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Discordant UN Voices on Rights

Prepared by: Robert McMahon, Editor
June 21, 2007

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The UN Human Rights Council was supposed to make the world forget about the disparaged Human Rights Commission. That panel had stained the UN’s reputation through “declining credibility and professionalism,” in the words of former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. But in the council’s first year, in some ways it appears to have taken up where the old commission left off. Intended to carry on as the international community’s main forum for addressing rights abuses, the council has singled out Israel’s actions in the Palestinian territories for extraordinary scrutiny, ignored widespread abuses reported in Zimbabwe, Burma, and North Korea, and discontinued the use of special monitors in Belarus and Cuba. The council kept the mandates of many other special monitors but they will now be subject to a new “code of conduct” that could compromise their ability to work effectively, says Human Rights Watch.

Still, others see signs of hope. In a move mandated under its founding charter, the forty-seven council members on June 19 approved the mechanism for “universal periodic review,” making sure that each of the UN’s 192 members comes under regular review. Countries linked to systematic rights abuses, like China, had escaped such review under the old commission. Rights watchdogs remain concerned about how such reviews will actually take place. Outgoing Council President Luis Alfonso de Alba called it “the beginning of a new era for the United Nations and a new culture in dealing with human rights.” But incoming President Doru Romulus Costea of Romania said the council would be judged by its willingness to defend victims of rights abuses. Costea’s compatriot, Adrian Severin, said the council’s decision not to renew (RFE/RL) his mandate as special monitor for Belarus was a blow against victims of repression by a government that even the UN General Assembly had censured.

U.S. officials were quick to condemn the council’s latest moves. The State Department accused it of “procedural irregularities” in adopting its new working rules and House Foreign Affairs Committee ranking member Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) said she would try to cut off (AP) U.S. funding of the council. But the committee’s chair, Tom Lantos (D-CA), has also faulted the U.S. government for “defeatism” in not seeking a seat on the council.

Edward C. Luck of Columbia University and Thorsten Benner of the Global Public Policy Institute write in Spiegel that the United States and European Union need to have a “searching transatlantic conversation” about the functioning of the council. UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour, whose staff carries out many of the directives of the council, acknowledges the new body’s politicization. But at a recent CFR meeting on preventing mass atrocities, Arbour said experts should “not jump to premature conclusions to write off this institution.” The council still could, she said, “have a very important role to play in the responsibility-to-protect prevention system.”

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