New UN Human Rights Body Plagued by Old Problems, Say Experts

By Monisha Bansal | July 7, 2008 | 8:23 PM EDT

( - Ahead of the second annual election of members of the U.N. Human Rights Council, human rights experts in Washington, D.C., said Thursday that the new body had proved no more effective than the discredited one it replaced.

On May 17, the 47-member Human Rights Council will hold elections to fill 14 vacant seats. The council -- the U.N.'s most important human rights apparatus -- was created last year to replace the U.N. Commission on Human Rights, which was often criticized for the presence and conduct of governments with controversial human rights records.

"The Human Rights Council has provided no significant improvement over the former Commission on Human Rights," Leonard Leo, executive vice president for the Federalist Society, said at an event at the Heritage Foundation.

Leo called the current state of the council "very sad."

"We see the same old players," he said. "Human rights abusers receive membership on the council to provide themselves with this facade or patina of caring about the individual worth and dignity of every person."

In March, the United States announced that for the second consecutive year, it would not seek a seat on the council on the grounds that the new body had not gone far enough to reform the process.

"We decided not to run because the early record of the council has not proven to address its mandates ... to address the most gross and systematic violations of human rights," said Mark Lagon, deputy assistant secretary for international organization affairs at the State Department.

"We don't want to lend credibility to an institution that has not yet earned that credibility," he said.

"There is just as much opportunity as ever for the human rights abusers to be elected, if not more," Leo charged. He noted that fewer seats are given to "free" Western nations than was the case with the defunct Commission.

"We should not expect much improvement in the council for its second year," Leo said, advocating for abandoning the current system.

"The council whose membership is allowed to include major human rights abusers will never be able to seriously address the issues that the Human Rights Council is designed to consider," he argued.

"We need to create a system that changes the category of decision makers, limits the block voting that so often occurs, includes some sort of criteria or metric whereby rogue states can be stopped from sitting on the council."

Elisa Massimino, Washington director of the non-governmental organization Human Rights First, said while the council was "clearly not better" than its predecessor, "I'm not prepared to say it is worse."

"Nobody is asking the United States to be a cheerleader for a flawed institution, but we are asking the United States to lead," she said.

Massimino said victims of human rights abuses "need this global forum on these issues, and they need it to work."

"This is the only place a lot of them have where they can come to speak about their own governments and force attention to their issues. On that basis, we have the responsibility to make it work."

According to the council, it is responsible for "preventing human rights violations, securing respect for all human rights, promoting international cooperation to protect human rights, coordinating related activities throughout the United Nations, and strengthening and streamlining the United Nations system in the field of human rights."

See Earlier Stories:
African and Islamic Nations Shield Sudan at UN Rights Meeting (Dec. 13, 2006)
UN Rights Council and Israel: Three Out of Three (Nov. 15, 2006)
Little Reason for Optimism on New Human Rights Council (June 26, 2006)

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