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High commissioner bows out after low-key diplomacy

March 14, 1997

GENEVA (AP) _ The U.N. human rights chief bowed out Friday after three years of low-key lobbying, leaving the path clear for a more vocal champion of the world’s oppressed.

Amid polite applause and tributes, Jose Ayala Lasso left the U.N. stage to return to his native Ecuador and the job of foreign minister.

The High Commissioner’s post was created in 1994 at the insistence of the United States and Western nations to give human rights a higher profile.

From the outset, Ayala Lasso went out of his way to appease developing countries, many of whom feared Western ideas of democracy would be imposed on them.

The race to become the new U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights is wide open.

Irish President Mary Robinson, former Philippines president Corazon Aquino, Costa Rican diplomat Sonia Picado and Palestinian peace negotiator Hanan Ashrawi are just a few of the names mentioned in U.N. corridors.

Mrs. Robinson announced Wednesday she would not serve a second term as Ireland’s president and was interested in the high commissioner’s post.

In a bid to keep the prestigious post in their region, Latin American countries have united behind Picado, Costa Rica’s ambassador to the United States and an expert in human rights.

There are several African possibilities, including the respected U.N. investigator on summary executions, Wally Bacre Ndiaye of Senegal.

Amnesty International’s Andrew Clapham said the job requires someone experienced and able to confront governments.

``It’s important that governments fear the High Commissioner. If they have nothing to fear there’s no leverage,″ he said in an interview.

Lasso rarely criticized governments publicly, maintaining this would only backfire. The approach won him friends among some nations, including China.

``He made a useful contribution to international cooperation in the field of human rights. He favors cooperation and dialogue not confrontation,″ Chinese ambassador Wu Jianmin said in a speech before the U.N. Human Rights Commission.

In their farewell tributes, Western diplomats glossed over the frustration they often felt at Ayala Lasso’s quiet approach.

``Quiet diplomacy will remain intimately connected with your name,″ said German ambassador Wilhelm Hoeynck.

``You worked tirelessly to promote and protect human rights around the world. You have established a fine precedent for your successor,″ said U.S. delegate Leslie Gerson.

At least for the moment, the United States and Europe are not lobbying for a candidate, fearing this will only be counter-productive among developing countries.

The ultimate choice lies with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and the General Assembly. In the meantime, U.N. diplomat Ralph Zacklin is the acting human rights chief.

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