Global Policy Forum

Will the Human Rights Council Do Better


By Someshwar Singh

South Bulletin
February 15, 2006

Even before the new design of the United Nations human rights apparatus takes final shape, there appears to be continuing debate on a number of contentious issues. The negotiations, taking place in New York, have reached a critical stage, with the likelihood of a draft soon emerging for further consideration towards a consensus. In the following interview with the South Bulletin, Amb. Boniface Chidyausiku, the Permanent Representative of Zimbabwe to the United Nations in New York, amplifies on some of the sticking points holding up the creation of the new Human Rights body. The interview was done on 14 February, 2006.

SB: Ambassador, where are we in terms of progress with the creation of the new Human Rights Council?

Amb. Chidyausiku: We received the draft beginning of February from the co-chairs - who are the Ambassadors of South Africa and Panama. In that draft, we discussed the mandate of the Council, where developing countries have insisted that HRC should look at all human rights as indivisible. This is because there has been a tendency by some members of the UN to put more emphasis on civil and political rights. But the developing countries have stuck together and said we want to include the Right to Development which should be given equal emphasis in the mandate of the Council. We have succeeded on that in the current draft. The inclusion of the Right to Development is a key element for developing countries because you cannot talk about civil and political rights while people are refused the right to development.

SB: What are the sticking points in the current discussions that you are having in New York?

Amb. Chidyausiku: It is a whole gamut of issues being looked into. We have to look into the mandate, where the Council would be located, how often it would meet, who will be the members, the size and all that. So the resolution that is going to come out will include all these aspects – of the mandate, the size, and perhaps there will be no debate on the location as it would be Geneva.

The issue of size has been a sticking point. Developing countries, particularly the Africa Group, have insisted that we are happy with a standstill on the present number of 53 members who make up the current Human Rights Commission. But other countries want to cut down on that and make it smaller. We, for our part, have been advocating the democratization of international governance and that it should be more representational. What then is the rationale of cutting it down to 30 or 40? In the current draft, they are proposing a number of 45 (members) to which we are opposing.

Another is the issue of criteria. In fact, the US State Department is openly saying that countries like Zimbabwe, Cuba, Syria, Iran and Myanmar should not participate. But the developing countries have said that the Human Rights Council is a body of the United Nations and all 191 members of the UN have a right to serve on that body. You cannot make qualifications for the membership of that body. When you do come up with qualifications and conditionalities for membership, who would determine the qualifications? Which standards are you going to use? That is a problem which has not yet been resolved.

Then there is the issue of election methodology. The Western Group and the Americans are saying that geographic regions should not present clean-slates, and that to be elected, a country must obtain a two-thirds majority vote in the General Assembly. On the other hand, the developing countries maintain that the Human Rights Council is a subsidiary (body) of the (UN) General Assembly. There is no other body of similar nature where you require a two-thirds majority, then, why the Human Rights Council? We prefer that members should be elected by a simple majority.

SB: Are there any other issues where you do not have convergence among the members?

Amb. Chidyausiku: There is the issue of the frequency of the meetings. Some have proposed that we should meet more often than the meetings of the current Human Rights Commission. As developing countries we have maintained that we should meet as often as necessary. There is no point just meeting without knowing what is to be discussed? If, for instance, our partners could agree on giving more time to the meetings of the UN Economic and Social Council, that would be great. The Human Rights Council cannot be more important than the ECOSOC, a principle organ of the United Nations. We have resisted suggestions to make the Human Rights Council a main body of the United Nations. For now at least, the Council will be a subsidiary of the General Assembly.

SB: Who exactly wanted to get that higher status for the Human Rights Council?

Amb. Chidyausiku: The Western Group initially had proposed that the Human Rights Council become a main body of the United Nations, like the ECOSOC. But they have also realized that if they go that route, it would take longer to create such a body as that would require a charter amendment which is quite a process. Now, as a result, they have agreed that we have it as a subsidiary body of the General Assembly so that five years down the line, the issue may surface again and we could be discussing the elevation of the status again.

SB: Are there any other riders being attached to being eligible to be members of the Council?

Amb. Chidyausiku: Yes, there is the problem of eligibility for re-elections after having served two consecutive terms. The current draft does not allow an immediate re-election for a third term. Of course, there are some who say that if your region is happy with a country remaining on the Council, whose business is it then to interfere and say it should not be so? In this kind of a situation, we have quite a number of countries who feel strongly that there should be no term limits on membership of the Human Rights Council. So this arrangement would give them a problem.

SB: So who is championing this new dispensation and why?

Amb. Chidyausiku: It is in the current draft. And it is the stand of the Africa Group that there should be no third consecutive term. It was done with the aim of providing wider participation through rotation but we are open to negotiations on this to accommodate other member's concerns.

