By Peggy Hicks, global advocacy director
Published in International Herald Tribune
Geneva, June 21, 2007
The United Nations Human Rights Council was former Secretary General Kofi Annan’s dream child: a new, stronger institution to replace the much-maligned Commission on Human Rights, where human rights would be treated as the UN’s “third pillar” along with security and development.
In its first year, the council shied away from taking action on most human rights crises, dropped its scrutiny of Iran and Uzbekistan, and managed to condemn Israel’s human rights record without addressing violations by Hezbollah and Palestinian armed groups.
That disappointing record, however, should spur concerned governments into greater engagement rather than to write the council off.
The UN resolution establishing the council gave it a mandate to be stronger and better than the old commission. And the new election process helps put candidates’ human rights record under a spotlight.
Just last month, Belarus, which has an appalling record of stifling basic freedoms, failed in its bid for a council seat. Belarus’ unexpected defeat was due to a determined campaign by a few states, including the United States, and a group of nongovernmental organizations. It shows that when states stand up for a more effective council, they can make a difference.
There is still a long way to go. The same day that Belarus was defeated, Egypt, another serial abuser, was elected to membership after running unopposed. But if more governments were willing to stand up to states with poor records, fewer abusers would be elected.
The procedural reforms agreed to on Monday keep in place the greatest legacy of the council’s predecessor – the system of independent experts on human rights issues, such as violence against women, and specific countries, including Burma and North Korea. But the council, bowing to political pressure, eliminated the experts for Belarus and Cuba – a decision impossible to justify on human rights grounds.
Still, the human rights records of those countries, as well as every other member of the United Nations, will be scrutinized under the new system of “universal periodic review” also set up by the council this week.
The possibilities of using these reviews to expose violations and push for change are vast, but the spirit of “protect our own,” which has limited action by the council so far, could infect these reviews as well.
Critics have denounced the inclusion of a separate agenda item on Israel. The council should not single out one country in this way. However, the item refers to the “human rights situation in Palestine and other occupied Arab territories,” meaning that in principle, at least, the council can scrutinize both Israeli and Palestinian behavior.
The council has the potential to be far more effective than the commission – if governments that care about human rights do all they can to make it so. The council’s failings can be blamed not only on the minority of members with troubling records, but also the poor performance of a broader group of states with a professed commitment to human rights.
These states have taken positions they could never justify at home, apparently relying on the belief that “what happens in Geneva, stays in Geneva.” For example, governments that should have known better, including India, South Africa, Brazil, Japan, Mexico, South Korea and Switzerland, failed to oppose the council’s decision to end scrutiny of Iran.
Putting the council on track requires building a working coalition of states that put allegiance to the cause of human rights above the need for regional consensus and the desire to avoid offense.
Two concrete steps will help this.
First, civil society groups must fill the information vacuum that protects states from the consequences of their actions in Geneva, so that governments are held accountable at home for their performance at the Human Rights Council.
Second, states that care about human rights need to make a concrete commitment to the council's future. They should dedicate the staff needed to make it work, including a senior official to lobby in Geneva and in key capitals.
Washington should decide that it wants the council to succeed, and should make the effort it expended on the Belarus election the rule, rather than the exception.
The Human Rights Council has a long way to go before it fulfills the promise that led to its creation, but that should inspire stronger action, not more hand-wringing.