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UN Diplomats Resume Difficult Human Rights Talks


Work has resumed at the United Nations on creating a new human rights Council. World leaders meeting at last September's U.N. summit agreed that the current Human Rights Commission should be replaced with a more credible body. But the idea is meeting strong resistance.

U.S. Ambassador John Bolton this week warned that allowing notorious rights abusers to sit on a new U.N. Human Rights Council would mock the very legitimacy of the United Nations.

Addressing a closed session of the General Assembly, the U.S. envoy called for a wholesale overhaul of the U.N. human rights machinery.

Secretary-General Kofi Annan launched the effort to reform the Geneva-based Human Rights Commission last March, saying it suffers from declining credibility and professionalism. The United States and European countries favor creation of a smaller body with stricter membership standards.

In recent years, countries with poor human rights records, such as Zimbabwe, Sudan and Cuba have won seats on the Council. Ambassador Bolton has complained repeatedly that those and other rights violators are blocking reform efforts. "There's a lot of opposition for the same reason that countries like Cuba, Zimbabwe, Burma like to try and get on the Human Rights Commission, to block scrutiny of their existing human rights record. Those countries that are the worst abusers of human rights fear a new human rights mechanism that they can't block or pervert to their own ends," he said.

Human Rights advocates and Western countries have been pushing for creation of a robust council with as few as 30 members that would meet year-round with broad powers to censure violators. They favor doing away with the rotation system for membership that has granted membership to notorious rights violators.

But U.N. General Assembly President Jan Eliasson, a veteran Swedish diplomat, predicts that while the new body will be better than the current commission, it will fall short of what many in the West would like. "The United Nations is of course a reflection of the world. It's a global organization. Therefore what we achieve at the United Nations cannot always be 100-percent what the national position is of one country or regional group like the European Union. There's always a give and take," he said.

A compromise proposal that is serving as a basis for negotiations leaves open several critical questions. The proposal sets the stage for intensive negotiations over the next weeks on issues such as the size of the council, the method for selecting members, and the procedures for censuring rights violators.

General Assembly President Eliasson says he expects the talks to be among the most difficult of his year-long term in office. "When it comes to the Human Rights Council, there's much more mistrust, there's much more fear that the Human Rights Council will be working against certain countries. This is a fact of life, and that's why this negotiation is more difficult than other negotiations," he said.

The upcoming negotiations will be held against the backdrop of the scheduled opening of the next session of the current Human Rights Commission in Geneva. The 53-member group is due to begin its annual six-week meeting in mid-March.

The United States and other countries had voiced hope last year that the new body could be formed in time to avoid the next commission meeting, but attempts to reach an agreement before the end of the year failed.

General Assembly President Eliasson says the best that can be hoped for now is an agreement that the next commission meeting will be a wrap up session, with a smooth transition to the new Human Rights Council later in the year.

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