Draft Text Establishing UN Human Rights Council Unsatisfactory, US Engagement Required

Washington, DC

The draft resolution to establish a United Nations Human Rights Council, presented recently by UN General Assembly President Jan Eliasson, is more than a disappointment.  Its adoption by the General Assembly will constitute an enormous missed opportunity for the international community - one that may not come again for many years.

The text prepared by Ambassador Eliasson has been hailed by many governments and human rights organizations as the best compromise that could be found among the United Nations' 191 member states.  It may well be precisely that, but the document clearly falls far short of creating the small standing body composed of appropriate countries that was initially envisioned by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan in his March 2005 report, "In Larger Freedom: Towards Development, Security and Human Rights For All."

All involved should be clear-eyed and honest in assessing the fruits of long months of hard-fought negotiations. The draft resolution simply does not go far enough to ensure that governments that are the world's worst human rights offenders are kept off of the Council.  After all, it is the recurring presence of countries such as Libya, Cuba, China, Belarus, Zimbabwe, Pakistan and Egypt on the existing Human Rights Commission that has helped it earn the contemptible reputation it enjoys today.

The Commission has justifiably become an object of derision, rather than a source of pride for those who believe in the ideals contained in the UN Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Courageous human rights defenders from around the world too often find themselves subjected to interrogation and obstruction by member states at the Commission. The world's democracies are often unable to carry the day in Commission deliberations, settling for tepid resolutions on human rights violations or, more often, no diplomatic action at all.

Secretary General Annan's proposal that members of the Council be elected by a 2/3 vote of the General Assembly - so that egregious human violators could more easily be excluded - was lost in the negotiating process. Although the current text includes language encouraging members to elect only those states "with strong human rights records," there is no concrete mechanism preventing notorious human rights violators from sitting on the Council.   Although the Secretary General called for a smaller, more nimble Council, the text provides for a Council of 47 members meeting for a minimum of only ten weeks annually - not much different from the Commission's 53 members meeting for six weeks every year.

We also find troubling the vague language which may allow governments to limit non-governmental participation in the Council to that which they deem to constitute "the most effective contribution." We fear that repressive governments, who have previously attempted to block participation of groups like Freedom House, Reporters without Borders and the Transnational Radical Party, will try to make future NGO activities conditional on what they define as most effective.   

Responsibility for this disappointing outcome is widely shared by many members of the UN General Assembly. Some governments, such as those of China, Cuba and Pakistan, have played the role of determined spoilers, working assiduously to derail proposals that would establish a genuinely improved Council. More troubling, however, are democratically elected governments, who purport to support human rights, but who have failed to use their moral authority to improve the document.   What the great British statesman Edmund Burke once noted about individuals - "All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing" - can now be said of a number of the world's democracies who did little to try to ensure that the new Council would be an improvement over the past.    

We hope to be pleasantly surprised by a Human Rights Council that works better than its predecessor, that does more that is useful for those who are working to expose and improve atrocious human rights conditions around the world. In order for this to happen, the world's leading democracies, and all those who are serious about their stated desire to remain members of the Community of Democracies, must increase their diplomatic involvement in the present negotiations about the shape of the Council. They must also resolve - and begin preparations now - to become deeply engaged in the eventual elections for the Council and in shaping the precedents that will govern its work. Withdrawal from the process, withholding contributions, or abandoning the United Nations as an institution will only bolster the weight of those who are opposed to the realization of fundamental human rights for all people, as guaranteed in the Universal Declaration of  Human Rights. 

Regardless of precisely how good or bad the enabling resolution is for the new Human Rights Council, Freedom House urges the United States Government and other leading democracies to plan now to be fully committed to strengthening the Council and the United Nations' contribution to the defense of human rights and the expansion of freedom.

Freedom House is an independent watchdog organization that supports democratic change, monitors the status of freedom around the world, and advocates for democracy and human rights.

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