Archbishop backs United Nations human rights council

By Ecumenical News International
23 Jun 2007

Despite misgivings from different sides about the impartiality of the United Nation's Human Rights Council, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu says he hopes the body that is supposed to be an international human rights watchdog will gain in credibility - writes Peter Kenny.

"We hope this body will enhance its credibility in their apparent recognising of the universality of human rights," said Tutu, the former Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town.

Tutu was speaking at a media conference in Geneva on 13 June. He was in the city to present a report to the Human Rights Council following a UN fact-finding mission he headed to investigate the killing of 19 Palestinian civilians by Israeli shells in the Gaza strip in November 2006.

The United States has accused the council, inaugurated in 2006, of having a "singular focus" on Israel. US officials have said the real test for the UN human rights body will be whether it can take effective action in serious cases of human rights abuse, such as in Darfur, Myanmar (Burma) or North Korea.

Tutu said he hoped the UN council "will act on Darfur as it seems to be constructing a momentum there". This region in western Sudan is the scene of a conflict between government-backed militias and rebel groups that has led to the deaths of tens of thousands of people.

In the report on the deaths of the Palestinians, Tutu and British law professor Christine Chinkin, who was on his team, said there should be an international investigation of the Israeli shelling of the town of Beit Hanoun, which led to the deaths of the civilians.

"Regardless of whether the casualties at Beit Hanoun were caused by a mistake, recklessness, criminal negligence or were wilful, those responsible must be held accountable," Tutu said in his report.

Both Israeli and Palestinian leaders should ensure "accountability for crimes, human rights violations and violations of international humanitarian law", Tutu said.

"We have a passionate commitment to see a horrendous situation end. We care immensely for both groups of people," the archbishop added.

Tutu was asked during his media conference if he thought current fierce fighting between the Hamas and Fatah groups of Palestinians was looking like a civil war. He noted it was a desperate situation but he had some understanding from his experience in South Africa of how it could come about.

"When you are oppressed, it is so very easy to turn on yourselves," Tutu explained. "At home, we had horrendous instances of internecine conflict. And you would say, 'For goodness sake, do we not realize that it is, in fact, playing into the hand [of others].'"

Tutu's report on the Beit Hanoun shelling was based on interviews undertaken outside Gaza because the Israeli government, although it apologised about the incident, refused entry visas for the mission called for by the 47-member human rights council. Israel said the mandate was biased and did not consider rocket attacks from Gaza on Israeli towns.

Former Canadian justice minister Irwin Cotler had told the council on 13 June he refused to be a member of Tutu's group, not because of the archbishop but because its mandate did not allow a "a fair and equitable assessment".

Tutu's report noted a lack of accountability for those firing rockets into Israel, as well as for the civilian deaths caused by Israeli forces in Gaza that had "resulted in a culture of impunity on both sides".

[With grateful acknowledgements to ENI. Ecumenical News International is jointly sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, and the Conference of European Churches]

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