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United States efforts to renegotiate the General Assembly resolution creating a U.N. Human Rights Council have failed and the best result would be for the resolution to be adopted by consensus, Human Rights Watch said today.

“The proposed new council is a major improvement over the old Commission on Human Rights,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. “It would be reckless for the United States to force a vote because that will invite amendments from spoiler states to weaken the council. The time has come to accept the overwhelming consensus behind the council and to work to make it function effectively.”

For five months following the commitment made at the U.N. World Summit in 2005, the 191 U.N. members negotiated the creation of a new Human Rights Council, leading to the proposal advanced on February 23 by the president of the General Assembly, Jan Eliasson of Sweden. The overwhelming majority of countries, including those of the European Union, Latin American democracies, Canada, India, South Africa, Japan, and most other democracies and allies of the United States, have now said they support the proposal.

“If the U.S. accepts this consensus, the proposal is likely to be adopted,” Roth said. “But if the U.S. insists on further amendments, we are likely to be worse off. Countries hostile to human rights protection are keen to introduce amendments that would weaken the new council.”

The new proposal, although not as strong as Human Rights Watch had sought, represents a significant improvement over the existing commission. Since election to the council will now require the high threshold of an affirmative vote of an absolute majority of the 191 members of the United Nations – that is, 96 positive votes – it will enable human rights supporters to block the election of most states that severely violate human rights. Council members must pledge to uphold the highest human rights standards, subject themselves to review of their human rights records during their term on the council, and cooperate fully with U.N. human rights investigators. They can also be suspended for gross violations.

Other key elements of the proposal include:

  • 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 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 nongovernmental human rights organizations.
  • 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.

These are major advances for human rights protection within the U.N. system. The United States should not block the overwhelming consensus that favors adoption of the proposal.

Instead, looking forward, the United States should work to elect the best possible membership and get the new council up and running with strong new rules and procedures. Specifically, Human Rights Watch urges the United States and all U.N. Member States to:

  • Work to elect the best possible candidates from each region of the world, including by insisting that regional groups present their nominations to the council at least 30 days prior to election, to allow for public scrutiny of their human rights records and pledges.
  • Create a depoliticized agenda that does not single out any one country for scrutiny.
  • 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 United States depends on its working effectively with other countries to advance human rights protection – not blocking a consensus proposal that makes so much progress for human rights,” said Roth. “The current resolution can be made to work if the United States joins with other democracies to establish the new council and make it function effectively.”

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