After months of negotiations, the outline of a new U.N. Human Rights Council is coming into focus. World leaders at last September's U.N. summit ordered a complete overhaul of the world body's discredited Human Rights Commission, which has often granted membership to chronic rights abusers. Creation of the new rights council is being seen as a test of the organization's ability to adopt meaningful reforms.

The Geneva-based U.N. Human Rights Commission is scheduled to convene its final session next month. Among the 53 members seated around the table will be such notorious rights abusers as Zimbabwe, Cuba and Sudan.

A new Human Rights Council is slated to begin operation later in the year. It is expected to have fewer members, and tougher admission standards, designed to deny membership to countries with poor rights records.

A draft proposal for the new Council circulated this week would trim the size of the body from 53 to 45 members. The draft is less clear, however, on the questions of how to limit membership to those countries committed to human rights, and on how the Council could sanction rights abusers.

The United States and European countries are demanding that members be elected by a two-thirds majority of the 191-member U.N. General Assembly. But the latest draft proposal is vague on the question of membership.

Human rights activists expressed general satisfaction with the draft. But Peggy Hicks of Human Rights Watch warned that, without the two-thirds vote requirement, countries with poor rights records could still be elected to the Council.

"We think it's definitely a step forward, and a good basis to get us a stronger and more effective Council that we've all been looking for," she said. "The key issue is the one that remains in brackets, that is the two-thirds vote, which we think is absolutely essential."

U.N. diplomats say closed-door talks on creating the new rights council have been tense - at times heated. But despite those tensions, the co-chairman of the negotiations, Panama's U.N. ambassador, Ricardo Arias, has spoken of steady progress.

"It's a lot of tension, because it's a very important and sensitive issue," he said. "And, of course, we're developing a totally new framework for the handling of the promotion and protection of human rights. And that creates tension. There is tension in the U.N. all around, and this is part of it, but I feel that we are advancing."

The latest draft proposal has evoked cautious reactions from U.S. and European diplomats.

U.S. Ambassador John Bolton said he had his opinions about it, but would not elaborate. Earlier, however, he said the United States would not be satisfied with anything less than a fundamental change in the way the U.N. human rights machinery works.

"That's the moral high ground that we started off with, and we need to measure results by how much of a change we've made in this thoroughly discredited mechanism of the human rights commission," he said. "And what we strongly believe is that we want real change. That's what we've been working for, and if we don't get change, that's not acceptable."

American diplomats have been pushing for a Council with 30 or fewer seats, and clear, objective criteria for membership that would bar any country under U.N. sanctions. The United States also wants a council that can respond quickly to gross human rights violations, and criticize violators by a simple majority vote.

But those ideas have been met with skepticism by many countries, most notably the 132-member bloc of mostly developing countries that calls itself the Group of 77. The depth of these differences has led many U.N. diplomats to conclude that it may be impossible to meet the timetable for replacing the commission.

Still, U.N. General Assembly President Jan Eliasson, who is spearheading the effort, says he remains hopeful.

"I have difficulty speculating in defeat," he said. "I think, all delegations realize there is an instruction from leaders that we should finalize our work, as soon as possible, and there will have to be a solution."

Eliasson is urging the General Assembly to approve a final proposal by February 15, in order to ensure a smooth transition from the old commission to the new council.

But given the tense negotiations, most diplomats declined to predict the outcome, even in private. They agree, however, that the human rights issue will be a critical test of the world body's ability to enact the meaningful reforms that heads of state and government demanded at last September's U.N. summit.