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Q&A on UN Reform Summit

Q: What are the most important changes relating to human rights which will be considered at the upcoming summit?

A: Many of the issues to be addressed at the Summit have a significant human rights component, including the discussions of the responsibility to protect civilians, the definition of terrorism, and the millennium development goals. At the same time, there are two crucial changes under consideration that would fundamentally alter the way the U.N. works on human rights issues. First, the Summit will consider a proposal to replace the existing Commission on Human Rights with a stronger body that would meet year round—the proposed Human Rights Council. Second, the Summit has been asked to endorse a proposal from the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights for a doubling of the resources available for her office from the U.N. regular budget within the next 5 years (from a mere 1.7% of the U.N. general budget which it currently receives).  

 
Q: Why is reform or replacement of the Commission on Human Rights necessary?  
 
A: In his report In Larger Freedom, the Secretary-General found that the Commission on Human Rights’ “capacity to perform its tasks has been increasingly undermined by its declining credibility and professionalism.” As states such as Sudan with records of gross human rights violations have gained seats on the Commission, the Commission has been unwilling to even discuss abuses in some countries where severe violations are occurring. For example, in its last session, the Commission did not act on rights violations in China, Chechnya, Iran or Zimbabwe. It is essential that this “credibility deficit” be addressed.  
 
Q: Why would a new Human Rights Council represent an improvement over the existing Commission on Human Rights?  
 
A: The mandate and composition of the new Human Rights Council are still being debated, so the full answer to this question is not yet clear. However, there are two good reasons to be hopeful that some of the most serious problems associated with the Commission would be remedied by this proposed reform.  
 
First, the Human Rights Council will be a standing body that will operate year-round. In contrast, the Commission held only one six-week session per year (although it has the ability to hold special sessions, it has rarely done so). A standing body would help avoid a common practice with the current system, where states make grand but superficial gestures (e.g., the release of a political prisoner at the beginning of the Commission’s session) or broad commitments, but are able to avoid any real scrutiny of their human rights records because there is no ability to hold states to their promises until the following year (e.g., the prisoner can be re-arrested at the close of the session). A year-round body would also have the ability to respond to human rights crises when they occur, rather than waiting many months to address urgent issues.  
 
Second, a number of proposals are being considered that should contribute to improving the membership of the Council, in comparison to the existing Commission. The current draft calls for election of Human Rights Council members by a two-thirds majority of the General Assembly, which should make it harder for states with dismal human rights records to be included. In addition, states are to be selected not only according to geographical distributions, but also with due regard to their contribution to the promotion and protection of human rights. Human Rights Watch has proposed that member states of the Council also be the first states to be subject to “peer review,” a process by which the human rights of each state will be scrutinized in the Council. After an initial decision on establishing the Human Rights Council has been taken, HRW will make additional suggestions concerning voting procedures and methods that should also contribute to improving the Council’s membership.  
 
Q: Who supports the establishment of the Human Rights Council?  
 
A: The Human Rights Council has support from the vast majority of U.N. member states, including countries from every region of the world. The proposal to establish the Council has garnered support from virtually all Latin American and Caribbean states, the European Union, many African and Asian states, and the United States. Indeed, in a recent discussion at the U.N., it appeared that only a small group of 15 states would oppose the proposal for establishment of the Council. Those states include Cuba, Venezuela, Myanmar, Vietnam, Turkmenistan, Belarus, Pakistan and Syria. Of course, it is certainly no coincidence that the states opposing the Council all have troubling human rights records, and have good reason to fear that a stronger U.N. human rights body would call further attention to that fact.  
 
Q: What does this mean for the role of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights?  
 
A: As requested in the Secretary-General’s In Larger Freedom report, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Louise Arbour, has submitted an Action Plan for strengthening her Office. Human Rights Watch believes that only an expanded Office of the High Commissioner, with a more extensive operational and field capacity, will be able to address the human rights challenges the U.N. faces. In particular, it is essential that the regular budget resources of the Office be doubled over the next five years. With additional resources and capacity, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights will be able to better support the year-round Human Rights Council, and provide more timely and thorough information to assist in its deliberations.

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