Issue 132: Time to Rally for Annan’s Human Rights Reform

Anyone questioning the necessity of Kofi Annan’s proposed overhaul of the 53-member U.N. Commission on Human Rights need only look to the results of its recently-concluded annual session.  Meeting in Geneva over March and April, the world’s foremost human rights forum once again failed to even consider most of the world’s worst abuses, turning a blind eye to the denial of women’s rights in Saudi Arabia, repression of political freedoms in Zimbabwe and state-organized violence against journalists in Iran.  To be expected, perhaps, when it is the inmates who run the asylum–when regimes as repressive as Cuba’s, or as murderous as Sudan’s, get to sit as regular members, judging others while shielding their own records of abuse. Annan’s innovation is to replace this den of delinquents with a society of the committed. Members would be elected by no less than a two-thirds majority of the General Assembly, and should be states with “a solid record of commitment to the highest human rights standards.”

The Secretary-General’s idea of a new, leaner and cleaner human rights entity, which he would elevate to the status of a council, stands as an unabashed repudiation of the High Level Panel’s recommendation to grant membership to all 191 U.N. member states, a decidedly paradoxical remedy given the Panel’s diagnosis that the Commission’s woes are the result of its unsavory composition. Annan’s proposal to exclude human rights criminals from deciding human rights norms seems obvious enough. Not so, however, in an international organization whose proceedings are too often dominated by dictators and despots. Annan’s plan, though not without perils, is bold, principled and courageous. But can it work?

Before considering how to bring about change, however, we ought to recognize that, sullied though the Commission bathwater is, there is a baby worth keeping.

First, there are the Commission’s independent human rights experts. Many perform critical work for the cause of human rights and fundamental freedoms. Experts like Stephen Toope and Asma Jahangir, both of whom addressed UN Watch’s debate on reform held during the session, speak out for the disappeared and for those whose freedom of religion is denied. (Last week, Jahangir was brutally arrested in her native Pakistan for participating in a marathon held to highlight violence against women.) Similarly, in previous sessions, Param Cumaraswamy, former Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers, drew the world’s attention to the subversion of justice in such places as Belarus, Zimbabwe and his own native Malaysia, for which he was harassed in Malaysian courts.

To be sure, there are some bad apples, even one that is rotten to the core. Jean Ziegler, the Swiss politician who in 1989 helped found the Moammar Khadaffi Human Rights Prize (and then won the prize in 2002), has been the U.N. expert on hunger for the past five years. Rather than work for the genuinely hungry populations of the world, Ziegler has made a mockery of his mandate by pursuing an overtly political agenda of anti-Americanism and Israel-bashing. At the most recent session, Ziegler devoted himself to accusing the U.S.A. of both committing genocide in Cubaand starving children in Iraq. Fortunately, there are term limits, and by next year his will end for good. A reformed human rights system will require far greater vigilance on the part of member statesthose responsible for having elected, and, worse,reelected Ziegler to screen out the abusers. If that can be achieved, the system ofspecial procedures should be preserved and even strengthened.

Second, the Commission is a singular occasion for NGOs to openly confront states that abuse human rights, and for activists from around the globe to build valuable coalitions. Unlike the General Assembly or the Security Council, the Commission allows NGOs to play a substantial role, allotting them the same amount of speaking time as most states. This allows human rights groups to expose violations, a process that sometimes rouses state replies and even changes of behavior. To be sure, as with the experts, there are also NGOs belonging to the Dark Side–those who are in reality government-organized (the “GONGOs”), like the groups from Cuba and China, and those who pursue politicized agendas that run contrary to the principles of the U.N. Charter. On the whole, though, the Commission has been made a far better place by the participation of civil society.

