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Annan Taps Brazilian for Top Rights Post

U.N.: Sergio Vieira de Mello's closed-door diplomacy style is a contrast to the strong criticism of current chief Mary Robinson.


UNITED NATIONS — A career U.N. diplomat from Brazil will be named the U.N. human rights chief today, replacing Mary Robinson, the outspoken former Irish president who rankled the United States with her persistent questioning of its counter-terrorism tactics and angered China and Russia by condemning their suppression of separatists.

The nomination of Sergio Vieira de Mello, a 54-year-old Brazilian who has served in a succession of U.N. posts for the past 33 years, was announced by Secretary-General Kofi Annan on Monday and scheduled to be approved by the General Assembly today. Robinson agreed to step down after five years as the U.N. high commissioner for human rights when Annan and the Security Council powers made clear they did not support her belated effort to have her term extended until 2005.

Though Robinson announced her resignation herself, she acknowledged in an interview last week that her departure is not entirely voluntary.

"I felt that if I were strongly urged to do so, it would be difficult not to accept to stay on," Robinson said during a visit here. "But I was also aware that there were certain resistances. And my philosophy has been that I came in to do a job, not to keep a job."

The Bush administration, which kept its diplomatic distance as several Asian and East European candidates vied for the position, was pleased by Vieira de Mello's appointment, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Monday.

"Our position has basically been that anybody would be an improvement," a State Department official who asked not be named said earlier this month.

Though respected by peers for his skillful performance as head of the recent U.N. missions in East Timor and Kosovo, Vieira de Mello is not expected to undertake the high-profile campaigning that made Robinson a heroine in international human rights circles but a target for governments irked by her often caustic criticism. Like Annan himself, Vieira de Mello is known for quiet but effective closed-door diplomacy, and has been seen as a potential candidate for the secretary-general's job after Annan retires.

"[Vieira] de Mello brings to the job an impressive diplomatic and U.N. background, but he lacks hands-on human rights experience," said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. "The challenge he faces is to prove that he will stand up to governments and be a clear and resounding voice on behalf of the victims of human rights abuse."

The Bush administration had already soured on Robinson a year ago, during the U.N. conference on racism in Durban, South Africa, which she chaired. The administration held her responsible for an agenda that became dominated by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with criticism of Israel that in some instances verged, some complained, on being anti-Semitic. Despite what she says was her effort to purge conference documents of "offensive content," the U.S. and Israeli delegations walked out of the meeting.

Robinson has also spoken out against the death penalty in the United States and the U.S. rejection of several international treaties backed by human rights advocates, most notably that establishing the International Criminal Court.

But it is her insistent questioning of aspects of the war on terrorism after Sept. 11 that has won her the lasting enmity of officials in Washington, U.S. diplomats and human rights advocates concur. Robinson has repeatedly criticized the United States for the detention of Afghan war prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba; for civilian casualties from the air war in Afghanistan; and for the creation of special military tribunals for the prosecution of accused terrorists.

On Friday, after returning to her Geneva headquarters, Robinson again decried "an erosion of civil liberties in the name of combating terrorism," charging that repressive governments are defending their own conduct by pointing to the interrogation and detention without charges of Muslim immigrants in the United States and Europe.

"We're getting reports from human rights defenders, trade unionists, journalists around the world that measures are being taken by countries saying that they're combating terrorism but are in fact clamping down on political opposition and freedom of the press, branding activities as being terrorist which were not so described before the 11th of September," she said.

When Robinson was appointed in 1997, she set out to do the kinds of things the United Nations had expected her to do. In Guatemala and Colombia, she called for the prosecution of death squad organizers, both past and present. In Sierra Leone, she pushed for public trials--now getting underway--of officers and politicians responsible for massacres and other atrocities.

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