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Top UN Official Accuses Burma of Obstructing Aid

By Lisa Schlein
02 June 2008

The U.N.'s top human rights official, Louise Arbour, has lashed out at Burmese authorities for obstructing aid to victims of Cyclone Nargis. Arbour called into question Burma's rights record in her final address to the U.N. Human Rights Council. Lisa Schlein reports for VOA from Geneva that Arbour is leaving her post as High Commissioner for Human Rights at the end of the month.

Louise Arbour drew attention to the natural disasters in China and Burma, also known as Myanmar. She conveyed her condolences to the millions of victims of the earthquake that struck China and the powerful cyclone that ravaged parts of Burma.

The High Commissioner condemned Burma's apathetic response to Cyclone Nargis. She also said part of the blame can be placed on the international community for keeping silent in the face of the Burmese government's human rights abuses.

She acknowledged that no government would ever be fully ready to respond to all the needs of its population in the face of such catastrophic events,. Therefore, she said international assistance was crucial.

"It is the right of victims to expect such assistance and it is the duty of governments and the international community to do everything in their power to facilitate it," she said. "In the case of Myanmar, the obstruction to the deployment of such assistance illustrates the invidious effects of long-standing international tolerance for human rights violations that make this obstruction possible."

The United Nations estimates two-and -one half million people have been affected by Cyclone Nargis, which hit Burma on May 2. In the aftermath of this disaster, the country's military rulers refused to accept most foreign aid and refused to grant visas to the experts needed to coordinate a vast humanitarian operation.

The generals have eased their stance in the last few days. But, the United Nations reports one-quarter of a million cyclone survivors have still not received international assistance.

In contrast, the High Commissioner commended the government of South Africa for taking action to protect the foreign migrants who came under recent attack. She praised the government's decision not to deport the migrants.

But, she had sharp words for the increasingly hard-line anti-immigration policies being enacted in Europe. She was particularly critical of the Italian government of Silvio Berlusconi.

"In Europe, repressive policies, as well as xenophobic and intolerant attitudes, against irregular immigration and unwanted minorities is also of grave concern," she said. "Examples of these policies and attitudes are represented by the recent decision of the Government of Italy to criminalize illegal immigration and by the recent attacks against Roma settlements in Naples and Milan."

Arbour warned delegates to the U.N. Human Rights Council against pursuing narrow parochial political agendas. She cautioned that skepticism about the Council as a champion of human rights has not been fully dispelled. She said the U.N. body was in danger of losing its reputation as the protector of human rights for the sake of achieving consensus.

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