The creation of a new Human Rights Council by the United Nations General Assembly is a major step forward for the protection of victims worldwide, Human Rights Watch said today. The group urged U.N. members to make the new body as effective as possible by electing the best candidates from all regions of the world and by establishing strong rules and procedures.

“The new council should be a great improvement over the old Commission on Human Rights, but today’s vote is only the beginning,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. “Its ability to protect the weakest will now depend on the commitment of governments to curb rights violations.”

U.N. member states must now elect to the council only those countries which will concretely pledge to promote and protect human rights, utilizing the new standards and procedures built into the resolution.

“We call on all countries to pledge not to vote for governments that systematically repress their people,” said Roth. “States like Nepal, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, or Zimbabwe, which are current members of the old commission, cannot be allowed on to the new council.”

In turn, new council members must adopt rules which will enable fair and transparent proceedings; establish a practice of condemning human rights abuses and making strong recommendations for improvement; and design a universal review procedure which thoroughly and fairly examines the human rights records of all countries.

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 resolution adopted today. The overwhelming majority of countries, including those of the European Union, Latin American democracies, Canada, India, South Africa, and Japan, supported the proposal, which was adopted by a vote of 170 to four, with three abstentions.

The United States voted against the proposal. However, Human Rights Watch welcomed the fact that the U.S. did not insist on amendments that would have led to the unraveling of the resolution. Human Rights Watch also expressed satisfaction with the U.S. commitment to work with the new council, noting that it can play an important role in setting up the best possible council.

Human Rights Watch now urges all U.N. member states to ensure that elections to the council, slated for May 9 deliver the best possible candidates from each region of the world, including by:

  • Insisting that 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;
  • Insisting that regional groups present more candidates than spots on their slates so that governments have a real choice of countries;
  • Insisting that candidates commit to cooperate fully with the mechanisms of the Human Rights Council by granting unimpeded access to U.N. human rights investigators;
  • Insisting that candidates set forth a concrete and positive human rights agenda at home and for service on the council.

Once elected, the new council must address the worst human rights situations in the world regardless of political considerations, including by convening emergency sessions to ensure a timely and effective response. In addition, it should develop an effective universal review procedure that will provide neutral, objective scrutiny of the human rights records of all countries in the world – starting with council members – and make robust recommendations.

The Commission on Human Rights, due to resume its session on March 20, must roll over, en bloc, the mandates of its various procedures and mechanisms to the council. This will help keep the best features of the present system, such as the independent special rapporteurs, in place.

“Today’s resolution marks an historic step towards enhanced human rights protection within the U.N. system,” said Roth. “The challenge now is to make the Human Rights Council function effectively, so human rights victims around the world will gain the forum they urgently need to seek relief from abuses.”

Background:

The new Human Rights Council represents a significant improvement over the existing Commission on Human Rights. Since election to the council will now require the high threshold of an affirmative vote by an absolute majority of the 191 members of the United Nations – that is, ninety-six positive votes – it should enable human rights supporters to block the election of many 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 record during their term on the council, and can 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 human rights NGOs.
  • 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.