Even in his worst nightmares former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan could hardly have dreamed when he called for the replacement of the failing Commission for Human Rights by a new Human Rights Council, that he was driving the first nail into the coffin of human rights at the United Nations (Roy Brown reports from Geneva). The last nail was hammered home on Tuesday 19 June 2007 when, after a year of often heated debate, the Council adopted without a vote a new set of procedures that will permanently limit its ability to deal effectively with human rights violations.
Whatever abuses of procedure there may have been – and there were many – in the old Human Rights Commission, its procedures had been laid down at a time of high ideals when the horrors of the Second World War were still vivid memories. All were committed to the idea that the UN was the appropriate authority to protect the human rights of all, and to bring violators to book.
The root cause of the problem in the Council is the geographical distribution of its membership. The African and Asian states have an in-built majority. Whilst this can be justified by the number of states and the populations involved, it enables a group of states, euphemistically called the “like-minded” group, to control the Council. Sadly, these states, as diverse as China, India, Pakistan and Cuba, are like-minded only in their determination to shield one another from accusations of human rights abuse.
In the old Commission for Human Rights these states may have abused the rules, but in the Council it is they who have now set the rules.
I have been involved in the human rights bodies in Geneva for the past four years as IHEU representative and it is difficult for me to describe my feelings of dismay at what has happened. It is also rare indeed for me to find myself in complete agreement with the US administration, but on this issue I am. The US, which is not a member, issued a communiqué following the last session of the Council which ended on 19 June, that said, in part:
“The Council focused almost exclusively during the year on a single country — Israel — and failed to address serious human rights violations in other countries such as Burma, Zimbabwe, North Korea, Belarus, and Cuba.”
Unfortunately, today the President of the Council announced a package of new rules that will make these problems even worse. First, this package terminates the mandates of the UN Rapporteurs on the Governments of Cuba and Belarus, two of the world’s most active perpetrators of serious human rights violations. Second, the agenda of the Council singles out Israel as the only country subject to a permanent agenda item.
The rules of procedure had been a matter of fierce debate throughout the year, with the “like-minded” states attempting to restrict the roles of NGOs and Special Rapporteurs: the experts appointed by the Council to report on specific allegations of human rights violations. The rules had to be agreed by the end of the final session, due to end on 18 June. In the event, the final session was adjourned late that evening after China had finally backed down on its insistence that any investigation require a two-thirds majority of Council members. The session reconvened the next day – when it was deemed that the rules of procedure had been adopted unanimously the night before. Only Canada saw fit to challenge this error of fact.
The US government communiqué continued:
“The United States is deeply concerned about the procedural irregularities that were employed last night to deny Council members the opportunity to vote on this agenda. The Human Rights Council was intended to be the world’s leading human rights protection mechanism. Its proceedings should be a model of fairness and transparency. Instead, in the interest of political expediency, procedural irregularities denied members the right to a vote.”
A future for the Human Rights Council?
It is clear that for the foreseeable future no non-western state will be condemned by the Council for violations of human rights. But this was already true of the old Commission – where time after time the government of Sudan, for example, was let off the hook for its actions in Darfur. Only Israel can be certain of condemnation. I also predict that no resolution will ever be passed condemning those who kill, or call on others to kill, in the name of religion. But I am equally certain that the Council will continue to pass resolutions “Combating defamation of religion” (read “Islam”).
The key question for Humanists, and indeed for anyone concerned about human rights, is this: Is there any point any longer in being represented at the Human Rights Council?
Despite everything I have said above I believe the answer is Yes.
We may not succeed in obtaining a formal resolution against those who kill in the name of religion, against oppression of the Dalits in India, or the genocide in Darfur, but we can continue to speak out on these issues and our voices will be heard. They are heard (and sometimes reported) by the media, they are heard by other NGOs with whom we can often make common cause, they are heard by the office of the High Commission for Human Rights, a body independent of the Council that reports directly to the UN General Assembly, and they are heard by the governments themselves. Governments often react strongly when their human rights violations are exposed by NGOs, indulging in ad-hominem attacks on the speakers and their organisations, and not infrequently calling for their expulsion from the Council; all proof that the NGOs have struck home.
UN Watch described the first year of the Human Rights Council as “A Catastrophe for Human Rights”. I can’t disagree. But the Human Rights Council remains the world’s senior body for the promotion and protection of Human Rights. It’s all we have. We must continue to make the best of it.
Roy W Brown is main IHEU representative at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva.