geneva-based NGO, U.N. Watch.
Cedeno told the HRC he had spent almost three years detained with trial for providing financial support to the Venezuelan political opposition.
"Following a recommendation of this organization, the United Nations, I was freed by Venezuelan Judge Maria Lourdes Afiuni," he said. "That same day she was arrested."
Cedeno said Chavez had gone on television to call the judge a "bandit" and had demanded of judicial authorities that she face the maximum penalty, 30 years' imprisonment.
"Since then, Judge Afiuni has for two years and six months been in prison and under house arrest."
Cedeno said it would be immoral to allow Venezuela to become a member of the HRC if its government did not change its behavior.
Venezuela's envoy later accused the U.S. and "its lackeys" of trying to smear the country.
"Who can give credence to what is stated by the American government or its lackeys – the words of those who are undeniably the worst culprits when it comes to violation of human rights?" he asked.
"Today was a rare moment at the U.N.," UN Watch director Hillel Neuer said afterwards. "We succeeded in putting Chavez – who throws independent judges in jail and persecutes student activists – on the defensive."