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Governments should swiftly approve a draft resolution to create a new United Nations Human Rights Council, Human Rights Watch said today. Although the text presented today by Jan Eliasson, president of the General Assembly, falls short of the vision that Secretary-General Kofi Annan set out in his reform report of last year, governments should approve the resolution without watering it down. The U.N.’s ability to protect human rights – and its credibility – will depend on governments’ willingness to make the council a strong and effective body.

“The proposed new council is better than the old, discredited Commission on Human Rights but it is less than we had hoped for,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. “The burden is now on the governments of the world to upgrade the council’s membership so it has a better chance of meaningfully protecting human rights.”

Human Rights Watch expressed particular disappointment that the text dropped the requirement for members of the new council to be elected by a two-thirds majority of U.N. member states, as this would have created a high obstacle to the election of the worst abuser states to the new body. However, the heated negotiations about excluding the most serious violators have focused attention on the human rights records of candidates to the new council. “We hope the intense focus on membership will change the political culture of the council, so that membership is seen as a privilege, not a right, that depends on proven respect for human rights,” said Roth.

Human Rights Watch warned against further delay in creating a Human Rights Council. “Given the death-by-a-thousand-cuts tactics of abusive governments during these deliberations, there is no reason to believe that more negotiations will yield improvement,” said Roth. “Walking away will do nothing for those who need the U.N.’s protection. The moral high ground is achieved by staying and fighting to make the council as effective as possible.”

In his March 2005 report “In Larger Freedom,” Secretary-General Annan proposed replacing the Commission on Human Rights with a smaller standing body that would meet throughout the year. In his view, members would be expected to abide by the highest human rights standards, and their election would require a two-thirds vote of the General Assembly. In September 2005, heads of governments and states from all over the world mandated the U.N. General Assembly to establish a Human Rights Council that would “strengthen” the U.N.’s response to human rights violations.

The key elements of the draft resolution are:

  • The council will meet at least three times a year for ten weeks – an improvement on the commission’s single annual six-week meeting – with a right for one-third of the council members to call additional sessions “when needed.”
  • The proposal that members of the Human Rights Council be elected by a two-thirds majority of General Assembly member states was dropped under pressure from governments in favor of election by an absolute majority of member states. However, the resolution introduces for the first time the idea – seemingly intuitive but never before officially pronounced – that governments voting for Council members should consider the candidates’ human rights records, pledges, and commitments. If General Assembly members are guided by this admonition, it would allow supporters of human rights to discourage and sometimes defeat the candidacy of abusive governments.
  • The resolution would permit the General Assembly to suspend any member of the Human Rights Council that commits gross and systematic violations of human rights.
  • The old commission’s system of independent “special rapporteurs” and other special procedures, which is one of the great strengths of the U.N. human rights system, will be retained, as will the tradition of access for human rights NGOs. However, the special procedures will be subject to review within one year, so member states must be vigilant to ensure they are maintained.
  • Members of the council are committed to cooperate with the council and its various mechanisms – an improvement on current practice, in which some members of the commission refuse to grant unimpeded access to U.N. human rights investigators.
  • The right of the council to address serious human rights situations through country-specific resolutions is reaffirmed.
  • A new universal review procedure will scrutinize the records of even the most powerful countries – an important step toward redressing the double standards that the commission was often accused of applying.

Human Rights Watch calls on all member states of the United Nations to:

  • Work to elect the best possible candidate countries from each region of the world, including by insisting that the regional groups present their nominations to the council at least thirty days prior to election, to allow for public scrutiny of their human rights records and pledges.
  • Ensure that the sessions dedicated to universal peer review come in addition to the minimum three sessions and ten weeks now specified in the resolution.
  • Work with the new council to develop an effective, robust universal review procedure that will provide neutral, objective scrutiny of the human rights records of all countries in the world, and culminate in appropriate conclusions and recommendations.

“The moral authority of the U.N. depends on its ability to respond effectively and quickly to the plight of human rights victims around the world,” said Roth. “The current resolution is less than ideal, but it can be made to work if the governments of the world show the necessary commitment. The ball is in their court.”

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