Reform or Regression? An Assessment of the New UN Human Rights Council

A Report by UN Watch
September 6, 2006

The Report in PDF Form

Executive Summary

This report assesses the first three months’ work of the new UN Human Rights Council, which was founded in June to replace the UN Commission on Human Rights.  Our conclusion is that despite looking promising on paper, the Council in practice has, sadly, been much the same as—and in some ways worse than—the body it replaced and was meant to better.

The imposition of public scrutiny to the election process led to some improvements:  former Commission members Sudan and Zimbabwe did not seek Council membership this year, and Iran was not elected.  However, the Council nevertheless remains significantly non-democratic, with a membership that includes such serial human rights abusers as China, Cuba, Russia and Saudi Arabia.  Non-democracies control the Council’s two largest regional groups, Africa and Asia, which together hold a majority of Council seats. The UN’s Islamic group, the Organization of the Islamic Conference (“OIC”), dominates these two groups as well, in addition to holding more than one-third of Council seats overall and thereby the absolute power to convene the body in special session.

Regrettably, its OIC members have been more interested in using the Council to promote their anti-Israel political agenda than to promote human rights—and to the fledgling body’s great detriment, they have been able to do so.  They have been aided in this endeavor not only by repressive regimes like China, Cuba, and Russia but also by some of the Council’s free, democratic members—Argentina, Brazil, India, Mexico, Peru, South Africa, and Uruguay—from whom one would expect better.  Only a minority of eleven Council members—Canada, the Czech Republic, Finland, France, Germany, Japan, the Netherlands, Poland, Romania, Ukraine, and the United Kingdom—have consistently defended the values and principles that the Council is supposed to promote.

The result?  In its three sessions to date, the Council has ignored the vast majority of the world’s human rights violations.  Even the dire situation in Darfur merited only passing mention by a few members, and resulted in no statement or action by the Council against Sudan. 

Instead, the OIC-dominated Council devoted most of its debate, 100% of its country-specific resolutions, two special sessions, one “fact-finding” mission, and a “high-level commission of inquiry” to one-sided, politically-motivated condemnations of Israel.  It said nothing when its subsidiary body, the Sub-Commission, broke its own most basic rules in order to one-sidedly condemn Israel as well.  It also enacted a resolution on another OIC cause célèbre, condemning “incitement to religious hatred” and “defamation of religions”—an attempt to legitimize last year’s violent reaction to Danish cartoons and to silence Middle Eastern dissidents by equating democracy with blasphemy.

Progress is still possible.  Annual elections for rotating membership allow scrutiny of the candidates, and it is possible for some human rights violators to be defeated, as happened with Iran this year.  The Council is working on building a universal review mechanism meant to examine the rights records of all countries equally which, if achieved, would be a great improvement.  So far, however, the Council’s record has been profoundly disappointing.

Member states should speak out and defend fundamental democratic values.  Vigorous action will be required to combat the Council’s obsessive anti-Israel measures that exploit human rights for political ends. NGO participation must be defended from attempted restrictions by repressive regimes.

Supporters of a Human Rights Council worthy of its name should not give up.  We must recognize that, notwithstanding unfounded claims of a new era, the goal of real reform remains ever elusive.  Only by honestly addressing both the Council’s strengths and weaknesses will the cause of reform be advanced.  Complacency in the face of this serious crisis of credibility will only lead the Council down the same ignominious path of the old Commission.  But if we act now—with conviction and alacrity—the Council may yet meet a better fate. 

For the Full Text of the Report, Click Here.

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