Global Policy Forum

A Restrictive Human Rights Council Gets Mixed Reviews


By Thalif Deen

Inter Press Service
April 28, 2005

The 53-member Geneva-based Human Rights Commission (HRC) has come under fire for accommodating abusive governments as its elected members. But proposals to fix it are drawing mixed reaction. The accusations have come mostly from Western nations and human rights groups that have condemned the membership of countries such as Sudan, Cuba, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Zimbabwe -- and specifically the election of Libya as chair of the HRC in 2003.

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who also has publicly criticised the composition of the UN's supreme human rights body, wants to replace the HRC with a smaller human rights council. If Annan has his way, membership in the new body would be confined only to governments, perhaps mostly from the Western world, who abide by what he called "the highest human rights standards."

But his idea, part of a proposed radical restructuring of the world body, has spawned questions about the new council's membership and remit. "If the U.S. State Department's annual report on human rights is to be used as a yardstick", says one Asian diplomat, "most developing nations would be barred from the new Human Rights Council because they are all human rights abusers in the eyes of the United States."

Norman Solomon, executive director of the Washington-based Institute for Public Accuracy, points out that the United States, which sits in judgment over the rest of the world, should be barred from the proposed new Council because of its own violations of basic human rights under the guise of fighting terrorism. "Let those without human-rights sin cast the first stone," Solomon said. "Along with pouring massive amounts of monetary aid, military arms and political capital into some of the most heinous human-rights-abusing regimes on the planet, the U.S. government has been killing tens of thousands of Iraqi people since the invasion," he told IPS. "This hardly qualifies Washington to credibly pontificate or pass judgment on the deadly crimes of others," said Solomon, author of the forthcoming book 'War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death'.

Addressing the annual HRC meeting in Geneva earlier this month, Annan proposed that members of the new Council should be elected by a two-thirds majority of the 191-member General Assembly. "Those elected should have a solid record of commitment to the highest human rights standards," he said. Annan added that the existing HRC not only had lost its credibility but also had "cast a shadow on the reputation of the UN system as a whole." "No one can claim complete virtue when it comes to human rights application," Annan told reporters at the Geneva talks. "The new Council should have the opportunity periodically of looking at human rights records of every country, and we should be able to apply the rules fairly and consistently across the board."

Jim Paul, executive director of the New York-based Global Policy Forum, which closely monitors the United Nations, also expressed strong reservations. "I think it is going to be very problematical," he told IPS. "It is risky, this idea of measuring a state's human rights behaviour. Are they going to say that the United States cannot be in the new Council because its military tortured prisoners in the Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad?," he asked. "I am sure they are not going to say that," Paul added.

Malik Al-Arkam of the Washington-based group All For Reparations And Emancipation (AFRE), which campaigns for reparations from former slave-trading countries for descendants of slaves taken from Africa to the West. "If the Human Rights Commission is restructured or replaced with a more credible body, the first nation to be excluded should be the USA," he told IPS. "For centuries, the United States has committed ethnocide and forced assimilation upon slave descendants. And these vile practices blatantly violate U.N. covenants, including article 27 of the international covenant on civil and political rights. We the Afro descendants demand our human rights and massive reparations," he added.

Some 15 leading human rights organisations -- including Human Rights Watch, International Commission of Jurists, Association for the Prevent of Torture, and Amnesty International -- endorsed Annan's plan and appealed to UN member states to "quickly establish" the new human rights council. The coalition said it was supportive of "a new body that has greater authority by being given a higher status in the United Nations."

"At this time when the Commission on Human Rights is becoming increasingly paralyzed in effectively addressing human rights violations around the world, the creation of a Human Rights Council with enhanced authority that can sit in sessions throughout the year could be a huge step forward," Yvonne Terlingen, Amnesty International's representative at the United Nations, said in a statement.

Annan's proposal also has been welcomed by the 25-member European Union. But several developing nations have expressed scepticism. "The proposal to create a new human rights council appeared to be counter-intuitive to addressing the complex and controversial problems relating to the United Nations," Ambassador Munir Akram of Pakistan told the General Assembly in early April. "There were simpler avenues by which the consideration and action of the United Nations on human rights issues could be more effective," he added without elaborating.

Paul, at the Global Policy Forum, also questioned Britain's standing to join the new council "because of what they are doing in Northern Ireland". Likewise, Russia has been accused of rights violations in the troubled province of Chechnya, which is fighting for a separate nation state, he added. He further highlighted Washington's self-proclaimed fight against terrorism. The USA Patriot Act, enacted in 2001 and designed to boost anti-terrorist intelligence gathering by giving law enforcement officials greater latitude to search and seize property and track people's reading and consumption habits, in particular violated constitutional and legal privacy and due-process protections, he said.

Beyond questions about the council's composition and mandate, it remained to be seen how the new body would interact with non-governmental organisations and organise its work, Paul said. "What access would non-governmental organisations have in the new council compared with the existing HRC? And what would be the role of special rapporteurs who are mandated by the HRC to investigate human rights violations in specific countries? Will the various UN subcommissions on human rights continue under the new Council?" Until those details are worked out, Paul said, "most of us will reserve judgment."

More Information on UN Reform
More Information on the Human Rights Council
More Information on Secretary General Kofi Annan's Reform Agenda


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