Sunday, January 01, 2006

NYT on efforts to reform UN Human Rights Commission

The NYT reports on efforts to reform the UN Human Rights Commission, here. The Human Rights Commission has been, of course, a large embarrassment to the UN, and a key target in the larger process of UN reform. The outcome document of the September 2005 General Assembly summit called for a reform plan to be in place by December 31, 2005. That timetable was not achieved; the new timetable pushes that back by several months, to March 2006. (See also this discussion at Opinio Juris, here.)

(Someone asked why I include so much stuff on this blog related to UN reform, oil for food, etc. I am finishing a short book manuscript on global governance, using UN reform as a major example, so I am following these developments and noting them here as an easy way of keeping track of stories and articles. I am also teaching a seminar in the spring on the same topic, and this is an easy way to gather material to use in the course. Hope it is not too boring for the general public, but one of the functions of this blog for me is to serve as a quick repository of articles and materials I might find useful in the future.)

January 1, 2006
New York Times

Officials at U.N. Seek Fast Action on Rights Panel


UNITED NATIONS, Dec. 31 - Officials of the United Nations, which has struggled through a period of scandal and mismanagement, have decided they must act within weeks to produce an alternative to its widely discredited Human Rights Commission to maintain hope of redeeming the United Nations' credibility in 2006.

The commission, which is based in Geneva, has been a persistent embarrassment to the United Nations because participation has been open to countries like Cuba, Sudan and Zimbabwe, current members who are themselves accused of gross rights abuses. Libya held the panel's chairmanship in 2003.

"The reason highly abusive governments flock to the commission is to prevent condemnation of themselves and their kind, and most of the time they succeed," said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. "If you're a thug, you want to be on the committee that tries to condemn thugs."

Mark Malloch Brown, chief of staff to Secretary General Kofi Annan, noted that with two other crucial steps toward reform in place - a new Peacebuilding Commission to help countries emerging from war, and a biennial budget under an arrangement laying the groundwork for major management change by June - the rights commission had taken center stage.
"For the great global public, the performance or nonperformance of the Human Rights Commission has become the litmus test of U.N. renewal," he said. "We can't overestimate getting a clear win on this in January."

Mr. Annan begins his last year in office with a mandate to bring fundamental and lasting change to the beleaguered institution. Negotiators have been struggling for months over the terms of a new Human Rights Council that he proposed in the spring to replace the commission. A hoped-for agreement in December did not materialize.

Negotiators resume talks on Jan. 11 and must settle on a resolution for the new council soon after to have it in place by March, when the commission reconvenes in Geneva. "The commission should hold that meeting with the understanding that it is going to be its last meeting," said Ricardo Arias, the ambassador of Panama, who is one of the leaders of the working group drawing up the new Human Rights Council.

The current commission has 53 members serving staggered three-year terms and elected from closed slates put forward by regional groups. It meets each year in Geneva for six weeks.
The proposed council would exist year-round, be free to act when rights violations are discovered, conduct periodic reviews of every country's human rights performance and meet more frequently throughout the year.

Still in dispute are the council's size, the procedures for citing individual countries, how often the panel would meet, a possible two-term limit for membership and whether members would be chosen based on agreed criteria of human rights performance or by a two-thirds vote of the General Assembly as a way of weeding out notorious rights violators.

The proposal envisions votes on each candidate for membership rather than on regional slates. As with most of the changes being proposed at the United Nations, the rights council has drawn suspicion from the poorer and less developed nations of the 191-member General Assembly. They say they fear the new council may be yet another way for wealthier and more powerful nations to intrude in their affairs.

Abdallah Baali, the ambassador of Algeria, said the main concern of objecting nations was "whether or not this council will impose both its measures and its views on a member state or will it seek their cooperation in order to improve their human rights records. " He said Algeria supported the proposed council.

Diplomats at the United Nations singled out Egypt and Pakistan as countries that were leading the resistance to the proposed council.

In introducing his recommendation for a new council in March, Mr. Annan cited the flaws in the current commission and the consequences for the United Nations of not reforming it. The commission had been undermined, he argued, by allowing participation of countries whose purpose was "not to strengthen human rights but to protect themselves against criticism or to criticize others."

"As a result," he said, "a credibility deficit has developed, which casts a shadow on the reputation of the United Nations system as a whole."

Mr. Roth of Human Rights Watch was blunter. "If the governments of the world cannot get together on human rights at the U.N., then it is a shameful act for the entire organization," he said.

Peggy Hicks, the global advocacy director of Human Rights Watch, said that having rights abusers on the panel had a broadly debilitating effect on its work. "In the case of Sudan, the Sudanese government's presence on the commission meant that African states and others watered down language that human rights groups around the world thought appropriate to address crimes against humanity," she said.

She said Zimbabwe's presence on the commission was an important factor in the panel's decision to take no action this year against the government of Robert Mugabe despite widespread accusations of abuse against Zimbabwe's own citizens.

"In general," Ms. Hicks said, "what the presence of abusive countries on the commission means is that much of its energy is taken up with the blocking actions and delaying tactics that end up weakening action on human rights abuses worldwide. Yes, they delay action on their own internal situations, but they have a vested interest in seeing that the overall ability is as weak as possible."

Kristen Silverberg, assistant secretary of state for international organizations, said the United States' priorities were "to improve the membership so that countries like Zimbabwe and Sudan were not eligible" and "to make sure the council can act."

"We don't need more theatrics and discussion in Geneva," she said. "We need concerted action."
"Some countries have argued that it's better for the council to stay away from anything that would embarrass a country, but we think the council needs to be prepared to take action in serious cases like Darfur and Burma," she said in an interview, referring to the country that now calls itself Myanmar.

Mr. Arias said that "a lot of emphasis has been placed on the matter of cooperation to improve human rights, not just passing resolutions against a country which is in violation but on making an effort to increase the capacity to improve human rights in the long term."
Mr. Roth said the United States and the European Union were strong supporters of the proposed council but needed to become more aggressive in building the case for it with reluctant countries.

Ms. Silverberg said that she and the State Department's adviser on United Nations reform, Ambassador Sharin Tahir-Kheli, had pressed the case for the human rights council and management reform on trips to capitals in Latin America and South Asia and that she was going to the Middle East for the same purpose next month. She noted that Ms. Tahir-Kheli had visited Cairo and Islamabad, among other capitals.

Prince Zeid Raad al-Hussein, the ambassador of Jordan, said that while his country supported the proposed council, it was concerned that condemning the current commission outright would be to ignore that it had sometimes proved effective.

"What we are concerned about is about 20 percent of its work, while the rest seems to be working quite well," said the prince, a former United Nations peacekeeper in Bosnia. "Look at all the rapporteurs in the field putting together their reports, often with good cooperation with governments. This must be encouraged and continued."

This year the commission established a special rapporteur, or investigator, on human rights and counterterrorism that drew the support of 80 United Nations members, including Russia and the United States. It also passed a resolution establishing a human rights monitoring operation in Nepal where both the government and Maoist insurgents have been accused of abuses.
In November, Mr. Arias and the other leader of the working group, Dumisani Kumalo, the South African ambassador, accompanied Jan Eliasson, the Swedish diplomat who is the General Assembly president, to Geneva on a mission to calm concerns there over plans for the council.

"There was a good deal of suspicion, and it's important that you don't develop an antagonistic relationship between Geneva and New York," Mr. Eliasson said in a telephone interview from Stockholm.

"It was important to pick up the best practices and good things the Human Rights Commission has been doing," he said, "and many people in Geneva felt that aspect was being disregarded."

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