SB: What kind of support have you got on this from other Groups?

Amb. Chidyausiku: The fact that this issue is on the agenda in the current draft means that there is some support. It is a reflection of the views collated by the co-chairs and the contributions of members in the informal consultations.

SB: Are there any other facets to the eligibility question?

Amb. Chidyausiku: There is another sticking point here. Some would like to see election done with a two-thirds majority. We are maintaining that the election of members to the Human Rights Council should be done by a simple majority. But the Western Group and some others are saying that we should come up with a body that makes a difference between the Commission and the Council so that we can have credibility and that election of members must be done by two-thirds majority. One wonders how many members can get a two-thirds majority. Even the United States may not get it unless they bribe and buy and intimidate people to vote for them. Given a fair campaign, without using muscle, they may not get the two-thirds. This is why US Ambassador Bolton was saying at some stage that the Permanent Members of the Security Council must have an automatic seat on the Human Rights Council.

SB: When are these consultations supposed to end?

Amb. Chidyausiku: We are told that the co-chairs have been working on a draft and today the President of the General Assembly is meeting with the co-Chairs. They are going to discuss the draft that could be issued by the President of the Assembly to the membership upon which then there will have to be a compromise, as happened in the case of the Peace Building Commission. The idea generally is that the upcoming meeting of the Human Rights Commission in March-April this year would be the last one. Then it should be taken over by the Human Rights Council. The current members of the Commission have argued that they should be allowed to be the founding members of the Council until the end of their current mandate (of three years). That would have made for a smooth transition. Whether that succeeds remains to be seen.

SB: Why should there be such a fuss over this?

Amb. Chidyausiku: The people who have really pushed for the creation of the Human Rights Council have a specific target in mind - to keep certain countries, like Zimbabwe, Cuba and Libya away from the Council so that current members like Sudan and Zimbabwe are not given that choice.

SB: Is there unanimity amongst the developing countries on most of the contentious issues?

Amb. Chidyausiku: On major issues the developing countries are together. For instance, on including the Right to Development; from informal consultations we have had, most of us are for a bigger size of the Council (53 as is now) taking into consideration the geographical representation. Asia, for instance, has more members in the United Nations, so they should have more members in the Council, followed by Africa, then Latin America, Western European Group and then Eastern European Group. But one thing is sure. We are going to fight and are not just going to give in. If they do not pay attention to our views, this thing is not going to fly. And they are in a hurry to get the Council in place by March.

SB: But even if it is so, it should not obstruct the last regular session of the Commission?

Amb. Chidyausiku: What we are saying is let us negotiate and put into effect a good body. We do not have to rush it. But they are in a hurry to get rid of the Human Rights Commission and put in the Human Rights Council.

SB: Could you give us some background as to the initial impulses for reforming this human rights body?

Amb. Chidyausiku: It was the high level panel of experts on the UN Reforms that gave their recommendations also on the Human Rights Council. The biggest hurdle has been this: developing countries have argued that there has been so much politicization of issues in the Human Rights Commission, especially when it comes to country-specific resolutions. It is only the developing countries who are targeted by those resolutions. More than the size or the body, it is the mindset where people use double standards - where countries that have abused human rights in Iraq, Guantanamo Bay and other places have gone scot-free before the Human Rights Commission. So when Libya became Chairman of the Human Rights Commission, the United States had problems with that, just as they had objections to Zimbabwe being a member of the Commission in the light of their human rights accusations against Zimbabwe.

Because they have failed to make the Human Rights Commission an instrument of their foreign policy, they had to create a new body, which they are trying to make sure they are in control of. We have argued that the problem with the Commission was the politicization and double standards and we want a new body that will not follow the same route. If you follow the same route, you will not go anywhere. If countries manage to do cherry-picking: posing qualifications for certain countries for certain aspects while maintaining a high record of human rights abuses themselves - that does not bode well for the universality of human rights which touches on every country.

So the need for reform is part and parcel of the UN Reforms Agenda but what sparked it is the frustration faced by the Western Group over their failure to punish countries like Zimbabwe and other developing countries who have refused to play ball; and with the behaviour of developing countries generally who refused to be used to punish fellow developing countries for unsubstantiated and politicized issues of human rights. That is why they decided to change the body.

SB: So where is the guarantee that it could be simpler for the Western Group with the Council?

Amb. Chidyausiku: Exactly. This is why there is even a provision with respect to country-specific resolutions in the new Council. We have argued that for this mechanism to be used, you would need two-thirds of the membership to decide. As of now, people were coming up with country-specific resolutions as the order of the day. This should be vetted and scrutinized to make sure that the aim of such a move is not to just to punish a country because of a bilateral dispute that has nothing to do with the issue of human rights at all. Rather, such a move should be based on facts that bear out gross violation of human rights.

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