The United Nations Human Rights Council begins its inaugural session in Geneva next Monday. It replaces the discredited U.N. Commission on Human Rights, which had countries named as some of the world's most notorious rights abusers among its members. Governments, human rights organizations and victims of abuse have high hopes that this new body will be more effective and morally credible in addressing rights violations, around the world.
The Human Rights Council does not have a hard act to follow. The commission it has replaced included such countries as Sudan, Cuba and Zimbabwe, all of which had been accused of gross human rights violations.
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan says the council gives the United Nations "a much-needed chance to make a new beginning in its work for human rights around the world."
The new council is composed of 47 members, instead of 53, as under the commission. The members are elected by an absolute majority of a secret ballot. Those members that commit gross and systematic violations of human rights could be suspended. The council will hold at least three sessions a year for a duration of no less than 10 weeks.
Under the old commission, it was not unusual for some countries never to be called to account, even though there had been many documented cases of human rights abuse against them. This is expected to change under the new Human Rights Council.
U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour says all of the 191 U.N. members will have their human rights records examined by the council. The 47 elected member countries would be the first in line for scrutiny, under the universal periodic review.
"And they will be expected to abide by any decision of the council that is directed at them. So, I think that again is a major step forward in ensuring that the decisions of the council carry weight first amongst its members and then, one would hope, that it would bind others accordingly," she said.
Arbour says details as to how the universal review will be conducted still have to be worked out. She figures about 60 countries a year will be examined. So, each state will have to justify its human rights record every three years.
Reed Brody, who is with Human Rights Watch, a U.S.-based rights group, says from now on, no country will be able to avoid investigation.
"What is exciting about the new Human Rights Council will be the system of universal review," he said. "It means that every country from the Maldives to Palau to the United States will have its moment under scrutiny."
Brody says that means every country will be required to listen to complaints made against it and to respond to charges.
The United States voted against the creation of the council. It also chose not to run for membership this year, claiming it was too easy for abusive countries to get elected.
U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for International Organizations Mark Lagon admits the United States has reservations about the new council. But he says Washington will observe and support its work.
"The United States has expressed skepticism about the Human Rights Council," he said. "But, it has been very careful not to undercut the Human Rights Council. The United States is not at war with the Human Rights Council. We hope it succeeds despite the fact that we worry that it will be a Human Rights Commission with different clothes."
Reed Brody says it is hard to envision a council that does not include the United States.
"I think our challenge is to make the council as good as the United States expressed it would have liked to see the council be," he said.
American Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton has said the United States is going to work with other U.N. member states to make the council "as strong and effective as it can be."