What Future for Human Rights?

  • Date / 18 October 2006

Report on the chaotic second session of the new Human Rights Council

In 2005, the UN Commission for Human Rights was scrapped. In the words of UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, it had become too selective and too political in its work, and was in danger of bringing the entire UN system into disrepute. After several months of debate in the UN General Assembly a new forum, the Human Rights Council was created, designed to overcome the problems that had bedevilled the Commission. But Annan’s bold initiative was watered down in the General Assembly. The Council now has 47 elected member states, all of whom have pledged themselves to adhere to and fully uphold the principles of universal human rights. The reality however is a Human Rights Council barely distinguishable from the old Commission. Many of the old faces: China, Cuba, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan are still there. The United States is not. Having seen the extent to which Kofi Annan’s bold initiative was compromised in the General Assembly, the US voted against the creation of the Council and chose not to stand for election.

Chaos and Confusion

The Second Session of the new Council ended on Friday 6th October without any decision being taken on any of the resolutions laid before it, and with the President’s final statement being rejected.

During the three-week session the Islamists and their allies succeeded in suppressing all criticism of human rights abuse by the Islamic states, and by China, Cuba and the terrorist organisations Hamas and Hezbollah. They also succeeded in restricting the right of NGOs to speak on specific violations of human rights. Of the 44 resolutions presented to the Council, only six were on substantive issues, three of which were condemnations of Israel. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the Middle East conflict it is hard to believe that Israel is responsible for half of the human rights abuse in the world, or that the Sudan is worthy of praise for its efforts in bringing an end to the genocide in Darfur!

However selective and political the old Human Rights Commission may have been, it rarely sank to the level of farce just witnessed at the Human Rights Council.

“Human Rights Fiasco” screamed the headline in Le Temps of Geneva. “Three weeks of debate, 44 resolutions proposed and no decisions adopted… The alliance of violating states can continue its low work with impunity”.

This is transition year in the Human Rights Council. The old rules of procedure have been scrapped and everything is up for grabs: the timetable of future Council sessions; the special investigative procedures to be adopted by the Council; and the level of participation by NGOs. Whereas the old Commission had a regular 18 point agenda, the Council agenda offered no clarity as to which topics would be dealt with when. Planned sessions were frequently interrupted by the President to make way for informal consultations in an attempt to agree the way forward. On several occasions the printed program for the day was abandoned. It became very difficult for the NGOs, or even the national delegations, to follow proceedings.

Only six substantive resolutions were presented to the Council, three condemning Israel, one expressing concern at the continuing violence in Sri-Lanka, and two competing resolutions relating to Darfur. – one proposed by the EU and the other by the African States. These resolutions differed in that the African States insist that Darfur is a regional problem and that all aid should be channelled through the government of Sudan – presumably as a reward for their genocidal behaviour and for continuing to defy the Security Council.

It had been agreed that the President of the Council would draft a single final declaration covering the substantive issues raised during the three-week session. In the event, his report was comprehensively rejected. The West objected that Israel was the only state to be pilloried; the African States objected that violations of human rights were mentioned too often in the paragraph on Darfur; the North objected that when speaking of religious liberty it was also necessary to speak of freedom of expression; references to the right to development, which many developing countries want to see adopted as a human right, were opposed by some developed countries; and the Asian states felt that too much space was given to Islam in the text! The will to compromise was not much in evidence, except that is on the part of the Europeans, who under the presidency of Finland seemed ready to compromise on virtually everything, including their principles.

Squeezing out the NGOs

One of the major battles in the Council has been over the level of participation of NGOs. Some states want to restrict NGO participation in Council proceedings and to exclude them entirely from the “Universal Periodic Review”, the one real innovation in the mandate of the new Council. As a result, NGO participation in this session of the Council was severely squeezed. Even though IHEU had signed up to speak on five separate occasions we were actually able to speak only once. On one occasion we were 13th in the list to speak but only 10 NGOs were called. (This compares with the 30 to 40 NGOs who regularly spoke on any agenda item in the old Commission). On another occasion we were expecting to speak on the Thursday but were called on the Wednesday when we had no-one present.

In an expression of disdain for NGOs verging on contempt, the special rapporteurs were asked to give their concluding remarks after questioning from the member states before the NGOs were permitted to speak.

