United Nations

UN creates new Human Rights Council

UNITED NATIONS – In outlining a plan for reform of the United Nations a year ago, Secretary General Kofi Annan made human rights a central component of his proposal.

“No security agenda and no drive for development will be successful unless they are based on the sure foundation of respect for human dignity,” said Mr. Annan in his March 2005 “In Larger Freedom” report.

So it was viewed by many as an historic step when the UN General Assembly approved on 15 March 2006 the creation of a new Human Rights Council.

“The decision of the General Assembly to create the Council is momentous,” said Louise Arbour, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. “It responds to the hope that the global community could come together and create a strong institution at the heart of the international human rights system.”

The 47-member Council replaces the 53-member UN Commission on Human Rights as the premier international human rights enforcement agency.

The change seeks to address criticisms that have been leveled at the Commission in recent years, especially that the Commission had become too “political” in its workings, allowing nations that consistently violated human rights not only to escape scrutiny but even to serve as members on the Commission.

The structure of the new Council establishes that:

• Members will be “elected directly and individually by secret ballot by the majority” of the 191-member General Assembly. Previously, members of the Commission were elected by the 54-member Economic and Social Council.

• Members “shall uphold the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights,” making “voluntary pledges and commitments” to do so. Members can be removed from the Council by a two-thirds majority vote of other members if they commit “gross and systematic violations of human rights.”

• The Council should meet no fewer than three times a year, for no less than 10 weeks. Previously, the commission met only once a year for six weeks.

Proponents of the Council say that these structural changes will offer considerable safeguards against the kind of politics that plagued the Commission in the past.

“No member state has got everything it argued for” in the Council's structure, said Jan Eliasson, president of the General Assembly. But it “includes a number of innovative elements which would make the Council a significant improvement on the Commission on Human Rights.”

The shape and substance of the Council were intensely debated. In particular, the United States lobbied for stronger provisions to prevent countries with poor human rights records from becoming members of the Council, urging that a two-thirds majority vote of the General Assembly be required for membership.

In the end, the resolution creating the Council passed by a vote of 170 to 4, with 3 abstentions. Voting against the Council were Israel , Marshall Islands , Palau , and the United States ; abstaining were Belarus , Iran , and Venezuela .

The resolution calls for the election of new Council members on 9 May 2006, and an inaugural meeting on 19 June. The Commission ended its last meeting on 27 March after adopting a resolution to transfer all its work to the Council.

Nongovernmental organizations that specialize in human rights agreed that while the Council's structure did not include everything they might have hoped for, it is nevertheless an improvement over the Commission.

“The Council is definitely an advance over the Commission,” said Mariette Grange, director of the Geneva office of Human Rights Watch. “It includes what was good and efficient at the Commission — and it is an upgrade in other areas, such as the fact that countries must be elected by more than half of the General Assembly.”

Ms. Grange said in particular that two important features of the Commission have been carried over: 1) the system of “special rapporteurs” — in essence specially appointed human rights investigators that are empowered to monitor specific countries or specific themes, and, 2) the high degree of access that NGOs have to the Commission.

Other new features of the Council, Ms. Grange said, also make it more likely that countries involved in human rights violations will be less likely to be members of the Council — although it is not guaranteed.

She said, for example, the mere fact that a member can be suspended for serious human rights violations — even though it is likely to be politically very difficult to win such a suspension — increases the moral pressure on countries to live up to international human rights norms.

Yvonne Terlingen, Amnesty International's representative to the United Nations, said the Council does indeed look better for human rights than the Commission.

“But it very much depends on how seriously governments are going to take the new provisions and how they are going to interpret them,” said Ms. Terlingen. “If countries are going to continue to engage in the horse trading of votes, then we haven't made any progress.”

But Ms. Terlingen added that early indications are that governments are taking the new provisions seriously, and that countries who seek membership will have their human rights records carefully examined.

On 9 May, when the first members of the Council were elected, some countries with poor human rights records failed to win seats on the Council. A full list of the new Council members is at http://www.un.org/ga/60/elect/hrc.

Diane Ala'i, the representative of the Bahá'í International Community to the United Nations in Geneva , agreed that the Council has great potential.

“Much will depend on who are elected as the first members of the Council,” said Ms. Ala'i. “We hope that countries will move away from the traditional regional groupings and regional affiliations in voting.”

Ms. Ala'i said the Community was nonetheless pleased that the Council will continue to use special rapporteurs and other mechanisms from the Commission to monitor human rights.

“The system of special procedures and experts used by the Commission to monitor and call attention to human rights violations has been extremely important in protecting the Bahá'í community of Iran, which has been subject to systematic violations since the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran in 1979,” said Ms. Ala'i.