Thursday, March 02, 2006

IHT: Human Rights - A needed UN Reform

(Mary Robinson, a former president of Ireland and UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, is president of Realizing Rights: The Ethical Globalization Initiative.)

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.

Why not just come right out and say it? That the world allowed countries with massive human rights violations like Syria, Lybia and Sudan, not just to be members but to actually preside over the council just so they could snub the US. The individual representives cannot help but be tainted by the blood that stains their hands. I mean this is truely rank hypocracy.
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.

I think it is an inevitable fact that Bolton has got to rank as one of the worst diplomats to the UN possible considering his previous hammering criticisms of the UN. But putting that aside for a while, let's look at the next few paragraphs.
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.

I personally think it is a non-sequitor simply because a firm line has been drawn and the nations have demonstrated their bottom line. But the broader question has to be asked, is a weaker council better than a) the existing one and b) the possibility of a stronger one, which brings us to...
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.

Sounds good right? But notice the caveats. Where's the teeth in the enforcement mechanism? Acceptance of this council means that unless we have similar or worse violations, or more egregious violations of human rights, we're not going to get a chance to reform this council again.

I think that it bears some mentioning that this reform might only be possible in consideration of the confluence of events that have occured in the past three years, ranging from the liberation/invasion of iraq, to the sudden playing nice of states like Syria, to a renew focus on human rights to a general reform being advocated in the UN today. I'm honestly not certain when another such chance might occur again. I personally think we have to sieze the chance and do the absolute best we can. This isn't the floor, this is like the coffee mug, on the coaster, on the book, on the table on the rug on the floor.
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.

This sounds like we're trying to persuade ourselves here...
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.

More than an unfortunate coincidence is putting it way more mildly. And while freely granting the valid criticism of the US, where was the rest of the world whe Sudan helmed the council?
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.

The EU as the arbiter of Human Rights..... I think more than half of the member states lost that right when they allowed 11 years of abuse and sanction evasion in Iraq. I think they lost that right when they refused to call genocide as genocide in Sudan. And I definately think this stinks of surrendering to the closest and nearest compromise.

More can and must be done. If the EU chooses to abdicate their responsibility in this area, then we can kiss the notion of the universal protection of fundamental liberties goodbye. If you don't live in the state that has it, the council isn't looking out for you.

Peace please.



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