Global Policy Forum

The Final Session


By Howard Glenn

OnLine Opinion
March 31, 2006

On March 27, 2006, at 5.30pm Geneva time (2.30am Australian EST), the United Nations Commission on Human Rights closed its historic final session. After a fraction over 60 years in operation, the closure of the CHR was to a packed assembly hall at the Palais des Nations, and with mixed feelings from the government and non-government delegates present.

Just over two weeks days ago, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution to create a new body, a Human Rights Council, which is supposed to enhance the importance of human rights in the international community, and overcome some of the problems that have made the CHR lose credibility in recent years. So the CHR needed to wind up, but maybe thought many, not quite this fast.

The mixed feelings involved recognition that the CHR needed to go; that it could have been given a better ending than a rushed procedural session not dealing with outstanding work; pride at its achievements; relief that we would not be going through the same again as in recent years; hopes that a new replacement body would be better; and fears that it would not.

In a brief 2 1/2 hour session, the chairperson of the commission, representatives of the different "blocs" and one representative of non-government organisations (NGOs) looked at some of the achievements of the CHR in its 60-year life. Most of the speeches were listened to politely, and frankly were indicative of some of the problems of the CHR. With Morocco speaking for the African groups, Saudi Arabia for the Asian group and Azerbaijan for Eastern Europe, talk of the universality of human rights sounded a bit empty. They each agreed that the CHR had in recent years suffered from selectivity, double standards and politicisation, and then went on to demonstrate what these terms meant.

But then the Brazilian Ambassador speaking for Latin America and the Caribbean, and the Dutch for the West, outlined a vision for a stronger body starting to deal with substantive issues of human rights abuses right from its commencement, and with the West committing itself never to vote in a country to the new Human Rights Council that engaged in gross and systematic human rights abuses.

It fell to the sole NGO speaker - much to my pride an old friend and fellow Australian Chris Sidoti - to speak of the continued neglect by governments of the world of the human rights of many, and while refusing to speak for all NGOs, read a statement endorsed by 265, including Rights Australia - which outlined our hopes for the new Human Rights Council, to sustained applause.

To be fair, the new body will have a solid base to build on: the CHR is not given enough credit for its past work. Fresh from the horrors of the World War II, the fledgling United Nations resolved to seek to define the standards of personal liberty and the inherent dignity of the human person. In 1946 it established a Commission on Human Rights, as a body subordinate to the Economic and Social Council. Australia was one of 17 countries that formed the first commission and started the process of developing the human rights standards which are so widely accepted today.

After negotiating and leading out with the revolutionary Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the General Assembly in 1948, the Commission on Human Rights has been the body responsible for creating:

• the international covenant on civil and political rights;
• the international covenant on economic social and cultural rights;
• the convention on the elimination of all forms of racial discrimination;
• the convention on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women;
• the convention on the rights of the child;
• the convention against torture; and
• a host of other contributions to international law.
So much of the language of human rights, the laws of countries throughout the world, and the protection of individuals from the excesses of states, have their origin in these documents, including Australia's race, sex and privacy laws.

The CHR provided crucial support for the struggles against apartheid; for the protection of victims of the Latin American dictatorships; and has for many years has provided the "front line troops" to bring to light, or protect from, some horrific abuses. Through the active participation of NGOs, very rare in international forums, victims of abuse were able to bring governments to the court of world opinion, and even on occasions victims were able to confront their abusers. But as it moved from being the body setting the norms for governmental behaviour, to one which monitored observance of these norms, membership of the CHR became attractive to countries which had little regard for the norms, as membership provided a way of deflecting criticism.

An organisation made up entirely of representatives of governments is always going to be political. Indeed through much of its life, the CHR was an intensely political forum for the Western and Eastern blocs to fight the Cold War. But since the end of the Cold War, the "selectivity, double standards, and politicisation" of debate at the CHR has been intense, and has masked the positive work, supported by the overwhelming majority of nations, that has gone on quietly in the background.

The new Human Rights Council - consisting of 47 nations to be elected from the General Assembly on May 9 this year, and meeting for the first time on June 19 - will be as effective as it is allowed to be by nations of the world. Over the coming weeks before the elections and the first meetings, NGOs will be meeting to push for the best possible start for the council, and to ensure that the positives are taken forward, and the negatives left behind.

It is a shame that the Australian Government has decided not to seek membership of the first Human Rights Council - it's indicative of how far human rights and international development has slipped down the national agenda, and also a reaction to the increasing international criticism of some of Australia's domestic policies, to which the Federal Government is a lot more sensitive than they pretend. But Australia has committed itself to working with the new council, and this extract from Australia's joint statement with Canada and New Zealand earlier this month expresses the challenge clearly.

To make a success of the Council will require a conscious commitment to bringing practical improvements to the lives of people far removed from the Council's location in Geneva. Together we must cultivate a new culture. One which is inclusive, operationally focused and in which there is no place for double standards. The Human Rights Council will be effective if it retains the respect of UN member states and civil society, adopts an equitable and robust program of work, involves the active participation of all UN members and if it has the authority to ensure its voice is heard and listened to by human rights violators. It will be effective if its voice gives hope to those whose rights have been violated.

The chairperson of the final session of the CHR said in his concluding statement:

The Commission will close its doors with a historic record that is on the whole positive from the stand point of human rights and international human rights law … The Human Rights Council will open its doors on 19 June. We hope it will be more effective and legitimate than the Commission … The Council has one intrinsic value in that its creation has been decided by an overwhelming majority of wills. As was the case with the Universal Declaration in 1948. The difference being that then there were 48 States of the United Nations, and now there are 192.

The world is a much more complex place, and memories of universal horror are fading for some. The new Human Rights Council provides an opportunity for a renewed commitment to the old standards, for application in a more complex world, and for situations that were not envisaged when the Universal Declaration was adopted. It will therefore be a much contested organisation, but one for which today there was a lot of sincere hopes expressed.

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