Global Trends by Martin Khor

Monday 6 March 2006

Birth pangs of UN’s new Human Rights Council

The United Nations is expected to create a new Human Rights Council with more powers than the present Commission on Human Rights.   A meeting to decide on this transformation was held up last week after opposition from the United States.  But a decision has to be made soon, as the Commission will have its regular annual session on 13 March and it needs to know whether to wind up or operate with “business as usual.”  


A battle is going on at the United Nations as efforts to transform the Human Rights Commission into a new Human Rights Council enter the last phase. 

After many months of squabbling, it appeared that a solution was at hand when the UN General Assembly President, Jan Eliasson, on 23 February issued his version of a resolution for the Assembly to adopt.

The meeting to pass the resolution was to be held last week.  But then the United States Ambassador, John Bolton, announced that the United States opposed the draft and wanted negotiations on it to resume.

Most other countries, including members of the European Union, had been willing to go along with the compromise solution.  It also seemed that most developing countries could live with the draft, as many of their points had been accepted.

So the US resistance exasperated many, including the UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, who had been urging acceptance of the resolution.  “I’m chagrined about the US position,” Annan said last Friday, urging the US to “find some way of associating itself with member states.”

The move to change the Human Rights Commission had been initiated by the Western countries, which wanted to strengthen the UN’s human rights work, and to ensure that countries with a bad human rights record could not become members. The Commission has 53 members and elections have been through regional groupings.

Although the UN members agreed in principle last September that a new Human Rights Council would replace the Commission, there was disagreement on the Council’s mandate and operations. 

Wrangling went on over the how the members would be elected (by simple majority or two thirds vote of the General Assembly), how many members would be allocated from different regions, whether countries with bad human rights records can become members, whether (and how) periodic reviews will be made of each country’s human rights performance, and how much importance to give to the role of NGOs.

A compromise was struck with the General Assembly President’s draft resolution on 23 February, and there was a fair chance it would be accepted -- until the US rejection.

Among the highlights of the draft resolution are that 47 member states (compared to the present 53 members) will be elected by an absolute majority in the General Assembly.   The US prefers election by two thirds, as it feels there would be a better chance then of blocking states with a bad human rights record from entering the Council.

However this may be a double-edged sword as it is not clear whether the US itself could be elected with a two-third majority, since many countries are upset with the recent American abuse of human rights, including in prisons under its control in Guantanamo Bay and in Iraq.

According to the draft, there will be geographic distribution of Council members as follows: Africa 13, Asia 13, Eastern Europe 6, Latin America and Caribbean 8, and Western European and Other States Group 7.

Membership is for three years, and is limited to two consecutive terms, thus preventing de facto permanent membership by some members.  The General Assembly, by two-thirds majority, may suspend the rights of a Council member that commits gross violation of human rights.

Another new feature is that UN member states will be subjected to a periodic review on their fulfillment of their human rights obligations.  This is welcomed by human rights groups as it puts more pressure on governments to meet human rights standards.

Moreover, the Council would meet more often, allowing it to deal with human rights abuses on a more continuous basis, whereas the Commission has only been meeting once a year.

The result would be a Human Rights Council that would have a stronger mandate than the Commission (as it can also look into prevention of human rights abuses and not just address problems after they arise, and it can regularly review the performance of members), have more effective operations (since it meets more regularly), and have means of suspending members that are gross violators of human rights.

The General Assembly President outlined key points on how the new Council would differ from the present Commission:

* The Council would be a subsidiary body of the General Assembly and thus have higher
institutional standing;

* The Council would have new focus on dialogue and cooperation;

* The Council would meet regularly throughout the year and have mechanisms to convene additional sessions if necessary;

* The Universal Periodic Review allows for assessment of each state’s fulfillment of its human rights obligations;

* Distribution of seats would be according to equitable geographic distribution;

* Members of the Council would not be eligible for immediate re- election after two consecutive terms;

* While membership of the Council would be open to all UN Member States, there would be legitimate expectations on members, as the General Assembly can suspend a Council member which commits gross and systematic violations of human rights.

According to the draft, elections to the Council will be held on 9 May and the Council will be convened on 19 June. The existing Commission will conclude its work and will be abolished on 16 June.

With so much uncertainty over the new Council, it is now unclear what the existing Commission on Human Rights will do when it convenes its annual session in Geneva on 13 March.

If a decision on the creation of a Human Rights Council is made in New York next week, then the Commission meeting will most likely be only an administrative one, focusing on how to pass over its work to the Council.

But if there is no decision by 13 March, the Commission may have to conduct its work as usual, even as the wrangling continues in New York on how the new Council will operate.

In any case, we will most likely see a new UN body in charge of human rights by the middle of this year.  Whether it does its job better to protect and promote human rights of the people of the world remains to be seen.