Global Policy Forum

US Stuns Advocates of


By Evelyn Leopold

February 23, 2006

The United States stunned U.N. officials and rights advocates on Thursday by threatening to reopen talks on a painfully negotiated resolution for a new U.N. Human Rights Council.

General Assembly President Jan Eliasson released a draft compromise text on the council to replace the discredited Geneva-based Human Rights Commission, which has included some of the world‘s worst rights violators. The proposal sets a higher threshold for abusing nations to get a seat on the body and calls for a majority vote of all 191 General Assembly members, not just those present. Currently, nations are elected by regional slates in the 54-member Economic and Social Council.

The United States and other Western nations had wanted about 30 members rather than the 47 proposed in the text as well as a two-thirds vote to make it harder for rights abusers, such as Zimbabwe or Sudan, to gain a seat.

U.S. Ambassador John Bolton said he preferred "real" negotiations between governments rather than consultations with Eliasson or his mediators. That could result in a line-by-line negotiation of the text, which would open the door to other critics of the new rights council, a reform demanded by world leaders at a U.N. summit in September. The council aims to continue the practice of investigating abusers and helping nations on human rights bodies and laws.

"Based on conversations we‘ve had with other governments, the strongest argument in favor of this draft is that it‘s not as bad as it could be," Bolton told reporters. "So we will be studying it further."

Secretary-General Kofi Annan , Eliasson and human rights groups opposed Bolton‘s suggestions. Annan said countries had had enough time for discussions, so "now is the time for a decision." He said the council was not everything he proposed a year ago but was better placed "to address situations of gross and systematic violations of human rights." Eliasson told a news conference he had talked to all key members to arrive at a compromise. New talks, he said, would not improve the text, so "we are going in circles." He hoped for a decision next week so the council could function this summer.

Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International advocated adoption. "It obviously doesn‘t do everything we hoped for," said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. "But it is clearly better than the Human Rights Commission." Roth told Reuters a U.S. rejection and the reopening of talks would lead to "death by 1,000 cuts."

Among governments, many like Britain, said they were still studying the text. France‘s U.N. ambassador, Jean-Marc de la Sabliere, leaned toward adoption. "My first reaction, is that it‘s not an ideal text, but that it is a real progress compared to the Human Rights Commission," he said. "This body will be more active, more reactive, and more compelling for its members."

The new body would have three annual sessions totaling at least 10 weeks a year, with the possibility of emergency sessions. Currently, the commission meets six weeks a year. Also new is a provision that allows the General Assembly by a two-thirds vote to suspend any member of the council that commits gross and systematic violations. The plan also requires every new member -- including major powers like the United States or China -- to undergo a rights review soon after winning a seat. The seats would be distributed among regional groups: 13 for Africa, 13 for Asia, six for Eastern Europe, eight for Latin America and the Caribbean and seven for a block of mainly Western countries. Members would not be eligible for immediate re-election after serving for two three-year terms.

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