UN, US on Collision Course over New Human Rights Body

By Patrick Goodenough | February 27, 2006 | 7:17pm EST


(CNSNews.com) - United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan wants the world body this week to approve plans for a new U.N. human rights council, but critics say the reform proposal has been watered down to the point where it should be rejected.

The United States is at the center of a growing tussle between those who argue that the proposal for a new human rights council is an improvement on the discredited Commission on Human Rights and should be embraced; and others who say accepting the proposal as it stands would squander the biggest U.N. reform opportunity in decades.

Annan has been joined by some governments, human rights groups and a dozen Nobel peace prize laureates in urging the U.S. and other governments to accept the plan for a new-look council.

But U.S. ambassador to the U.N. John Bolton questioned whether the proposal released late last week would bar notorious rights violators -- a key factor in the decision to scrap the Commission on Human Rights (UNCHR) in the first place.

Regimes like Cuba, Sudan and Saudi Arabia have obtained seats on the UNCHR and used them to insulate themselves and their allies from criticism.

Annan called last March for the UNCHR to be replaced by a new human rights body whose members are held to the "highest" human rights standards.

The U.S. has been pushing for a considerably smaller body than the 53-member UNCHR, that would meet more often than the UNCHR's six-week annual session in Geneva, and whose members would be elected by a two-thirds majority of the General Assembly. That would make it more difficult for violators to win seats. Washington also wants countries under Security Council sanctions to be automatically excluded.

But a resolution drafted by two U.N. "facilitators" - the South African and Panamanian envoys - and presented by General Assembly president Jan Eliasson on Thursday falls short on all of these counts, thanks to the hard lobbying of countries like Egypt, Pakistan and Cuba.

The proposal provides for a Council of 47 members -- far larger than the 20-30 seat body the U.S. wanted -- and with a reworked regional representation formula that weakens the West in favor of developing countries. (Western nations' representation falls from 18.8 percent in the old Commission to 14.9 percent in the proposed new Council; Africa and Asia together will account for 55.3 percent of the Council seats, up from 50.9.)

The new body will meet three times a year for a total of at least ten weeks, and members will be elected by an absolute majority (96 of the General Assembly's 191 members), rather than two-thirds (128 members).

Moreover, countries under sanctions won't be excluded. The draft says membership will be open to "all" U.N. member states, while adding that a state's human rights record should be "taken into account" when electing members, each of which will also be subject to a periodic review.

In a further blow to the U.S., the proposal says that no nation will be eligible for immediate re-election after serving two consecutive terms. America has held a seat on the UNCHR every year since 1947, with one exception when it was unexpectedly voted off in 2001.

Brakes

It's not just America's expectations that have been disappointed -- Annan himself has been handed a far feebler proposal than the one he originally envisaged. For instance, he also called for a two-thirds vote for membership.

Nonetheless, Annan defended the document presented by Eliasson.

"Obviously the proposal isn't everything I asked for," he said, but added that there were "enough good elements" to build upon.

"I don't think anyone can claim this is old wine in new bottles ... I think we should look at it in broad terms and not at individual elements."

While Annan says there's been enough time for discussion and wants the proposal approved this week, Bolton is trying to apply brakes, arguing that far from a done deal, the process should now move beyond the "facilitator" stage to "real international negotiations" -- governments sitting across the table from one another, negotiating a text.

Bolton said Washington would make a decision shortly on how to move forward.

Conservative experts are urging the U.S. not to support the proposed resolution.

Scholars from the Hudson Institute, the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) said in a joint statement that the text showed rights-abusing nations at the U.N. "have succeeded in thwarting the goal of democratic societies to build an international human rights institution worthy of a leadership role in the 21st century."

"U.S. support for this proposal is especially unwarranted because the name change from Commission to Council will erroneously suggest renewed credibility in a body which has failed to undergo fundamental change," Anne Bayefsky of the Hudson Institute, Danielle Pletka of the AEI and Brett Schaefer of the Heritage Foundation said.

They called on the U.S. "to resist the inevitable clamor to approve this proposal without a complete overhaul."

Islamic intervention

Apart from such concerns as those relating to membership criteria and size, some critics are also unhappy with a last-minute addition to the text's preamble, made at the insistence of the 57-member Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) because of the current dispute over cartoon depictions of Mohammed.

It refers to "the need for all states to continue international efforts to enhance dialogue and broaden understanding among civilizations, cultures and religions and emphasizing the states, regional organizations, non-governmental organizations, religious bodies and the media have an important role to play in promoting tolerance, respect for and freedom of religion and belief."

Observers noted that there was no explicit endorsement of freedom of speech.

U.N. Watch, a Geneva-based NGO, said the clause "would impose demands on the media to respect religion, but ... omits any mention of freedom of speech or freedom of the press."

"This rewards the violent agitators who burned buildings and killed innocent people [during anti-cartoon riots] with a grant of international legitimacy," said the group's executive director, Hillel Neuer, whose overall assessment of the proposal was that "this is hardly mission accomplished."

International Humanist and Ethical Union president Roy Brown worried that the clause would allow the OIC "to stop NGOs discussing human rights abuse by OIC states on the grounds of 'failure to respect' religion."

Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International backed the draft, saying while it was less than hoped for, it should be adopted. So did other rights groups including the Open Society Institute and the Carter Institute.

Twelve Nobel laureates, including former President Jimmy Carter and former South Korean leader Kim Dae-jung, issued a joint statement backing the proposal.

U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Louise Arbour acknowledged the text was not ideal but said "there is no reason to believe that more negotiating time will yield a better result."

See also:
UN's Ability to Overhaul Its Human Rights Role Questioned (Feb. 08, 2006)
Voting by UN Rights Commission Reveals Divisions (Apr. 15, 2005)


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