"The Commission on Human Rights has become hostage to human rights abusers," said Rory Mungoven, Advocacy Director of Human Rights Watch. "They're dedicated to protecting themselves from scrutiny rather than upholding human rights."
Mexico today reluctantly withdrew a proposed resolution calling on the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to monitor and advise on the impact of counter-terrorist measures, following concerted US pressure, obstruction from Algeria and other repressive governments and weakness on the part of the European Union. The US apparently feared criticism of its use of military commissions and refusal to grant prisoner-of-war status to Taliban prisoners.
"The United States invested substantial diplomatic energy into undermining positive initiatives such as the protection of human rights in the war against terrorism, and new measures to combat torture," Mungoven said. "Much more principled and positive engagement will be needed when the US rejoins the UN body next year."
Human Rights Watch warned that the Commission's most important tool, its capacity to name and shame human rights violators, was rapidly being eroded.
For example, for the last two years the Commission had voted to criticize Russia for abuses in Chechnya. But this year, although Russia blatantly flouted those previous resolutions, the Commission voted not to criticize Russia on Chechnya. It also voted to end its scrutiny of Iran, although reformists there have faced intensified repression over the past year. And for the first time in years, no member of the Commission showed the political will to even introduce a resolution critical of China.
Procedural motions were used to an unprecedented degree to prevent debate, including on Zimbabwe. And the Commission's own special rapporteurs, who investigate abuses in individual countries, were given only five minutes to report their findings from the past year on the basis of time pressures and budget constraints.
Even the European Union virtually stopped its traditional strong denunciation of governments by name on the floor of the Commission. Instead, EU countries confined such criticism to written statements, which are far less visible. European governments spent more time seeking to build consensus, both amongst themselves and with abusive governments, than galvanizing criticism where it was needed.
On the positive side, the Commission endorsed a draft Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture, authorizing investigative prison visits by U.N. experts. The protocol will now go to the U.N. Economic and Social Council, and then to the General Assembly for adoption. The Commission also set in motion the drafting of a new treaty to combat the phenomenon of disappearances. It extended the prohibition on summary and extra-judicial executions to cover sexual orientation, recognizing the vulnerability of gays and lesbians to such abuse. And the Russia/Chechnya and Iran resolutions, Mungoven noted, were only defeated by only one vote.
"Governments championing human rights need to match the abusers at their own game, with the same level of political energy and will," Mungoven said. "That means building and maintaining pressure for human rights throughout the year, not just during this once-a-year event confined to Geneva."
Human Rights Watch urged that any government whose records the Commission has condemned, who have failed to implement the Commission's resolutions, or who have refused to allow visits by the Commission's investigators and experts, should be excluded from membership on the commission. The vote on new members is expected in the next two weeks.