Work has begun at the United Nations to create a new Human Rights Council.  It would replace the Geneva-based Human Rights Commission, which has seen its credibility damaged as notorious rights abusers have gained membership.  At this month's U.N. summit, world leaders agreed that re-creating the human rights body should be a priority, but the outlook for real human rights reform is uncertain.

The Geneva-based U.N. Human Rights Commission has long been an object of scorn among rights activists. 

The 53-member body meets only six weeks a year.  The advocacy group Human Rights Watch has described the annual session as an event where some of the world's most abusive governments gather to give each other passes for their egregious records of rights violations.

The commission's shortcomings were brought into sharp focus at this year's meeting, when Sudan was selected as a member, just as U.N. investigators were documenting widespread crimes against humanity in Darfur.

Other chronic rights abusers have also served terms on the Commission, including Zimbabwe, Cuba, Libya, and China.

Secretary-General Kofi Annan recognized the need for radical change.  When he summoned world leaders for a reform summit this year, he included on the agenda creation of full-time Human Rights Council with strict membership standards.

But the Council mandate approved at the summit had been weakened considerably from what had been originally proposed.  During intense negotiations in the days leading up to the summit, a group that are being called "spoiler countries" banded together to force deletion of language toughening membership standards and giving the Council increased authority.

Human Rights Watch Advocacy Director Peggy Hicks called the outcome "disappointing."  She noted that the spoiler group consisted mainly of countries on the list of chronic rights abusers.

"There was a group of 15 led by Cuba that objected to the Council," she said.  "They included Venezuela, Turkmenistan, Belarus, Pakistan, Syria, Myanmar, and Vietnam, among others."

Despite the drastically scaled-back mandate, Secretary-General Annan told VOA he accepts the outcome as a good first step.  But he acknowledged that much more work is needed to resolve sharp differences that in pre-summit negotiations proved impossible to resolve.

"I think the member states should continue where they left off.  They had certain basic elements in place, and they should build on that when they start their work.  I am still very optimistic that we will have a fully-fledged Human Rights Council," he noted.

The job of ironing out the differences over the Council's mandate has fallen to Swedish diplomat Jan Eliasson, who took over this month as president of the U.N. General Assembly.  In a VOA interview, Mr. Eliasson acknowledged that, given the strong differences, his assignment is a daunting diplomatic challenge.

"I am in the midst of consultations with member states on how to proceed," said Mr. Eliasson.  "I hope that we will have a sense of good will because there is a clear need to reform our work in the human rights area.  But I know we are going to have difficult negotiations ahead on Human Rights Council."

Mr. Eliasson says one of his biggest challenges will be preventing a split between wealthier, mostly European and North American nations that favor tough human-rights enforcement, and the predominantly southern developing countries who complain of double standards and cultural imperialism.

"The last thing I would like to see is if human rights were to become a North-South issue," he added.  "If you ask some of the Latin American ambassadors, Chile and Argentina, they know what human rights violations are, and the concern for the security of the individual is a universal concern.  It may vary between countries, but there is a recognition we must put people in the center, and I would hope that would facilitate our discussions."

Leading the U.S. negotiating team is Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Mark Lagon.  In a telephone interview from Washington, Mr. Lagon admitted there is significant resistance to the idea of strict human rights enforcement.  He said he is not overly optimistic that a new council can be created by March, when the next meeting of the current rights commission is scheduled.

Mr. Lagon outlined a negotiating strategy he hopes will prevent spoiler countries from weakening the Council's mandate.

"We need to reach out to the rather large number of developing countries who think we need a fresh start and who are committed to a new body that would help countries improve human rights," said Mr. Lagon.  "We cannot let a small group of spoilers speak for the developing world as they did in the negotiations during the last two weeks that led up to the reform summit."

Mr. Lagon says the key to overcoming resistance from the spoilers will have to be the pressure of the majority of U.N. member states.  If that fails, he says the United States and like-minded countries are prepared for a bruising and highly public negotiation.

"If there are 10 determined countries to scuttle the idea of the Human Rights Council, they can be outweighed by the preponderant number of nations that want to set up a Council that can assist their human rights, and in those few cases where governments absolutely refuse to work with the international community to improve their human-rights records, to speak plainly about their human rights abuses, we think an open and transparent negotiation where everybody says what they believe in front of other nations is healthy and in fact will work," added Mr. Lagon.

Preliminary negotiations have begun, and officials involved say there is deep disagreement on details of the Council.  The goal among supporters of the Council is to have it ready by the time of the next scheduled Human Rights Commission meeting in Geneva in March.  But General Assembly President Eliasson says, if necessary, he is prepared to work until the final day of his one-year term in office to see that a Council is established.