On Thursday, the secretary general of the United Nations, Kofi Annan, did what was once unthinkable: He told the UN Commission on Human Rights that the best way to improve the organization was simply to throw it away and start from scratch.
Annan's bombshell, delivered to a packed room here, could have a transformative impact on human rights worldwide. The commission has indeed suffered, as Annan understatedly put it, a "credibility deficit" over the last few years, as the world's most abusive governments flocked to Geneva each year for six weeks only to give each other passes for their egregious records of human rights violations.
This year some observers felt that the organization had a choice of proving its critics wrong by taking on the worst violators, or collapsing under the weight of its lack of legitimacy. It appears to have chosen the latter. A month into its session, commission members have already decided not to act on rights violations in China, Chechnya, Iran or Zimbabwe.
Annan's bold proposal to replace the 53-member commission with a smaller Human Rights Council that would stand as a "society of the committed," whose members "should undertake to abide by the highest human rights standards" could not come at a more welcome moment. The proposed Human Rights Council would operate year-round, which would ensure its ability to respond quickly to crises and to act preventively - a role in which the current commission has consistently failed in situations such as Darfur.
Such an expert, permanent council would also be able to follow up more effectively on specific recommendations to states, to respond promptly when these are not implemented, and to interact with the rest of the UN human rights system.
Today, countries too often avoid reprimand by making pledges and putting on their best behavior, knowing that the commission's short session will soon end. This year, China cynically released a political prisoner, Rebyia Kadeer, on the eve of the commission's session. Russia proposed small human rights commitments to the Europeans in exchange for an agreement not to discuss its human rights record in Chechnya, despite its intensified campaign of forced disappearances there. And Sudan is busy playing for time in a repeat of last year's effort to guarantee that Khartoum will escape condemnation for its massive killing campaign in Darfur.
Annan has suggested that members of the new council be elected by a two-thirds majority of the General Assembly, a requirement that should help to keep at arm's length those states with the worst human rights records. To ensure its credibility and legitimacy, states should make public commitments in seeking election to the council. For example, candidates would commit themselves to cooperate with all UN investigators and missions, to ratify all major UN human rights treaties and to complete and submit all reports subsequent to joining those treaties. Membership in the council should be a reward rather than a right, and should obviously be extended only to countries that have shown a genuine commitment to human rights.
Certain features of the current system should be carried forward into the new Human Rights Council. The human rights investigators appointed by the commission - 40 independent experts on various countries or issues - are an invaluable resource that must be maintained within the new council structure. And the council should retain the very active participation of civil society, human rights abuses victims and defenders from all over the world.
Kofi Annan's call to overhaul the UN human rights system must be heeded so as to renew public confidence in the United Nations itself. States must now work together to ensure that such vision is put into action at the time of the Millennium Summit in September in New York by agreeing early in principle to establish a Human Rights Council.
Over the coming months countries will be jostling for membership in the Security Council and to defend other interests. It would be unfortunate if they focus on their own narrow self-interest and provide only lip service to human rights.