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September 08, 2005

UN Reform Issue Spotlight: Human Rights
Posted by David Shorr

I thought I'd temporarily set aside the debate of Pollyanna (me) versus Chicken Little (Mark Goldberg) versus Solomon (Suzanne) over whether agreement will be reached among UN reform negotiators in New York.

Instead I want to focus on one of the major issues of reform: creating a new Human Rights Council to replace the controversial Human Rights Commission. This issue is especially timely today. U.S. Ambassador John Bolton has requested a small group meeting on this disputed reform in New York, and the likely conveners of such a meeting are probing to make sure the Americans would be bringing new positions to the table. One central question is whether governments can be pressed to improve their rights records more effectively through confrontation or cooperation.

The existing commission is infamous for having some of the worst rights-violating regimes among its elected members -- among others the Sudanese government (even as it backs a genocidal campaign in Darfur). As such countries have used their places on the commission to shield themselves from international pressure, the body has drawn the scorn of the Bush Administration. But the commission is widely seen as discredited and a blot on the UN's reputation.

As it stands, the United Nations Commission on Human Rights meets for just a frenzied six weeks each spring, bickering continuously over resolutions. Now the diplomatic tug-of-war has carried over into the debate over replacing the commission with a new Human Rights Council that would remain in session all year. As one side sees it, the issue is the ability of rights-abusing regimes to fend off scrutiny; for the other side, the problem is the way the U.S. and others unfairly beat up on sovereign states.

As diplomats in New York wrangle over this, naturally there are structural issues regarding how the new body would be organized and elected (a summary of the U.S. position is here). The proposed mechanism for keeping the worst offenders off the council is to require election by a supermajority of two-thirds of the UN General Assembly. There is also supposed to be a system of peer review that subjects all countries to scrutiny on a regular rotation, beginning with those on the council -- a mechanism meant to level the playing field and also deter rights-abusers from seeking membership.

The real issue, though, is whether the council will push for improved rights by pointing fingers at regimes and voting on condemnatory resolutions or by extending a helping hand and quietly cooperating on solutions. The best approach, of course, is to strike a balance between naming-and-shaming and more cooperative approaches. Both are essential to strengthen human rights, and combining the two should be easier for a body that meets year-round.


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I'm a bit skeptical -- these seem like cosmetic changes. Formal requirements that member states not be rights-abusers, and get a two-thirds vote in the general assemby seem more likely to exclude the United States from the new Council than to remove states like Sudan. (Remember this? And that was without a super-majority requirement.)

The fundamental problem is the idea that, for example, England and the Sudan have equal moral authority to classify human rights abusers. Abusive nations will always care more about not being so classified than more civilized nations will care about condemning them.

An interesting report just came out by UN Watch ('s_Campaign_Against_America.doc), regarding Jean Ziegler's (UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food) and his campaign against the US. It is sad to see that UN people, appointed to speak on behalf of the world's hungry, abuse their mandate for cheap political propaganda...

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