Indeed, during the latest session, there were NGO figures whose very presence inspired young and old alike. Ravi Nair, of the South Asia Human Rights Documentation Center, a feisty group based in New Delhi, energized a packed room of delegates to fight for democratic values, while speaking at a seminar on the U.N. Democracy Caucus. Similarly, Emilie Barrucand, the young ethnologist from France, stirred Geneva activists with her elegant but powerful voice for the Kayapo and other disenfranchised native peoples of the Amazon rain forests. After living among these tribes, in the most remote regions of Brazil, Barrucand founded Wayanga, an organization to defend their rights, culture and traditional grounds. Any reform must safeguard the vital role of NGO figures like Nair and Barrucand in championing the cause of human rights victims worldwide.

Ultimately, though, the real power of the Commission is commanded by its 53 state members. It is they who determine the agenda and enact the resolutions which become the object of international attention and influence global opinion. They alone appoint the experts and supervise their work. And, as the Secretary-General understands, so long as rogue regimes wield enormous control–to the extent that draft resolutions seeking to condemn Sudans mass rape and killings in Darfur are first given to Sudan and allies for their approval (which explains why all such initiatives have been emasculated or extinguished)–the Commission will continue to cast a shadow on the reputation of the United Nations system as a whole.

If, as Annan proposes, membership could be limited to states with strong records, the new human rights entity could well become an effective and respected voice for victims. But who will decide which states pass muster? Will China and Russia, both rated “Not Free” by the latest Freedom House annual survey, allow themselves to be excluded? Not likely. At the U.N., substantive criteria are difficult to enforce. Article 23 of the U.N. Charter requires that in electing non-permanent members of the Security Council, special regard be paid to a state’s contribution to peace and security. This has proved a dead letter, however, with states such as Syria, a certified state sponsor of terrorism, winning a seat on the Council, and even serving as its president.

What holds a better chance of surviving is the requirement of a two-thirds vote in the General Assembly. With assertive campaigning from democratic voices, this should at least suffice to keep out the Sudans of this world–those suspected of genocide or other gross abuses–which would be a significant step forward.

No wonder, then, that the jackals have begun to circle Annan’s plan, with the Non-Aligned Movement hoping to kill it before it grows. To reflect coherently on the proposed reform, the Commission in April passed an African-sponsored resolution calling for an extraordinary 6-day session in June. Seeking to exploit their disproportionate power in Geneva, the anti-democratic forces would then formally adopt the outcome of this anti-reform meeting–thereby handing the Secretary-General a fait accompli. Normally, such resolutions are rubber-stamped by the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC). In a rare move, however, thanks to a counter-offensive by the Western group, ECOSOC is expected to diminish the gathering to a 2-day informal consultation. From all of this, one thing is clear: the struggle has begun.

Yes, Annan’s plan has its risks. One is that a human rights council will emerge with increased powers–such as the ability to meet in permanent session and deal with imminent crises–yet, while bearing the stamp of new and reformed, will in effect remain controlled by the same power structures, and continue previous abuses. A key litmus test for reform will be the new council’s treatment of the Middle East. If the Arab-led campaign of one-sided measures against Israel remains–monopolizing key debates at the expense of genuine causes around the world, treating Israel alone under a separate agenda item, denying Israel membership in any of the Commissions regional groups–we will have accomplished little.

Still, this is the Commission’s only hope, and it’s time to take a side. We need to rally behind the Secretary-General. True, the devil is in the details, but these should wait. The first goal ought to be encouraging states attending the New York summit in September to offer a simple endorsement of Annan’s proposal. Vigorous negotiations would follow, but from a good starting point. The E.U. is heading in this direction, though some of its members remain enamored by the status quo.

The early, halcyon days of the Commission saw the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other important covenants. History’s most evil empire had been destroyed, and it was a time of naive optimism, when the world hoped to restore human dignity and even eradicate the scourge of war. Today, after witnessing the return of genocide in Cambodia, Rwanda and today’s Sudan, reality has hardened us. Yet in a year that has opened horizons for democracy in Afghanistan, Ukraine, Iraq, Lebanon, even perhaps in Egypt and the Palestinian Authority, let us dare to believe that humanity can still do better.

UN Watch