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The 47 countries elected yesterday to the new Human Rights Council by the United Nations General Assembly represent a substantial improvement over the recent membership of the former Commission on Human Rights.

“The new council has better tools and a better membership than the old commission,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. “It’s now up to the members to live up to the council’s potential in their actions and votes to curb rights violations and strengthen protection of victims.”

Human Rights Watch noted three factors that contributed to the generally improved membership:

  • New membership standards and election procedures discouraged states with some of the worst records of human rights abuses from even running for election, including recent commission members Sudan, Zimbabwe, Libya, Syria, Vietnam, Nepal, and Egypt, and others of the worst violators, including North Korea, Burma, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Belarus, and Ivory Coast.
  • A handful of politically powerful violators were elected, including China, Russia, and Cuba. But major oil producers such as Iran, which has a very poor human rights record, and Venezuela, which declared it was not bound by the council’s new standards, were defeated. While Human Rights Watch had expressed opposition to six of the new members on human rights grounds, they account for only six out of 47 seats on the new council.
  • Countries campaigned for election in large part by highlighting the contribution they would make to the promotion and protection of human rights. While issuing human rights pledges and commitments was voluntary under the resolution creating the new council, all 64 candidates published written commitments for advancing human rights.

The disappointing election of certain violators, including Azerbaijan in a run-off round of voting, shows that candidates were not elected solely on their rights records, Human Rights Watch said. Still, the new standards improved membership overall. Cuba and Saudi Arabia came in near the bottom of their regional groups and Human Rights Watch urged U.N. members to make the human rights records of all candidate states the determining factor in future elections for the council.

Human Rights Watch further observed that all the new council members are required to cooperate with U.N. human rights investigators, they will be scrutinized under the new universal review procedures, and they can be suspended for serious rights violations.

The new council will have a greatly enhanced ability to address human rights violations. It will meet at least three times a year, can easily call special sessions, and is required to periodically review the human rights records of all U.N. member states, including the most politically powerful. The council also has the strong mandate of its creation by a near-unanimous vote of the U.N. General Assembly on March 15, 2006.

“The new members must seize this historic opportunity to shape a council that will make full use of these tools for the advancement of human rights and protection of victims,” said Roth. “Other governments too, including the United States, should also help build a strong council.”

Human Rights Watch noted that among the substantive issues facing the new council will be adoption of a new treaty against enforced disappearances (over U.S. opposition because of its current use of this practice), and adoption of country-specific resolutions on such dire situations as Darfur and Uzbekistan.

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