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U.N. Human Rights Council debuts amid doubt

The United Nations inaugurated the new Human Rights Council Monday, amid both hopes and doubts about its effectiveness. The group replaces the Human Rights Commission.
Wangari Maathai, Kofi Anan
Kenya's Wangari Maathai speaks during the opening session of the U.N. Human Rights Council on Monday.Sandro Campardo / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

The United Nations inaugurated its new Human Rights Council on Monday, vowing to uphold the highest standards of human rights and erase the tarnished image of its predecessor despite lingering doubts about its effectiveness.

The 47-member council replaces the Human Rights Commission, which became discredited in recent years as rights-abusing countries conspired to escape condemnation.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan urged the council’s members not to squander the opportunity.

“Never allow this council to become caught up in political point-scoring or petty maneuver,” Annan said. “Think always of those whose rights are denied.”

He said the council has a chance to start its work with a tangible achievement by passing two “vital documents” — one against enforced disappearances, the other guaranteeing the rights of indigenous peoples — and sending them for approval by the General Assembly.

Scaffolding of human rights
However, the council’s first meeting, which runs through June 30, aims only to establish its operating procedures, including how it should carry out human rights reviews of all 191 U.N. member states, and how often.

Louise Arbour, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, said the council should rededicate itself to the “scaffolding of human rights” enunciated by former President Franklin D. Roosevelt, whose widow, Eleanor, was the first chairwoman of the commission more than 60 years ago.

“President Roosevelt’s four freedoms — freedom from want, freedom from fear, freedom of expression and freedom of worship — challenged us to promote liberty though democracy, justice and an equitable distribution of resources,” Arbour said.

General Assembly President Jan Eliasson, who guided the negotiations that led to the creation of the council, told the delegates they were “part of an historic occasion.”

“Let us be guided by a spirit of renewed cooperation and of upholding the highest standards of human rights,” Eliasson said.

Vision and courage
The European Union said the council should take inspiration from Myanmar’s pro-democracy leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, who is under house arrest. Suu Kyi, who celebrated her 61st birthday Monday, has spent 10 of the last 17 years in confinement, making her one of the world’s most prominent political prisoners.

“The EU is committed to support women human rights defenders who put their freedom, safety and sometimes their lives on the line to advance the cause of human rights,” Austrian Foreign Minister Ursula Plassnik said. “One of these fearless women is Aung San Suu Kyi ... Her vision and courage should be our inspiration in this forum.”

Plassnik spoke for the 25-nation bloc because Austria holds the EU presidency.

The new council will hold more meetings than the commission, comprising 10 weeks a year — greater than the current six weeks. It will also be easier to convene special sessions to respond quickly to human rights crises.

Furthermore, any member that “commits gross and systematic violations of human rights” can be suspended from the council by a two-thirds vote of the General Assembly.

But some critics fear that the council will be as weak as the commission, undermined by member states accused of major rights violations. Cuba, Saudi Arabia, China and Russia won seats despite their poor human rights records, although others — notably Iran — were defeated.

Many countries accused of rights violations, who had been members of the old commission, didn’t even seek seats on the new council, including Sudan, Zimbabwe, Libya, Congo, Syria, Vietnam, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Eritrea and Ethiopia.

The United States has been skeptical of the council but has promised to work for its success even if it didn’t run for a seat. The U.S. delegation will be headed by Warren Tichenor, the new ambassador to the U.N. offices in Geneva.