Campaigners seek more reactive UN rights council

12th September 2010, Comments 0 comments

Five years after the Human Rights Council was set up, the United States, once among its biggest critics, has now confirmed its full engagement in the UN body.

But campaigners complain that the council, which is required to begin a formal review of its work and functioning next month, still fails to react quickly when human rights abuses occur.

"One of our big concerns is that it hasn't responded effectively to situations of violations," said Juliette De Rivero, who is a Geneva-based advocacy director of Human Rights Watch.

"We've seen less and less situations that are being examined by the council," noted De Rivero.

The Human Rights Council was set up in March 2006 to replace the Human Rights Commission, which was largely discredited due to the dominant presence of countries with poor records such as China, Cuba, Sudan and Zimbabwe.

The United States said then that it could not support the new council as changes did not go far enough to address the commission's deficiencies.

The new US administration has however ushered in a new attitude, and Washington last year sought and won membership at the council.

"We are now fully engaged at the council," US ambassador Eileen Donahoe told journalists in Geneva ahead of the UN body's 15th session, which opens Monday.

She acknowledged that there are still many critics who "are still arguing that the US should not have joined in the first place and that we should pack up and go home now."

"I personally disagree with this idea. I believe very deeply that if the United States is not at the table, there will be a vacuum of leadership that will get filled by a group of others with whom we disagree," she said.

"I believe if the United States wants to lead on human rights, we have to show up and that is what we are here to do."

Amnesty International's Peter Splinter said it was "welcomed that a country with such a long history in human rights work has finally come back and committed itself to making the council work".

But while the council has managed to win the participation of the United States, campaigers say the UN body still has key issues to tackle when it embarks on a required review of its work and functioning in October.

To describe how the council is hamstrung in dealing with immediate issues, De Rivero cited its failure to react during the massacre in Guinea in 2009, Russia-Georgia's brief war over the Georgia's rebel South Ossetia region in 2008 and Sri Lanka's final push against the Tamil Tigers last year.

"Governments are paralysed in a real human rights situation," she charged.

She suggested that independent voices, such as the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, should in the future be given the right to get the council to look into specific issues.

Splinter also made the same suggestion, pointing out that "most problematic is the failure of the human rights council to address many violations".

In fact, compared to the former commission, Splinter said: "With the exception of the UPR, nothing much has changed for the better. In fact, the commission probably considered more country situations."

The Universal Periodic Review (UPR) is a feature of the council that has been lauded by campaigners for requiring each country to undergo an examination of its rights record.

But Splinter noted that even this "cannot address chronic or acute situations".

Another lobby group, UN Watch, was critical of its composition. This year, China, Cuba and Libya count among members.

"The council has been a profound disappointment to victims, by turning a blind eye to the world's worst perpetrators, and, worse, electing them as full-fledged council members," said Hillel Neuer.

The lobby group's spokesman Leon Saltiel said that the membership issue is "important because if you can improve the members, you can improve the quality of the debate".

Campaigners called for real elections so as to weed out inappropriate countries rather than current practice where regional blocs promote hand-picked candidates.

Thai ambassador Sihasak Phuangketkeow, who chairs the council this year, acknowledged that the council had shortcomings but cautioned against any radical overhaul.

"Most members feel that we have to look at improvements but we should be careful not to go into a renegotiation of institutions that have been put in place.

"The council is only entering its fifth year, it still needs time to prove itself," he said, adding that "we do not see major reforms".

© 2010 AFP

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