UN in Belarus > News > around the world > 2006
New UN Council a unique opportunity to boost human rights protection
by Louise Arbour
In the coming days the international community will have the chance to start putting in place a reinvigorated system for the protection of human rights around the world. This unique opportunity comes in the form of a blueprint for a new global rights watchdog now awaiting approval by the UN General Assembly. The initiative deserves our support.
The world body is being asked to act on the establishment of a Human Rights Council to replace the contested UN Commission on Human Rights. The Council has taken shape over months of often heated and difficult negotiations in the wake of the World Summit held last September in NY. All the international leaders at that gathering reaffirmed the place of human rights as a central pillar of the UN’s work and decided that the Commission should give way to a stronger institution.
The proposal submitted to the Assembly by its President has the features to be that stronger institution. The draft will allow the future Council to deal more objectively, and credibly, with human rights violations worldwide. It sets standards for new member countries, who will be asked to make an explicit commitment to promote and protect human rights. It also provides for the suspension of members who commit gross and systematic abuses.
Unlike the Commission, the Council will be required to review on a periodic basis the human rights records of all countries, beginning with its members. No country will be beyond scrutiny, and no longer will countries be able to use membership of the UN’s premier human rights body to shield themselves or allies from criticism or censure for rights breaches.
The Council will also meet for longer periods throughout the year and be able to respond quickly to developing human rights crises. Potential violators would be on notice that the world was watching permanently, not just for six weeks in the spring, when the Commission traditionally comes together.
The Commission gave the international community the Universal Declaration on Human Rights and a number of core treaties to protect fundamental freedoms. During its annual sessions, the Commission drew attention to many human rights issues and debates. It allowed civil society groups to bring the grievances of individuals to the international stage, and as such was the only global forum where abusers could be directly confronted. It also established a unique system of independent human rights investigators. One of those experts was among the first to warn of impending genocide in Rwanda, while another expert drew attention to the situation in Darfur before it hit the headlines.
There is no escaping that the Commission has lost much of its credibility. Some States wanted to become members not to strengthen human rights but to protect themselves against criticism or to criticize others. And the Commission was slow to act to stem grave abuses on a number of occasions. This credibility deficit undermines the United Nations human rights system as a whole. The Council goes a long way to addressing the reasons for these shortcomings.
Let us be clear: the proposal now before the General Assembly is the result of compromise. It cannot be an ideal blueprint. And there is no reason to believe that more negotiating time will yield a better result.
But even an institution that is perfect on paper cannot succeed if the international community does not make the necessary change in the culture of defending human rights. It was in large part its failure to make this change – its inability to reinvent itself after laying down the framework for the international human rights system -- that hobbled the Commission. The case of Rwanda is sadly instructive. There, the Commission’s procedures worked, yet the investigator’s warnings went unheeded. The political will and commitment of the international community will be as important to making the new Council work as any changes in structure or working methods.
Louise Arbour is UN High Commissioner
for Human Rights. Her Office works with the Commission and would be called upon
to support the work of the Council.