Supportive States Should Invest Further to Strengthen Council
June 19, 2007
The council has left key questions unanswered, which gives leeway to countries that seek to weaken human rights protections. The decision presents a floor for the council's work, but a great deal more needs to be built.
Peggy Hicks, global advocacy director

The United Nations Human Rights Council ended its disappointing first year by agreeing on a package of procedural measures that lay a foundation for its future work, but fall short of providing it a firm footing, Human Rights Watch said today.

“The council has left key questions unanswered, which gives leeway to countries that seek to weaken human rights protections,” said Peggy Hicks, global advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “The decision presents a floor for the council’s work, but a great deal more needs to be built.”

The council is also expected to adopt resolutions proposed in this session on the Occupied Palestinian Territories and Darfur, while continuing to overlook dozens of other human rights situations that require its attention, including Afghanistan, Colombia, Iraq and Sri Lanka. Yesterday’s procedural decisions, however, should at least enable the council to turn its attention from institution-building to that growing backlog of work.

The institution-building steps were proposed by council president, Mexican Ambassador Luis Alfonso de Alba, and agreed without a vote just minutes before a midnight deadline. The council had been deadlocked throughout the day reportedly by China’s attempt to impose additional hurdles to council action on specific country situations. The text adopted by the council included new non-binding language urging states that propose country resolutions to “secure the broadest possible support for their initiatives (preferably 15 members).”

The institution-building package includes several reforms relating to the council’s system of human rights experts, a process for reviewing the human rights records of all UN member states (known as Universal Periodic Review), and an agenda for the council’s future work.

The council’s “special procedures” system includes 41 independent human rights experts or working groups focusing either on particular themes, like violence against women and arbitrary detention, or on human rights situations in specific countries, including Burma and Sudan. In the future, these experts will be appointed from a published roster of qualified candidates.

However, the selection process includes a worrying role for a committee appointed by the council’s regional groups, which could allow political rather than human rights considerations to affect the process. Council experts will also be subject to a new “code of conduct” that leaves their independent role intact, but is overly intrusive regarding their working methods, Human Rights Watch said.

Although the council has already had a full year to review the special procedures, it decided to continue the process through the next year and beyond, when it will consider again the mandates as they come up for renewal. Despite that opportunity for further review, the council bowed to political pressure by eliminating two country experts immediately, those for Belarus and Cuba. Sacrifice of those two mandates was a tradeoff aimed at maintaining the council’s ability to appoint country-specific experts, and continuing the remaining mandates, which address Burma, Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo, Haiti, Liberia, North Korea, the Occupied Palestinian Territories, Somalia and Sudan.

“Given the poor human rights conditions in Belarus and Cuba, the council’s decision to reduce its focus on those countries is impossible to justify,” Hicks said. “The UN General Assembly has condemned Belarus’s shameful record, and rejected its candidacy for the council. Why is the council itself applying a different standard?”

The agenda established for the work of the council sets broad outlines, giving the council little guidance on addressing its growing backlog. The notable deviation from the agenda’s broad-brush approach is a specific item on the “human rights situation in Palestine and other occupied Arab territories,” continuing the practice of the council’s predecessor, the UN Commission on Human Rights.

While the deteriorating human rights situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territories certainly warrants the council’s attention, the council’s decision to single that situation out for separate treatment on the agenda is a textbook example of selectivity and politicization, which the resolution that established the council calls for it to avoid.

The Universal Periodic Review is the greatest innovation within the council, and provides a welcome opportunity to address human rights abuses wherever they occur. However, the process approved by the council seems more intent on not offending the country under review than it does on addressing human rights abuses. It remains to be seen whether states will be willing to use this system to take real steps to end such abuses.

Human Rights Watch said that, as a whole, the council’s institution-building exercise provided a foundation, albeit a weak one, for the body’s future work. There is space in the council’s broad agenda for it to take up human rights abuses requiring its attention. In addition, the Universal Periodic Review should ensure that no country in the world remains entirely immune from scrutiny. Putting the council on track requires states to take advantage of those opportunities to build a stronger, more effective council in the coming year.

“Countries that care about human rights should stop wringing their hands over the council’s shortcomings and should instead commit themselves to making it work,” Hicks said. “As a first step, states that support a stronger council must be willing to invest both greater political capital and more staff and resources to achieving that objective during this critical period.”

In addition to its institution-building work, the council adopted resolutions focusing on Israel’s compliance with earlier decisions on the Occupied Palestinian Territories and Lebanon. The council also heard a detailed report by the experts group formed on Darfur at its last session, which provides a roadmap for addressing human rights violations in that region. The council called for the expert group to continue its work for six months, and to report again at the council’s next session in September.

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