Dawn of a New Era?

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Executive Summary

The new UN Human Rights Council was inaugurated last year amid great fanfare and high expectations. Proponents hailed it as the “dawn of a new era” for the promotion and protection of human rights. The Council has now met in four regular sessions and four special sessions, and will soon hold the final session of its first year. How has it performed so far? Has the Council met the criteria set by former Secretary-General Annan, who envisioned a new body comprised of members with solid records of human rights commitment, one that would eschew the politicization and selectivity that so discredited its predecessor, the Commission on Human Rights?

Sadly, despite having some promise on paper, the new Council has not been an improvement over the much-derided Commission. In some ways, it has even been worse. Members are supposed to be elected based on their human rights records, yet the Council includes persistent violators, and after the upcoming elections is expected to include several more. It is supposed to objectively and non-selectively promote and protect human rights worldwide, yet it has ignored the world’s worst abusers while repeatedly condemning only one country in the entire world—Israel. It is supposed to strengthen the UN’s human rights mechanisms, yet threatens now to erode the system and eliminate many of the independent experts.

In this report, we assess the 2006-2007 Council’s record by considering those votes and actions that were the most significant to Council stakeholders. These include most prominently resolutions addressing specific countries, as well as other resolutions implicating bedrock democratic principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Our analysis shows that, although slightly more than half of the Council’s 47 members are free democracies, only a minority of these countries—about a dozen—have consistently voted in defense of the values and principles that the Council is supposed to promote. Instead, the body has been dominated by an increasingly brazen alliance of repressive regimes seeking not only to spoil needed reforms but to undermine the few meaningful mechanisms of UN human rights protection that already exist. Their goal is impunity for systematic abuses. Unfortunately, too many democracies have thus far gone along with the spoilers, out of loyalty to regional groups and other political alliances.

All is not yet lost, but the Council’s free democracies must unite and redouble their efforts to ensure that the Council can live up to its promises. The upcoming June session, at which vital decisions on the Council’s mechanisms are going to be made, will be critical. As signified by the image on the cover of this report, victims worldwide—including prisoners of conscience like Aung San Suu Kyi—continue to count time while the Council neglects their plight. If the most damaging proposals are adopted—such as the elimination of the human rights monitors for specific countries—the prognosis for the Council will be grim.

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