Report Card: UN Human Rights Council Inaugural Session

July 3, 2006

Below is our Report Card grading the performance of the UN Human Rights Council’s inaugural June 2006 session, which has just concluded.

We gave high marks for the Council’s attitude toward the participation of NGOs and for its initial steps toward creating new mechanisms. However, we were deeply disappointed that the Council purported to address human rights issues — at its June 26 meeting under Agenda Item 4 — and yet failed to adopt a single statement for the victims of gross atrocities in Darfur and for millions of other victims around the world.  Most of the world’s abuses were ignored.

We were equally disappointed by the Council’s decision to single out, from the entire world, only only one country for censure—Israel—and then, the moment the session concluded, to convene an emergency Special Session for the following week, to one-sidedly condemn the Jewish state yet again. Regrettably, the new Council’s first steps are already treading down the path of selectivity and politicization that, as UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said, led to the demise of the Council’s predecessor, the discredited Human Rights Commission.

* * * * *

Report Card: UN Human Rights Council’s First Session

Robust NGO participation:   A-
Participation of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) is one of the great strengths of the UN human rights apparatus, and—notwithstanding fierce opposition by several abuser regimes—the Council fortunately seems to be continuing this tradition. For the first time, the segment of high level speeches by dignitaries also made room for NGOs, represented by 5 prominent personalities. Council Chairman Luis de Alba, ambasador of Mexico, has been accessible and attentive to NGOs, as have UN staffers, particularly the NGO Liaison Office.  Significantly, the decision to include “all stakeholders” in the coming year’s review of independent expert mandates, and creation of the universal periodic review mechanism, means that NGOs will continue to be heard on key elements of the new Council.

Why not a perfect grade?  Two reasons.  First, the speaking time for joint NGO statements was cut dramatically, preventing NGOs from fully addressing gross violations around the world.  (See, e.g., the June 26 statement by UN Watch, Union Internationale des Avocats, the Transnational Radical Party and 11 other NGOs, which had to be cut short.)  Hopefully this was an exception due to the brevity of the inaugural session.  Second, repressive states are continuing to threaten NGOs that dare to question them. Syria responded to a UN Watch question by warning that “NGOs need to be strictly monitored ,” which left some other Geneva NGOs scared. The democracies who stand up for civil society, vastly outnumbered, will need to exercise constant vigilance.

Preserving the Independent Human Rights Experts:  B
The Council voted to extended for one year the mandates of the 40-odd independent human rights experts (known as Special Procedures) appointed by its predecessor, with the future of each one to be reviewed.  This was a victory over objections from abuser countries (e.g., Cuba) that prefer to eliminate the country monitors. Many of the experts do excellent and important work, and should be retained.

Regrettably, among the individuals whose mandates were extended is one who epitomizes the old commission’s worst aspects: Jean Ziegler, the current Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, who is the co-founder and current vice-president of the organization that grants the “Moammar Khaddafi Human Rights Prize.” The Council also decided to extend, also for one year, the largely ineffective complaints procedure and Sub-Commission.  We hope that the Council’s review of these entities over the next year will lead to much-needed improvements.

Universal Periodic Review:  B+
The universal periodic review that the Council will conduct of the human rights performance of all UN member states is its major innovation, and its best hope to escape the selectivity and politicization that so marred the Commission.  At this first session, the Council established a working group to begin to set up the universal review system.  The process towards universal periodic review is thus moving forward, but whether the system that is ultimately created will amount to more than a toothless questionnaire remains to be seen.

Ending Politicization and Selectivity:  F
The demise of the old Human Rights Commission, said Secretary-General Kofi Annan and the UN high-level panel of experts, was caused by its egregious selectivity and politicization. The most blatant example was its singling out of Israel for differential scrutiny under a special agenda item and in half of its resolutions. Two weeks ago, Annan urged the Council not to follow this path. Regrettably, despite some efforts by Western states, his plea was violated by 4 major acts by the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), which now undermine the integrity of the fledgling Council:

• The session’s only substantive debate, held on Monday, was dominated by anti-Israel tirades. Thanks to efforts by the Chair and Western states, the OIC’s demand for an explicit anti-Israel agenda item was overruled. Instead, there was a compromise agreement to address five topics, two dealing with countries. The first was the “human rights situation in the occupied Arab Territories, including Palestine.” Second was Darfur, but with a whitewashed title: “support for the Abuja Peace Agreements by providing back-up assistance for enhancing the promotion and protection of human rights.”

