Commentary and Newsletters

Anne Bayefsky

The Proposed UN Human Rights Council: The Cure is worse than the Disease

Saturday, February 25, 2006

Yesterday the President of the UN General Assembly, Jan Eliasson, released the final draft of a new UN human rights body. With a design which promises an institution more contemptible than its predecessor, the process has brought the UN to the edge of an abyss.

Human rights protection was the UN's essential rationale. The credibility of the entire organization depends on fixing its discredited central human rights mechanism, the Commission on Human Rights. It is now clear that this effort has failed.

Regardless of its content, Secretary-General Kofi Annan desperately wants the creation of this new Council to stand as the crowning achievement of his nine years in office. Shortly after the text was announced, therefore, Annan released a statement dramatically raising the stakes. He claimed that failure to adopt Eliasson's proposal "would undermine the Organization's credibility, render the commitments made by world leaders meaningless, and deal a blow to the cause of human rights."

The reality, however, is that the proposed Council represents an enormous step backward for the international protection of human rights and the spread of democratic governance. The United States would do the legacy of Eleanor Roosevelt, the first Chair of the Commission on Human Rights, an enormous disservice by pretending otherwise.

The heart of the problem with the Commission lies with its membership. Current members include some of the world's worst human rights violators, China, Cuba, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Venezuela, and Zimbabwe. Throughout the months of negotiations over a new entity, such states vehemently opposed efforts to introduce criteria for membership on the Council. They succeeded. Not one criterion is included. Instead, the draft merely suggests "when electing members" a state's human rights record be "taken into account". Even states under Security Council sanction for human rights violations (albeit at the moment applying only to Sudan and Côte d'Ivoire) would not be excluded automatically.

Other features of the proposal which reveal the failure to fix the membership problem, and the consequences:

  • There is a provision for suspending a Council member that commits gross and systematic violations of human rights. But the step can only be taken with the agreement of two-thirds of the members of the General Assembly. Not even fifty percent of the General Assembly could agree that Sudan was guilty of human rights violations in November of 2005.
  • The proposal significantly shifts the balance of power away from the Western regional group, including the United States. The African and Asian regional groups will hold 55% of the votes. The proportional representation of the Asian group will see the greatest increase and the Western group, the greatest decline.
  • States which are elected must rotate off every two terms. The United States has been a member of the Commission since 1947 with one exception, and has played a leadership role in efforts to promote human rights throughout its history, as well as contributing 22% of its costs.
  • While there is a plan to conduct a human rights review of all UN states, there is no guarantee that even those countries found complicit in massive and sustained human rights abuses would be censured. No outcome of the review process is specified and the review takes place only after the elections.
  • Instead of a much smaller body designed to attract the best citizens of each regional group, the proposal merely reduces the number of members from 53 to 47.
  • Special sessions of the Commission can be called by only one-third of the Council's membership. Although this feature has been hailed as an improved capacity to deal with urgent human rights situations, the membership of the new Council will make it more likely that special sessions will be about the United States and Israel than China or Sudan.
  • The Council is given a mandate to follow-up goals and commitments "emanating from UN conferences and summits" - many of which have been specifically rejected by the United States.
  • A last-minute addition in response to the Organization of the Islamic Conference and the Danish cartoons affair, places the emphasis on roles or responsibilities rather than reinforcing freedom of speech.

There is no doubt the United States would be the biggest single loser from the creation of this body. But more generally, U.S. support is unwarranted because the name change from Commission to Council will erroneously suggest renewed credibility in the absence of real reform.

Annan is insisting that the vote to adopt this Council occur by the end of next week. His false deadline conveys a sense of panic that looking at the proposal too closely will raise serious doubts. The UN has waited decades to repair an ailing Commission. Annan's retirement party is not a good reason to substitute a cure that is worse than the disease.

This note appeared earlier in the National Review Online.