Who Deserves a Seat on New Human Rights Council?

Aug 31 2005

Thalif Deen

UNITED NATIONS, Aug 31 (IPS) – When the United States, one of the self-declared champions of human rights, ran for a seat in the 53-member U.N. Human Rights Commission back in May 2001, it suffered a humiliating defeat and was ousted from the panel for the first time since its creation in 1947.

The resentment against Washington was so intense that many of the members who publicly pledged their votes to the United States reneged on their promises privately — and got away with it.

The reason: voting in U.N. elections, including for the Human Rights Commission, is traditionally by secret ballot. And it is virtually impossible to figure out who among the 191 member states voted for which candidate.

Now the United States is spearheading a campaign to disband the commission and replace it with a new Human Rights Council to be elected directly by the 191-member General Assembly by a two-thirds majority.

If the proposal is eventually approved by member states, those elected to the new council will be expected to “undertake to abide by human rights standards in their respect, protection and promotion of human rights”.

The United States believes that by laying down stringent conditions, it would be possible to bar countries such as Sudan, Zimbabwe and Libya — all of them accused of human rights violations at one time or another — from finding a seat in the new council.

But one Asian diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, says that the United States may itself be a casualty judging by its poor record on human rights — particularly following its global war on terrorism.

“As expected, if elections are by secret ballot, the United States may possibly fail to get a seat in the new council because U.N. member states will get an opportunity to express their true feelings — at voting time,” he added. “For the United States, it’s a political gamble.”

But Jim Paul, executive director of the New York-based Global Policy Forum, which closely monitors the United Nations, is sceptical — although he concedes that the U.S. human rights record in recent years has not been exemplary.

“If the United States is shut out of the new council, that “would be poetic justice”, he said.

“But I doubt that would happen, despite the fact that human rights organisations have been quite harsh critics of the United States’ human rights record and have even called for U.S. leaders to be brought to trial,” he added.

“Everyone who is a fair judge of these matters recognises that the United States is a major human rights violator, largely because of its conduct outside its borders. But there will be tremendous pressure on member states to see the emperor is fully clothed, even if he is utterly naked,” Paul told IPS.

Governments will worry that by not electing the United States, they will further weaken the United Nations. They will also be concerned about their bilateral relations with Washington, he added.

John Bolton, the controversial new U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, has placed high priority on the creation of the Human Rights Council, which was one of the proposals in a plan of action for the reform of the world body.

This proposed plan — officially called “the outcome document” — was to have been approved by some 170 world leaders at the upcoming U.N. summit Sep. 14-16.

But Bolton’s attempt to drastically change the outcome document, including some 750 amendments, has put the entire exercise in jeopardy.

Still, even if most of the other proposals to revitalise the United Nations are shot down, the United States wants to salvage the Human Rights Council.

A “core group” of countries, representing all geographical regions, is currently working behind closed doors to come up with a compromise document acceptable to all 191 member states.

The proposal for a new council, which is also being discussed by the core group, has strong support from a coalition of some 15 international human rights organisations, including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the Association for the Prevention of Torture, the International Commission of Jurists, Lutheran World Federation, the Quakers and International Service for Human Rights.

Last week the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights (IHF) reiterated its support for the new body, urging member States “to commit to establishing a strong and effective Human Rights Council”.

“The IHF insists that, in the negotiations to be held in coming days, the existing draft provisions on the Human Rights Council must not be weakened, but — at least — retained in their present form”, Aaron Rhodes, IHF executive director, said in a statement released here.

To the extent possible, stronger language should be included on this issue in the outcome document, e.g. to require that those elected to the new body have made concrete efforts to demonstrate their dedication to human rights; to provide that the proposed peer review is implemented through a process that is transparent and draws on a broad number of sources; and to extend the means for civil society participation, he added.

Most important, Rhodes said, the summit outcome document should lay down a solid framework for the establishment of a Human Rights Council and spell out a clear timeline for completing the reforms.

“This will ensure that constructive discussions can be held in the post-summit period to determine the exact mandate and modalities of the new body,” he added.

The proposal for the creation of a Human Rights Council was made by Secretary-General Kofi Annan as part of a restructuring of the world body.

Paul of Global Policy Forum said that a secret ballot for elections to the new council may not afford much comfort, given the U.S. propensity to bug U.N. foreign missions with electronic devices.

Many reasons will be put forward to justify a vote for Washington’s membership, he said, pointing out that U.S.-based media companies “will be howling about a conspiracy to exclude the world’s foremost human rights defender”.

“I wish the elections to the council could be based on fair and even-handed criteria, but it will be, as always, heavily influenced by political considerations,” Paul said.

“And, at the end of the day, where are the member states that deserve membership based on an unsullied (human rights) record? It may be obvious that the United States should be excluded, but who should be included? No wonder there is no checklist of membership criteria because few would qualify,” he added. (END/2005)

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