Sunday, January 15, 2006

Economist leader on reform of UN Human Rights Commission

The Economist magazine editorializes on reform of the UN Human Rights Commission, here, "Fix it or scrap it," 12 January 2006. This is a useful short article in describing current alternatives for fixing, amending, or re-doing the Commission. The website of the Commission is here. The UN website for UN reform is here.

The Economist
12 January 2006

UN reform:
Fix it or scrap it

Serial violators of human rights should be booted off the human-rights commission

THE United Nations was founded to promote peace, prosperity and human rights. It is doing somewhat better on the first two counts than its critics sometimes make out. The last, however, has been such a failure that it is threatening to bring the whole edifice down. Once revered as the creator of all the great universal human-rights rules and instruments, the 53-member Commission on Human Rights has been thoroughly discredited. If it cannot be fixed it needs to be scrapped. In its present form it serves only to make a mockery of the cause.

The reason for this is simple enough. The present committee is packed with members who are themselves serial abusers of human rights. Kofi Annan, the UN secretary-general, admits that their main purpose in being on the committee is not to strengthen human rights but to protect themselves from criticism. At present, these members include exemplars of virtue such as Zimbabwe, Sudan, China, Cuba, Saudi Arabia, Nepal and Russia—a veritable roll call of the worst offenders.

A plan of sorts exists to reform this mess. Mr Annan called last spring for the replacement of the commission, which at present meets for just six weeks once a year, by a leaner, tougher, year-round Human Rights Council, which would be ready to act whenever serious abuse was discovered, and whose members should have a solid record on human rights. America and the other leading democracies backed the idea. The serial abusers did not. In the wrangling at a summit on wider UN reforms last September, Mr Annan's baby was reduced to a skeleton. Many wondered whether it could survive.

Amazingly, it has—just. There is now agreement on the need for a new body, on a par with the Security Council, that would meet several times a year including, when necessary, for emergencies. But its size, powers and composition are still up for grabs. The Americans want no more than 30 members, all with solid human-rights credentials, elected by a two-thirds majority of the General Assembly, along with a routine review of human rights in all 191 UN member states. The abusers want as big a body as possible (to maximise their chance of getting a seat), elected by a simple majority, as at present, with no membership criteria, and no automatic peer review.

Any reform must not just shrink the commission, but must also change the way in which members are elected. At present, regions usually put forward a slate of candidates corresponding to their allotted number of seats, which the General Assembly votes on to the commission as a block. Under one sensible proposal, regions would be required to put forward more contestants than their quota. Each candidate country would then stand separately for election by the General Assembly. Early peer review of all members would further reduce the temptation for thugs to try to get seats. But opposition is fierce, not only from the most notorious offenders, but also from those middle-ranking ones who fear their relatively minor abuses would be put under the spotlight.

Timing is tight. The old, unreformed commission is due to hold its next annual meeting in March. Mr Annan wants a new one to be ready to take over by then. That means reaching agreement on a blueprint within the next few weeks. If agreement is stymied, the next-best solution will be to wind the existing commission up altogether. Human rights matter too much for the UN to continue to shunt the subject off to a cynical talking shop that has become home to the worst violators. That just blackens the overall reputation of the UN.

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