Global Policy Forum

Human Rights Commission Must Change


By Jimmy Carter *

San Francisco Chronicle
January 16, 2006

Negotiations are now under way to reform the United Nations' principal human-rights body. The Commission on Human Rights was established 60 years ago next month as the United Nations' main vehicle for exposing human-rights problems throughout the world. The commission has accomplished a great deal by setting standards for measuring human-rights practices of governments, but the body lately has become a target of ridicule, some of it justified.

Because it is controlled by governments, and because no government willingly accepts criticism of its human-rights practices, the commission is mired in credibility problems. Gross human-rights violators not only strive to become members, but even chair the commission, as did Libya in 2003. Most serious has been the lack of effective action on emerging human-rights crises that might have been averted with concerted international action.

In 1993, a special report made to the commission warned of likely escalation of ethnic violence in Rwanda, predicting the genocide that unfolded nine months later. The commission could have referred the report to the U.N. Security Council, which would have had the benefit of the many recommendations it made to interrupt hate-radio transmissions and other actions that could have broken the cycle of violence.

In 1988, a proposal to condemn Iraq for the killing of thousands of Kurds with poison gas was squashed through a confidential procedure of the commission that is meant to encourage remedial action by governments outside the glare of global criticism. It was reported at the time that the United States urged that the commission take no action against Iraq for the massacres.

Early last year, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan issued a bold reform agenda, including a proposal to abolish the commission and replace it with an elevated, more effective Human Rights Council. The characteristics of this body currently are being worked out among delegations at the United Nations in New York. The question now is whether governments are willing to take brave steps to create an institution that will be stronger in denouncing violations wherever they occur, be more effective at preventing violations and provide the collective voice needed as all societies struggle to become more just. I have discussed the reform proposals with representatives from a number of countries and believe a good outcome is within reach, but strong political will is needed to get us over the finish line.

Each reform proposal should be measured asking the following questions: Will the proposal make the council a stronger champion of human rights or will it protect the abusers? Will the council be more cohesive and effective, or will it simply retain the old divisive politics that have debilitated the commission? Will all council members be dedicated to protecting human rights? Will the council have maximum freedom and flexibility in investigating and condemning flagrant human-rights abuses? Will all nations be equally subject to this scrutiny, regardless of power or influence?

Many countries are understandably concerned that the new council will condemn only poor and powerless countries that do not have the clout needed to escape criticism. The underlying complaint behind this proposal might be addressed by embracing a proposed "universal review," a mechanism whereby a human-rights report on every country on the council is produced regularly. In addition, the most egregious human-rights violators, such as the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda in the early 1990s, must be prevented from serving on the council.

One proposal would require that a candidate receive a two-thirds direct vote of the General Assembly. Another proposal requires that regional blocs put forward more candidates than available seats so that elections are more competitive. Together, these would make it harder for the most irresponsible governments effectively to promote their candidacy.

The council should also meet as often as practical. The commission meets once a year for six weeks, which is clearly inadequate. The new body should convene at least every other month for two weeks or more so it can thoroughly assess the most pressing matters when they arise.

Lastly, some are challenging the proposal to import into the new council the commission's practice of allowing broad participation of nongovernmental organizations. It would be a serious mistake to curtail the hard-won access rights of NGOs and activists to this body. Human-rights groups and other NGOs serve as the fourth estate inside the U.N. system, bringing vital information that may never be presented through official channels.

U.N. member states have it in their power to create one of the most important institutions in the world. If human-rights violations are addressed and remedied at earlier stages, we really can prevent the next genocide.

About the Author: Former President Jimmy Carter (1977-81) is founder of the Carter Center (, a nonprofit advancing peace and health worldwide.

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