Global Policy Forum

Human Rights: A Needed UN Reform


By Mary Robinson *

International Herald Tribune
March 2, 2006

During my time as UN high commissioner for human rights, I saw first-hand the weaknesses of the United Nations main human rights body, the Commission on Human Rights, which governments now plan to replace with a Human Rights Council. The commission has a proud history. Under its first chairperson, Eleanor Roosevelt, it gave the world the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and went on to develop the body of international human rights law we have today. It was therefore deeply frustrating to see its work increasingly undermined by block voting and procedural maneuvers that prevented some of the world's worst human rights violators from being held to account for their abuses.

I agreed with UN Secretary General Kofi Annan when he proposed a body that would ensure higher standards of membership and accountability, and I shared his disappointment - and that of human rights organizations around the world - when, last September, governments did not take forward an initial proposal for creating the new council. The failure of that first initiative was due in part to demands for sweeping changes to the text that U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton put forward at the last minute.

More than five months later, a new proposal has been negotiated - weaker than the original one, but with significant improvements on the current commission - and yet again the opportunity to implement it is hanging in the balance.

Some suggest that a stronger, new institution could be created by further negotiation, and that nongovernmental organizations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, as well as the secretary general himself, have acted feebly by declaring their support for the proposal as it stands. It is far more likely, however, that Annan and General Assembly President Jan Eliasson are simply being realistic and that this is why most diplomatic observers agree that the proposal should be approved now as it stands. More talk will almost certainly produce a weaker council.

While the new proposal is not all that human rights advocates hoped for, it is a clear improvement on the commission and has many positive aspects that can be welcomed. For example, members would be elected directly and individually by secret ballot - irrespective of regional slates. To be elected, candidates must win an absolute majority - that is at least 96 positive votes in the General Assembly - and abstentions would count as negative votes. In practice this could be a higher standard than the two-thirds majority test initially proposed.

Those elected would be expected to respect the council's rules and their performance would be reviewed during their term of service. No state would sit for more than two three-year terms without a break, and members found guilty of poor human rights performance could be suspended. Moreover, the council would meet more often and for more weeks in the year, and would be able to call additional meetings in order to address human rights crises. The special role accorded by the commission to nongovernmental organizations and experts has also been retained, preserving some of the checks and balances that help hold states properly accountable for their human rights conduct.

It is essential to understand that voting to create the new council is just the beginning. UN officials, diplomats and human rights NGOs realize that the first year of the new body would be vital. During this time, the council would determine its agenda and working practices, review the mandates of thematic and country experts and establish arrangements for a new periodic review mechanism that would be introduced. Drafting rules is only half the story: We should also be asking what governments would do after the vote to make the council effective.

It is more than an unfortunate coincidence that many of the countries that were able to secure membership on the commission in an effort to shield themselves from scrutiny would favor the detailed review of the council proposal that Bolton now seeks. Equally troubling, the United States can no longer claim to be the standard bearer on human rights. Its authority on such matters is much weaker due to post- 9/11 Bush administration policies.

If the United States presses for further negotiation, the U.S. media and Americans should ask themselves what sort of Human Rights Council they want and whether they prefer to stand beside the U.S. administration and countries like Cuba and Sudan as they search for it, or with human rights organizations and the majority of UN member states, including those in Europe, calling for the current resolution to be adopted without delay.

About the Author: Mary Robinson, a former President of Ireland and UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, is president of Realizing Rights: The Ethical Globalization Initiative.

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