The UN Commission on Human Rights, formed in response to the horrors of World War II, is credited with establishing the world's core human rights treaties. But the commission will likely hold its last session this month under a cloud as the most maligned body in the organization. What will replace it remains a matter of debate. The new body proposed on February 23 by UN General Assembly President Jan Eliasson, the UN Human Rights Council, is already coming under criticism in the United States for having soft membership criteria.
UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan last year urged UN members to replace the commission with a permanent body chosen by at least two-thirds of the General Assembly's members. This was intended to prevent the repressive governments voted onto the rights panel from banding together to block scrutiny of their records. The U.S. congressional task force on UN reform headed by George Mitchell and Newt Gingrich last year adopted Annan's proposal nearly in whole, a sign of crucial support in Washington. This CFR Background Q&A looks at the relevance of the commission and why it is being abolished.
But the proposal emerging from months of difficult negotiations by UN members rolled back some of the rigorous membership requirements. Membership would be subject to a simple majority vote of the General Assembly. Unlike before, states on the council would undergo periodic review of their human rights records, an improvement on the commission membership process. But U.S. officials say this still provides few assurances that rogue states can be kept off the world's leading rights panel (VOA). They have called for a re-negotiation of the council's terms, delaying a vote on the Council.
Echoing the Bush administration, the New York Times calls the proposal a "pathetic draft" that would do little to improve UN action on rights issues. But Annan, a dozen Nobel laureates, and watchdog groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch say the new council, however imperfect, deserves U.S. support. Former President Jimmy Carter, speaking Thursday at CFR in New York, conceded the shortfalls of the reforms but lambasted Bush administration for suverting the process. "My hope is that when the vote is taken the other members will outvote the United States," he said.
Some have raised the issue of whether the United Nations is capable of reaching an agreement on meaningful human rights reforms. Rights expert Joseph Loconte, writing in National Review, says the latest round of debate over reforming the rights commission was undermined by what he called "the ethic of multiculturalism," which holds that no nation's political culture can be judged better or worse than any other's. Pakistan's ambassador Munir Akram, whose country had opposed any tough criteria for membership in the council, told the Washington Post there was a "civilizational" difference between the way he and Western negotiators viewed the problem.
The debate shows the distance the world has come since the near unanimous passage of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948.