Thursday, March 16, 2006

UN Human Rights Council - what happened?

So, the General Assembly passed the compromise UN Human Rights Council "reform" - with four opposing votes - the United States, Israel, Palau, and the Marshall Islands voting against. The US then announced that it will support the new Council and continue funding per usual. Opinio Juris has a good roundup, here and here. Another good site for continuing information is I have put here stories from the WP, NYT, and an editorial from the WSJ.

My views continue to be those expressed in the opinion piece by George Mitchell and Newt Gingrich in the International Herald Tribune, in yesterday's post.

The Washington Post's Colum Lynch has a page one story on it in today's paper, March 16, 2006, here. Excerpts:

U.N. Votes To Replace Rights Panel
U.S. Has Objections But Will Aid Agency

By Colum Lynch
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 16, 2006; A01

UNITED NATIONS, March 15 -- The U.N. General Assembly voted overwhelmingly Wednesday to create a human rights agency to monitor and expose abuses by governments, replacing a discredited body despite objections by the United States that nations with a history of human rights violations could still join the new panel.

The assembly's action will effectively abolish the United Nations' main human rights body, which has been derided in recent years for allowing some of the world's worst rights abusers to participate. It will be replaced in June by a new Human Rights Council, which advocates and most nations hope will exclude brutal dictatorships and do a better job of confronting governments that abuse their own people.

The measure creating the 43-member rights body was passed by a vote of 170 to 4, with the United States, Israel, Palau and the Marshall Islands voting against it. Belarus, Iran and Venezuela abstained, citing a concern that the council would become a tool for powerful Western countries to punish poor nations.

In a shift in U.S. policy, the Bush administration agreed Wednesday to help fund the rights council and has begun an internal discussion over possible U.S. membership. John R. Bolton, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and a staunch critic of the new council, said that though Washington opposed it, the United States will pledge support for making it "as strong and effective as it can be."

"We remain committed to support the U.N.'s historic mission to promote and protect the basic human rights of all the world's citizens," Bolton said. "The real test will be the quality of membership that emerges on this council and whether it takes effective action to address serious human rights abuse cases like Sudan, Cuba, Iran, Zimbabwe, Belarus and Burma."
The debate over the new human rights agency had put the United States in a difficult position. Under President Bush, Washington has been urging a reform of U.N. management of a variety of programs. But in this case, it opposed the rules drawn up to determine which nations could serve on the panel and cast a vote.

Wednesday's action follows a nearly year-long campaign by U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan to create a human rights organization to replace the Geneva-based Commission on Human Rights. Annan said the 60-year-old agency, which drafted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, currently suffers from "declining credibility and professionalism" and has cast "a shadow on the reputation of the United Nations system as a whole."

Members of the current human rights panel include Zimbabwe, Sudan, Cuba, China and Saudi Arabia, all of which have long records of human rights violations. Rights abusers such as China have used their positions on the commission to block criticism of their human rights records.
Annan had proposed setting high membership standards, including a requirement that council members obtain votes from at least two-thirds of the U.N. membership to join. But he concluded that a compromise proposal, which required only an absolute majority of 96 votes for membership, was still worth supporting.

General Assembly President Jan Eliasson, who led negotiations on the council, said the resolution adopted Wednesday would strengthen the U.N. capacity to confront rights abusers and make it more difficult for them to join. "The true test of the council's credibility will be the use that member states make of it," Annan said.

Bolton said Wednesday that Washington opposed the council for several reasons, but he highlighted the proponents' failure to secure the two-thirds vote requirement for membership. "It would have helped to prevent the election of countries that only seek to undermine the new body from within," he said.

But other delegates and human rights advocates questioned the U.S. commitment to creating a strong human rights panel, saying that Bolton rarely participated in the months of negotiations aimed at forging a new council. When he did weigh in -- for instance, by asserting in December that the five veto-wielding members of the U.N. Security Council should have permanent seats on the rights panel -- he complicated the deliberations, according to diplomats and rights advocates.

In a thinly veiled attack on the United States, Peter Maurer, the Swiss ambassador, lashed out at those "who want to make us believe that they are the only ones fighting for an ambitious human rights machinery," saying: "All too often, too high-minded ambitions are coverups for less noble ambitions and are aimed not at improving the United Nations but at weakening it."
Senior U.N. officials and delegates said Bolton barely highlighted the importance of the two-thirds membership vote at a critical meeting this month with Eliasson, leading the General Assembly president to believe that the United States could accept the compromise. Eliasson declined to discuss the conversation.

"I really feel that this is a matter I can't go into, but you're right that the emphasis was not so strongly on two-thirds," he said.

Bolton insisted that he forcefully raised the issue with Eliasson and said suggestions that the United States was not fully engaged in the negotiations are "ridiculous."

Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and other human rights groups praised the General Assembly's decision. But they cautioned that U.N. members will have to ensure that governments with poor rights records do not win election to the new council.

And here is Warren Hoge in the New York Times, March 16, 2006:

March 16, 2006
New York Times

As U.S. Dissents, U.N. Approves a New Council on Rights Abuse


UNITED NATIONS, March 15 — With the United States in virtually lone opposition, the United Nations overwhelmingly approved a new Human Rights Council on Wednesday to replace the widely discredited Human Rights Commission.

The vote in the General Assembly was 170 to 4 with 3 abstentions. Joining the United States were Israel, the Marshall Islands and Palau. Belarus, Iran and Venezuela abstained.

Secretary General Kofi Annan, who first proposed the council a year ago, hailed the decision, saying, "This gives the United Nations the chance — a much needed chance — to make a new beginning in its work for human rights around the world."

But John R. Bolton, the United States ambassador, said the proposed council was "not sufficiently improved" over the commission, which has been faulted for permitting notorious rights abusers to join.

"We must not let the victims of human rights abuses throughout the world think that U.N. member states were willing to settle for 'good enough,' " Mr. Bolton said in a statement after the vote. "We must not let history remember us as the architects of a council that was a 'compromise' and merely 'the best we could do' rather than one that ensured doing 'all we could do' to promote human rights."

He said the United States would "work cooperatively" to strengthen the council, but he did not say whether the United States would be a candidate to serve on it.

That decision, a critical consideration for the panel's future, is still "under discussion," said a senior administration official in Washington who requested anonymity because he was discussing unsettled policy.

The resolution calls for the election of new council members on May 9 and a first meeting of the council on June 19. The commission, which is beginning its annual session in Geneva next week, will be abolished on June 16.

The council will have 47 members, as opposed to the commission's 53; the means to make timely interventions in crises; and a year-round presence, with three meetings a year at its Geneva base lasting a total of at least 10 weeks. The commission has traditionally met for six weeks, once a year.

Under terms meant to restrict rights abusers from membership, candidates for the council will be voted on individually rather than as a regional group, their rights records will be subject to mandatory periodic review and countries found guilty of abuses can be suspended.

But the final text had a weakened version of the crucial membership restriction in Mr. Annan's original plan, which required new members to be elected by two-thirds of those voting. Instead, council members will be elected by an absolute majority of member states, meaning 96 votes.

Major rights organizations and a number of American allies in the United Nations — which had all lobbied Washington to reconsider its opposition — argued that the terms were far better than existing ones and would keep major abusers off the council.

And then the Wall Street Journal editorial page:

Second Time as Farce

Wall Street Journal editorial
March 16, 2006; Page A12

So the United Nations votes 170-4 to create a new Human Rights Council, and the U.S. -- one of four dissenters with Israel, Palau and the Marshall Islands -- now promises to support the Council and pony up 22% of its operating expenses.

Back when the Bush Administration knew what it was doing, it chose to invest political capital in a quest for U.N. reform, pushing for Paul Volcker's Oil for Food probe and appointing bulldog diplomat John Bolton as U.S. Ambassador. Yet when Mr. Volcker's final report demonstrated pervasive corruption and incompetence at the highest levels, the Administration failed to demand Kofi Annan's resignation, apparently believing it wasn't worth the effort and that a politically beholden Secretary General could help advance U.S. aims.

Well, for months Mr. Bolton has been making the case that the proposed Human Rights Council failed to remedy the basic problems that had made its predecessor, the Human Rights Commission, the most visible emblem of U.N. fecklessness and hypocrisy. Among its problems: no formal bar to miscreant countries and an unhappy ratio of dictatorships to democracies. This should have been the easiest reform for the U.N. to get right.

Instead, the Administration has borrowed from John Kerry's playbook, voting against the Council before voting for it. "We have very high standards for human rights at the United Nations," Undersecretary of State R. Nicholas Burns told the Washington Post by way of explaining the U.S. "no" vote. He then added that "We also want to see the U.N. succeed, and so we hope the Human Rights Council can be strengthened over time so that they can deal effectively with real world problems such as Darfur and Burma."

Good luck with that, Mr. Burns. The Oil for Food scandal gave the U.N. a once-in-a-decade opportunity to adopt meaningful reforms, which is now being squandered. But instead of exacting a meaningful price for those failures, the U.S. is still agreeing to foot the bill for an outfit that actually gives the likes of Venezuela and Saudi Arabia a voice on human rights. So we are left with the political baggage of a costly diplomatic fight and a purely symbolic losing vote -- and a million-dollar U.S. taxpayer price tag for a morally bankrupt Council.

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