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Today’s compromise text deferring key decisions on a new Human Rights Council to the General Assembly would be an enormous missed opportunity not only for human rights but also for the United Nations reform process, Human Rights Watch said today. Rather than deferring action on this crucial reform, states should seize this historic moment and agree to establish a stronger, more effective human rights body.

The Human Rights Council is one of the centerpieces of the U.N. reform process and was due to be approved by the U.N. summit in New York September 14-16. The council is intended to be a standing body able to meet year round to promote and protect human rights with a membership that excluded the worst human rights violators.

After months of negotiations regarding the mandate and makeup of the proposed council, in a last minute compromise put forward by the United Kingdom, the current text refers the issue back to the president of the General Assembly for further negotiations “with the aim of establishing the mandate, modalities, functions, size, composition, membership, working methods and procedures for the council.”

“The Human Rights Council is a litmus test for this upcoming summit, and global leaders are in danger of failing it,” said Peggy Hicks, global advocacy director of Human Rights Watch.

At a minimum, Human Rights Watch said, the current text on the Human Rights Council should be strengthened to:

  • Provide for a standing body that can sit throughout the year with a mandate to address any matters relating to the promotion and protection of human rights;
  • Include at least one of the proposals that have been put forward to improve the quality of council membership (e.g., election by two-thirds vote or review of council members’ human rights records during their term);
  • Retain the existing rules for participation by nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and the system of special procedures that have been essential for the commission’s successes; and
  • Impose a deadline for establishing the council of no later than February 28, 2006.

The Human Rights Council has support from the vast majority of U.N. member states, including countries from every region of the world—virtually all Latin American and Caribbean states, the European Union, many African and Asian states and the United States. The small group of states that opposed the council included many countries with dismal human rights records, and with good reason to fear that a stronger U.N. human rights body would call further attention to that fact. While tenacious negotiation by those states has been a factor in blocking the Human Rights Council, the current impasse is also the responsibility of key supporters of the council.

“Countries such as the United States and the United Kingdom voiced support for the council,” said Hicks, “But now that push has come to shove, they have not made this reform a priority.”

Effective protection of human rights by the United Nations also requires strengthening the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Human Rights Watch said. But it’s unclear that a proposal to double within five years the Office’s existing budget—currently a meager 1.7 % of the total U.N. budget—will pass.

“The modest proposal of doubling the OHCHR’s budget is the minimum necessary to bring any real content to the human rights reform effort,” Hicks said.

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