A report on the future of the United Nations, ordered last year by Secretary-General Kofi Annan and officially released today, accurately diagnoses the sorry state of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights but proposes an inadequate cure, Human Rights Watch said today.
Among its key findings, the report highlights that the Commission suffers a serious problem of credibility that casts doubts on the overall reputation of the United Nations. The report, entitled “A More Secure World: Our Shared Responsibility” and prepared by an panel of eminent persons, notes that the Commission’s most serious problem is that so many of its 53 member states are themselves responsible for serious human rights violations.
“The report is on target in recognizing that gross human rights violators seek seats on the Commission to protect themselves from criticism,” said Joanna Weschler, U.N. advocacy director for Human Rights Watch. “But instead of establishing membership criteria linked to a state’s human rights record, the panel members give up the battle and recommend expanding the Commission to include all 191 U.N. members.”
This recommendation is inconsistent with the report’s own analysis. In a section on the General Assembly, the only U.N. body with universal membership so far, the report states that the Assembly has lost its focus and recommends that it establish “smaller, more tightly focused committees.”
The General Assembly has hardly been a reliable defender of human rights. Just days ago, it voted not to take any action on or even discuss several resolutions against highly abusive states: Sudan, whose ethnic cleansing is responsible for ongoing crimes against humanity in its western region of Darfur, as well as Zimbabwe, and Belarus. Even the Commission with its current membership had succeeded in criticizing Belarus earlier this year.
“There’s little that a 191-member body could accomplish during a six-week session. At best, it would be yet another talk shop,” Weschler said.
Human Rights Watch has argued that governments wishing to serve on the Commission should fulfill membership criteria and make specific rights commitments prior to their election. In addition, the Commission on Human Rights should become a standing body, capable of acting upon crises as they occur rather than waiting for the six-week annual session. In its report, the Panel recommends the creation in the unspecified future of a Human Rights Council, which presumably would be permanent.
Among many other issues covered by the report, Human Rights Watch welcomed the prominent place that the report gives to the recommendation that the Security Council should stand ready to use its authority to refer cases to the International Criminal Court.
Also of great value are recommendations made regarding the responsibility of the United Nations to protect civilians from atrocities and mass killings committed by their governments. Human Rights Watch supports the five criteria of legitimacy laid out in the Panel’s report, but criticized the lack of reference to international humanitarian law as the indispensable guiding principle of any military action. Significantly, the report calls on the permanent members of the Security Council to “refrain from the use of the veto in cases of genocide and large scale human rights abuses” – a recommendation that Human Rights Watch strongly supports.
Human Rights Watch endorsed the report’s proposed definition of terrorism. The report found that the right to resist foreign occupation does not imply a right to target civilians and noncombatants.
“Nothing justifies deliberately attacking civilians,” Weschler said.
Human Rights Watch also welcomed the report’s recommendations addressing the due process concerns related to the listing of individuals and entities identified as supporters of al-Qaeda as well as lists created by some other Security Council sanctions regimes.
“We have been concerned for years about the lack of due process behind the listing and delisting of individuals and entities targeted for sanctions,” Weschler said. “The Panel was right to press for this problem finally to be addressed.”