Friday, January 20, 2006

Washington Post editorial on UN Human Rights Commission reform

Washington Post editorial, here, noting the not-unlikely possibility that without change very soon, the widely discredited UN Human Rights Commission could hold its next scheduled meeting in March 2006 - with representatives of Zimbabawe, Sudan, China, Cuba, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Nepal, and Russia on board - the "very states," says the WP, "that should be at the top of the commission's list for examination."

The editorial lays blame on Ambassador John Bolton and the US, claiming that the existing structure of thus on the HRC is defended by two key US allies, Egypt and Pakistan, and that the United States bears the responsibility for not pressuring them. (It also points out that Venezuelan strong-arm man Hugo Chavez is also purchasing support through oil money from several small Carribean states.)

The editorial says that Bush administration support for HRC reform "has been lukewarm," and cites as evidence that the negotiations had been handled by junior diplomats.

Is the "lukewarm" claim by the Post correct? Not according to people, even people outside the administration, whom I've interviewed recently in preparing my little book ms. on UN reform and global governance. They tell me that the administration does regard reform of the HRC to be of fundamental importance - even as they criticize, as the Post does, Bolton's suggestion that the P5 Security Council members, including, of course, China and Russia, automatically have seats. But the more practical reformers I've spoken with - while thinking it a bad judgment call - acknowledge that the realism it embodies has two merits. One, it takes Russia and China out of opposition to general reform of the HRC. Two, it has the merit of ackowledging that the HRC needs not only the morally virtuous, but great powers - not all, but enough to make the body relevant, and the members of the Security Council are a useful way of ensuring some while not taking everyone. These are not arguments anyone should necessarily accept, but they are not wild and crazy, either. It is also true that the administration has backed somewhat away from this proposal.

I agree with the Post that if deep reform cannot be achieved, it is better simply to abolish the body. The reason that does not flunk the realism test is that it is possible to create fora outside the UN itself - caucus of democracies-type arrangements - that can frankly do better what the Human Rights Commission is supposed to do. There are alternatives that can compete on particular issues with the UN system.


Impasse on Human Rights

Washington Post editorial
Friday, January 20, 2006; A16

IF NO ACTION is taken, a pitiful parody of an international human rights commission will convene in Geneva in March under the auspices of the United Nations. Among the 53 delegates who will judge abuses of freedom around the world will be representatives of Zimbabwe, Sudan, China, Cuba, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Nepal and Russia -- the very states that should be at the top of the commission's list for examination. As Secretary General Kofi Annan acknowledged a year ago, the world's most conspicuous abusers of human rights have pushed their way onto the panel to prevent it from acting effectively in their cases; in so doing, they have turned what was once one of the more worthy U.N. institutions into its greatest disgrace. Mr. Annan's attempt to end this travesty while preserving a U.N. human rights body is bogged down in a predictable impasse between democratic and autocratic states. At the least, they should be able to agree that the present commission will not meet in March, or ever again.

Mr. Annan proposed to replace the human rights commission with a council that would be smaller, more effective and harder for chronic human rights abusers to join. A draft resolution to create the new body, issued by a working group in December, has some positive features, including a commitment to meetings throughout the year by the new council, instead of the current system of one annual session. But almost every important detail of the organization remains in dispute. Western democracies and human rights groups want to reduce the number of members to 30, require that they be elected by a two-thirds vote of the General Assembly and hold sessions at least four times a year for 10 weeks. The dictators' lobby wants more members, a lower threshold for getting on the commission, fewer meetings and a requirement that any resolution about a country be adopted by a two-thirds vote.

Who argues for the autocrats? Among their advocates are Egypt and Pakistan, two U.S. allies that rank among the world's leading recipients of U.S. government aid. Both regimes are headed by generals who claim they are steering their countries toward democracy; if that's true, they should have little to fear from a reinvigorated U.N. Human Rights Commission. Several Caribbean countries have also resisted the proposals of the democratic states; they, too, should have no reason to oppose a strong human rights commission, unless it is on behalf of their new financial benefactor, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. None of these states would be likely to insist on thwarting the new council if they believed it would do significant harm to their relations with the Bush administration.

The administration's support for the reform, however, has been lukewarm. Until recently it delegated the negotiations to junior officials; when John R. Bolton, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, finally intervened early this year, it was to make the unhelpful demand that all permanent members of the Security Council be granted seats automatically. This would ensure a place for the United States but also for Russia and China. The administration has since softened this position, but it will need to make other concessions if the most important reforms are to be pushed through -- and it will have to put more pressure on Egypt, Pakistan and other allies. If the new council cannot be agreed on by March, the United States should insist that the current commission nevertheless be abolished. Better that the United Nations have no human rights body at all than a mockery of one.

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