UN Economic and Social Council bans Arab human rights group - oh the irony

Without taking a vote, the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) has decided to ban the Paris-based Arab Commission for Human Rights for one year after the Algerian authorities claimed the organization invited a “known terrorist” to speak on its behalf in a Geneva meeting. ACHR dispelled the incident in an interview with MENASSAT as a “conspiracy” spearheaded by Algeria as a response to a sensitive report on torture practices and rights violations in Algeria presented by the speaker.
Rashid Mesli, a human rights lawyer at the heart of the UN ECOSOC's decision to ban the Paris-based Arab Commission for Human Rights. Algeria says he is a terrorist?

BEIRUT, July 31, 2009 (MENASSAT) —The so-called “known terrorist” which caused the Arab Commission for Human Right’s (ACHR) expulsion from the UN council is Rashid Mesli, an Algerian lawyer and human rights activist living in Switzerland in political exile for the last seven years. He fled his home country in the 1990s following persecution by the Algerian authorities after having served as a defense lawyer for members of Algeria’s now defunct Islamic Salvation Front.

Algeria put Mesli on trial on various charges, including “belonging to a terrorist group” and having "encouraged terrorism." Amnesty International said Mesli’s trial had "clearly violated international standards for a fair trial." He received a three year prison sentence for “belonging to a terrorist organization” and was then granted a presidential pardon in July 1999- one week before his sentence was to end.

Fearing for the safety of himself and his family, Mesli fled Algeria in 2000 to Geneva where he co-founded a legal rights non-governmental organization - Justitia Universalis.

When Mesli spoke before the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva last year, he apparently voiced concern over the continuation of human rights abuses in Algeria and spoke about ACHR’s new report on torture practices in Algeria.

Haytham Manna of ACHR in Paris told MENASSAT in a phone interview that his speech about the sensitive report did not go down well with the Algerian authorities.

“This report marks the first time they (torture victims in Algeria) actually speak out about their experiences using their real names. Then Mesli criticized the continuation of human rights abuses in the country. This is when the Algerian authorities revolted,” he said.

Algiers was quick to respond to Mesli’s appearance. But instead of addressing Mesli’s claims of serious human rights violations taking place in Algeria, it focused on the person delivering the speech.

“Ridiculous” claims

Mesli, the Algerian government said, has an arrest warrant issued against him for being a member of an "armed terrorist group." Interpol, they added, was also hunting him. 

Manna says the human rights lawyer was tried in absentia - a trial that right's group Amnesty International said was "flawed." And Manna strongly denounced the Algerian government’s claim that his colleague was a “terrorist”, emphasizing that Mesli was a well-known human rights activist who “wouldn’t even be able to kill a fly."

“Would Switzerland let Mesli live in the country if they believed he was a terrorist?”

Manna added, any implication that ACHR would be working with a “terrorist” was simply outrageous.

“Look, the head of our organization is a Christian woman. We have three writers in the organization who are critical of Islamic movements. I myself have written four books that speak out against Islamists. Now they accuse us of working with them. It’s ridiculous,” he said.

ACHR was founded in 1998 and is administered by around a dozen human rights lawyers based in the Arab world and in Western Europe. The organization has held consultative status with ECOSOC for eight years and is known to be a fierce critic of Israel and what it says is the “growing oppression in Arab countries."

Clouds in the sky: The UN Committee on Non-Governmental Organizations

Monday’s incident did in no way mark the first time member states of the UN’s 19-nation Committee on Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) - a standing body to ECOSOC - tried to push ACHR to the sidelines.

Manna recalled a number of instances over the years, saying that both Tunis and Israel have tried raising complaints in the past.

The suspension of ACHR’s consultative status to ECOSOC was recommended in January by the UN NGO Committee.

Geneva-based human rights group, the Al-Karama organization, for which Mesli had worked for as a legal counsel slammed the recommendation in a press statement at the time.

“Alkarama is extremely concerned at the decision taken by the Committee. It sets a dangerous precedent as it means that individual human rights defenders and NGOs could be targeted by Governments who violate human rights (as has happened in this case). Governments could undermine the work of human rights advocates, and the NGOs they work for, by presenting false and/or misleading information to the ECOSOC-NGO Committee,” stated the organization.

The group also criticized the notion that the Algerian delegation to the UN failed to address the disturbing contents of Mesli’s speech and instead only focused on the presenter.

“We also note that Algeria does not raise concerns about the content of Mesli's oral statement to the Human Rights Council on 10.6.2008, (which contained well-documented concerns of serious human rights violations in Algeria), but rather who it was presented by, thereby showing this complaint is motivated by reasons other than the appropriate conduct of NGOs in the Human Rights Council,” it said.

Official word on the matter?

MENASSAT tried to contact ECOSOC and the UN headquarters for a comment on the ACHR’s expulsion from the council but was not granted access to a spokesman.

Instead, it was referred to notes from a Monday press briefing where questions were posed on the barring of ACHR and the Dynamic World Christian Mission (banned under on a complaint by China).

This is what the UN had to say about the matter through an associate spokesperson:  “I don’t have any particular comment about those decisions, which are, as you know, decisions taken by Member States. The Member States in ECOSOC have the power to take decisions about consultative status.  At the same time, yes, you’re right; we do urge as wide and as broad an inclusion of civil society as possible."

Western countries claim the UN’s Committee on Non-Governmental Organizations has stepped up action in recent years to keep out genuine human rights groups. Manna said Israel, Cuba, and China were among those voting for ACHR’s expulsion.

Manna referred to the incident as a “conspiracy” spearheaded by Algeria while reassuring that his organization will continue to work with the UN council. ACHR’s expulsion from the ECOSOC, he added, is strictly of an “administrative” nature.

Most importantly, says Manna, ACHR’s shutout from ECOSOC demonstrates that the group is doing good work. As a long time human rights activist, Manna says he has received several awards for his activist work. But this incident, he emphasized, symbolized the ultimate award for the organization.

“Its a medal of honor for us. This proves that we are doing good work against dictators,” he concluded.

Algeria has in the past moved to silence human rights organizations. In a 1997 incident, the then Algerian Ambassador to the UN made a public complaint about Amnesty International due to its reporting of massive human rights violations in Algeria, and advised that Amnesty International should be stripped of its ECOSOC consultative status.

The suspension of ACHR’s consultative status to the UN strips it from its right to speak in UN bodies and bars it from the UN’s Human Rights Council, it’s main UN focus.