The most serious incident from an IHEU perspective followed the report of the special mission to Lebanon and Israel and the subsequent debate. IHEU had been listed as first NGO to speak in that debate, but were told on the morning of the debate itself that the speakers list had been scrapped. A new list would be opened at 11:00 am and only four NGOs would be permitted to speak – on what was clearly the most important issue debated by the Council this year! IHEU representative Cathy Buchs queued from 10:30 to 11:00, fourth in line to put our name down to speak, but at 11:00 a Lebanese jumped the queue and insisted he be permitted to speak first. The secretariat gave in, IHEU was pushed back to fifth place and we were unable to give our presentation. The President then closed the session two hours ahead of normal finishing time after just four NGOs had spoken.

I complained personally to the President and he apologised but told me that the Council had agreed only four to six minutes in total for NGOs to speak and he had bravely stretched it to eight minutes! The fact that there was still two hours available was apparently irrelevant. The NGOs had to be silenced. I then complained to the Secretary of the Council who told me that unlike the old days under the Commission, NGOs now had other opportunities to speak. But since debates are time limited, the NGOs – who speak last – can be squeezed out. Under the old Commission, any NGO in consultative status could speak for up to three minutes on each of up to six agenda items during the six week session. But during this three-week session of the Council IHEU was able to make only one three-minute presentation. We were not only denied the opportunity to speak on Lebanon and Israel but were also unable to find an opportunity to plead the case of four Iranian women under sentence of death in Iran. The one statement we were able to make was on Freedom of Expression and Defamation of Religion. (See box.)

The UN Commission on Human Rights, and now the Human Rights Council, have been called the Conscience of the World. But it is the NGOs who are the conscience of the Council. It seems there is now a very real risk that that conscience will be stilled, and the ability of NGOs to call the human rights abusers to account may now be denied.

What went wrong?

Since the Human Rights Council was supposed to be a new beginning, none of the rules of procedure of the Commission were carried over without debate, and many of the good ideas, such as full NGO participation in debates – have now been challenged by many member states of the Council. These are the 47 states, elected on a regional basis, all of whom are supposedly committed to the full implementation of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights and the other international Human Rights Conventions. Unfortunately the reality has fallen far short of this ideal. What can possibly be said of a Human Rights Council dominated by such well-known champions of human rights as Algeria, China, Cuba, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. It is these states that have been arguing strongly that country-specific investigations be discontinued, and for NGOs to be excluded from debates. It is greatly to the credit of Council President, Ambassador Luis de Alba of Mexico, that despite the intense pressure from the human rights violators many of the gains of the old Commission have been retained, in particular the work of the special investigators, the “Special Rapporteurs”. From an NGO perspective, it remains to be seen whether the squeeze we felt in this second session of the Council will be seen as a temporary low water mark, or the last gasp, not only of NGO participation in the UN Human Rights system, but of any effective international system for the protection of human rights. The signs are not good. In the words of one NGO commentator, “the Council has become barely distinguishable from a meeting of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference”.

Freedom of Expression and Defamation of Religion.

The full text of our statement on this issue can be found on the IHEU website. It draws attention to our earlier oral and written statements this year and to a paper, Defamaton of Religions and Freedom of Expression: Finding a Balance in a Democratic Society, published in the August 2006 edition of the Sri Lanka Journal of International Law. In this paper the author, Maxim Grinberg of Boston College, points out that the resolutions on Combating Defamation of Religion adopted by the Commission on Human Rights between 1999 and 2005 actually conflict with established international human rights law. In order to remedy these problems the author proposes three changes to any future resolution on this issue. Specifically, it should prohibit the use of religion to justify or incite any form of violence or hatred. It should provide an objective definition of the term “defamation of religions” to ensure that states cannot use the resolution to suppress legitimate opinions they do not like. And finally, any such resolution should make it clear that laws combating defamation of religion are not to be used to infringe other fundamental rights. In our presentation we urged the Council to seriously consider these proposals.

One other NGO, the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, noted that anti-conversion and anti-defamation laws have proliferated in response to those religious communities that find offence at the free expression of others. “Protecting religious sensibilities will be counterproductive unless the Council also effectively addresses the intentional failure by many of the states that proposed this resolution to protect religious minorities from violence.”

The issue of Freedom of Expression vs Defamation of Religion has become the major battleground between the Islamic and Western views of human rights. What is clear is that the Western, Universal view must prevail if we are not to lose many of the freedoms we believed had been won for all time.
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