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New UN Human Rights Council Aims for Legitimacy


One of the key reforms under outgoing U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan was the creation of a new Human Rights Council to replace the discredited Human Rights Commission.

The U.N. resolution establishing the Human Rights Council last March said the new body will be responsible for promoting universal respect for the protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms for all. In addition, the 47-member council will address human rights violations around the world.

The new Council replaced the old 53-member Human Rights Commission. Nancy Soderberg, former U.S. alternate representative to the United Nations, says that body was highly politicized.

"The old Human Rights Commission had been hijacked by the human rights abusers as a way of blocking any effective action - so you had Cuba, Syria, Iran - all those nations, who did not want the U.N. to shine a spotlight on their abuses. So, it absolutely had to go," she said.

Michael Doyle, former adviser to outgoing U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, agrees.

"The old Human Rights Commission had turned into a platform for rhetoric rather than action, rhetoric that was designed to draw lines rather than define common ground," he noted. "There was a sense that it was a body that was no longer credible - too many human rights abusers had too much influence. And that was the motivation that led many people to think that we needed a new body to address the issue of human rights, which is what the Human Rights Council is about."

Experts say it is too early to tell whether the new council is better than the old commission. It has already met twice since its creation and plans another meeting before the end of the year. The old commission met only once yearly.

Donald Steinberg, U.N. expert with the International Crisis Group, says there are other positive signs.

"The membership requirements to serve on the council have been toughened up such that you have to agree that, if you are going to serve on the council, that your country will be analyzed for its human rights standards, and that has discouraged some of the worst human rights abusers from standing for election to the council," said Mr. Steinberg. "The council now meets regularly throughout the year. It has looked at its mandates and reformed many of them. But, again, it is very much a work in progress. It's only been around for about five or six months, and we'll see, over the future, how it responds."

Analysts say one of the key deficiencies of this new council is that the United Sates is not a member. It decided not to run for a seat on the council.

U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Mark Lagon says Washington was not a candidate, because it felt the new body did not go far enough to address the shortcomings of the old one.

"We made the decision that this council was a missed opportunity, that it was not constructed in a way that would be definitively better than the Commission on Human Rights, and we decided not to run in the first year," he said.

But Donald Steinberg, of the International Crisis Group, says there may be another reason why the United States decided to stay on the sidelines.

"Many people believe the United States may not have been elected because of the reaction around the world to some of the American initiatives, whether it be Iraq or Guantanamo or elsewhere," he added.

U.S. official Mark Lagon says Washington will decide what to do in the very near future.

"We need to make an assessment soon," added Mr. Lagon. "There will be an election that takes place next spring for the second year of the council."

Analysts say, whatever the reason for Washington's non-participation in the council this year, it must reverse that policy and run for election next year. They say the chances of influencing the council from within are much greater than trying to do so from the outside looking in. And, they say, without Washington's participation, the credibility of the new Human Rights Council suffers.

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