NEW YORK — Is Freedom House, a highly regarded human rights group that monitors religious freedom around the globe, really a spy group intent on subverting foreign governments?

That was the charge brought by the permanent representative of Cuba to the United Nations when the Committee on Non-Governmental Organizations considered Freedom House's U.N. status on May 14. The Cuban government's representative accused Freedom House of being “a machinery of subversion, closer to an intelligence service than an NGO,” doing the foreign-policy dirty work of the United States.

Cuba charged that Freedom House had given money to outlawed groups in Cuba and organized “subversive activities.” The group was also accused of naming members of terrorist organizations as its members, a charge Freedom House denied.

Cuba joined a roster of countries, known for their infringements of religious freedom, that lined up to challenge Freedom House's application for U.N. accreditation. China objected to the fact that Freedom House lists Taiwan as an independent nation. China claims that Taiwan is a province of the mainland.

Sudan, meanwhile, decried what it called “the arrogance of Freedom House,” and Russia accused the organization of “Russiaphobia.”

In recent years, such complaints have become more common, and with the recent ouster of the United States from the U.N. Human Rights Commission, many U.N.-watchers expect intensified pressure to exclude human rights groups from U.N. NGO status. Such status facilitates participation in U.N.-sponsored negotiations.

Several groups have already been targeted. The groups include Freedom House, the Baptist World Alliance, the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the Family Research Council. The Family Research Council recently saw its application to the U.N. deferred for the third time.

Joanna Wechsler, the United Nations representative of Human Rights Watch, said, “The U.N. Human Rights Commission is the only place where you can actually see a victim of human rights violations directly address the country that abused them.” At meetings in the general assembly hall, “the actual victims or the witnesses” can speak to representatives of repressive governments.

That's the kind of attention China, Cuba and Sudan can do without. So those countries joined with several other countries on a 19-nation subcommittee of the U.N. Economic and Social Council, known as ECOSOC, to make it harder for human rights groups to get into the U.N. ECOSOC is the group that voted in early May not to include the United States on the Human Rights Commission.

The recent spate of challenges to human rights groups began in 1999, when Sudan won a challenge to Christian Solidarity International. The Swiss-based group drew Sudan's ire for denouncing the enslavement of Sudanese Christians and animists, a slave trade the government has studiously ignored as it has waged a brutal 18-year civil war against the mainly animist and Christian southern regions of the country.

Sudan persuaded the subcommittee to remove Christian Solidarity International's U.N. accreditation.

Procedure or Prejudice?

Most of the countries cite procedural errors by human rights groups as the basis for their complaints. For example, Freedom House is under scrutiny for its unauthorized use of a translator at one of its presentations.

“This started in around May of 2000,” said Michael Goldfarb, a spokesman for Freedom House. “China and Cuba presented complaints alleging technical violations of protocol. The Chinese complaint centered on what they claimed was improperly obtaining translation services for a panel we held.”

But, Goldfarb said, “We bend over backwards to make sure we're in compliance with all the rules.” And while he acknowledged that Freedom House had committed a technical violation by using the translator, he said that the group had asked permission from the U.N. and had been erroneously informed by officials that the translator was acceptable.

As for Cuba, he said, the government accused some people affiliated with Freedom House of being “anti-revolutionaries who are working to subvert the revolution and disrupt social order.” Goldfarb decried the charges as an attempt to “remove a voice that's championing the cause of human rights within the U.N.”

Summed up Goldfarb, “There does appear to be a climate of clamping down on voices for human rights.”

Wechsler agreed. She said that although complaints against nongovernmental organizations are “very rare,” they are on the rise, “and these complaints almost invariably come out of the commission on human rights.” Human Rights Watch was turned down the first time it applied, but eventually gained accreditation.

Goldfarb suggested that the United States’ rejection from the Human Rights Commission might have “emboldened” countries who now feel “that they can go after some American-based NGOs.”

Wechsler, however, saw the rejection of the United States as a separate issue, due to resentment of the United States’ refusal to sign several U.N. treaties, such as an anti-landmine treaty and a proposal to ban the death penalty.

Freedom House's application won't come to a vote until January. Goldfarb said the group has “received strong support from the United States” delegation.

The Family Research Council has gotten support from Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., and Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J. The pro-family group is under attack from China due to its stances opposing establishing Permanent Normal Trade Relations with China, religious repression, and China's harsh population control policies. It also irked Russia by writing about that country's declining religious freedom.

Bob Maginnis, the Family Research Council's vice president for policy, said that the group would “continue working through someone else's good graces” despite the U.N. committee's rejection.

“We're not going to be silent,” Maginnis vowed. “If silence is what it takes to become an NGO, I don't think we'll ever be an NGO.”