• In its only country-specific resolution, adopted Friday evening, the Council voted to censure Israel. (Members aligned with the EU, Canada and Japan were the minority of 12 who voted No.) The decision calls for expert reports with Israel prejudged as guilty of violations, and forces the issue to the top of the agenda at all subsequent sessions.

• In a special footnote, initially resisted by the EU, the resolution extending expert mandates bowed to OIC pressure and singled out the Special Rapporteur on Palestine—whose mandate allows for the examination of Israeli violations only—as the only mandate lacking an express year of expiry.

• Seconds after the inaugural session concluded on Friday evening at 7:40 p.m., the Arab League formally requested a “Special Session” to censure Israel, with the support of 21 out of the Council’s 47 members, 5 more than the necessary one-third.

Addressing Darfur Atrocities:  D
Human rights activists agree that a major test for the new Council will be whether it acts to stop the ongoing crimes against humanity in the Darfur region of Sudan.  As discussed above, the situation in Darfur was indeed addressed in the Council’s first session, but only in veiled tones, evoking memories of the Commission’s treatment, in March 2005, of Darfur as a matter of “Technical Cooperation.” The Council failed to introduce a resolution for the victims of Darfur. Nor, despite attempts by some, could it even agree on the softer measure of a Chairman’s Statement.

We give a passing grade, however, because the fact that it was even debated marks an improvement over the General Assembly’s deplorable decision-supported by 51% of the Council’s current members-to take “No Action” on Darfur in November last year.

A few countries made substantive statements on Darfur.  Austria, on behalf of the European Union, called for “the end of impunity and of the gross and systematic human rights violations” in the region.  The Netherlands called it “unacceptable that grave human rights violations continue even after Security Council resolutions.” Canada, the United States, and Spain stressed that Darfur should be among the Council’s priorities.  Interestingly, Azerbaijan, Senegal and Mali—all current members of the Council, and all of whom voted in favor of the 2005 “No Action” motion—also expressed concern about the situation in Darfur.  While we hope this trend continues, the Council’s overall failure to adopt any official statement for Darfur’s victims is damning.

Addressing Other Gross Human Rights Violations:  D
As described above, only 5 “pressing issues” were put on the Council’s agenda at this session:  2 country situations (Israel and Sudan), and 3 thematic topics (the human rights of migrants; human rights defenders; and incitement to religious or racial hatred). Although some speakers, including UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour, urged it to consider more specific situations, the Council, regrettably, ignored the vast majority of gross human rights violations occurring in countries around the globe. (See joint NGO statement listing many grave situations, here.)  We hope that this was due to the shortness of the initial session–only two weeks, most of which dealt with beginning to build the mechanisms of the new body–and does not indicate the approach that will be taken in future sessions.

Championing the UN Charter’s Democratic Values:  C
With the liberal values of the UN Charter and the very concept of universal human rights both under attack, are the UN’s democratic members standing up in their defense?  The record of the Council’s first session is mixed.  The threat is clear.  Repressive regimes continue to seek shelter from scrutiny by invoking moral relativism to undermine the universal application of fundamental human rights. Malaysia cited “distinct national circumstances and varying levels of development.”  China, boasting of its “people-centric” approach, urged consideration of “different social systems and levels of development,” arguing for separate standards depending on “all countries’ historical, cultural and religious backgrounds and differences.”

There were high points of democratic vigilance and moral clarity. When it became known that Iran had sent the accused torturer and murderer of journalist Zahra Kazemi as part of its delegation, Canada demanded his arrest, rightly condemning Tehran’s contempt for the Council. Western states at the end opposed the anti-Israel resolution of the OIC that hijacked the intended discussions.  But when the 56 member states of the OIC decided to stoke the flames of outrage over the Danish cartoon incident—dismissing any balancing consideration of free speech, and providing moral justification and political support for violent protests—the West was largely silent.  The EU’s response, for example, smacked of appeasement, with but a passing reference to the freedoms of belief and expression.  None of the democracies at the Council was willing to proclaim that the proper response to a publication seen as objectionable, even offensive, must conform to the norms of free societies, which invite peaceful protest and public debate, and abjure all violence.  At the end of the session, however, the Western members voted to oppose the OIC resolution on this matter, which was commendable.


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