On the eve of the United Nations Human Rights Council’s latest session, which opened March 12, the United States announced it would not seek election in May for membership in the council.
This decision was regrettable because it would have been important to demonstrate that Washington has tried to make the council work.
At the same time, it should be kept in mind that the problem is less the elections than the council’s flawed mandate. That mandate was adopted by the U.N. General Assembly in March 2006 with the support of then-Secretary-General Kofi Annan, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.
Annan and these human-rights groups supported the mandate even though the General Assembly had thrown out the safeguards that Annan and some non-governmental organizations had proposed for keeping human-rights violators off the council.
As a result, 21 of the 47 members elected last May are rated by Freedom House as human-rights violators. Some are rated the worst of the worst.
The Asian and African regional groups, which hold a majority of seats on the council, are dominated by these violators and their supporters, who make a mockery of the council’s mission because they are interested only in condemning Israel.
They have already done this eight times since the council started work last June, and they are expected to condemn Israel again at this month’s session.
The council has condemned no other state, not even the Sudan for genocide in Darfur, where an estimated 400,000 people have been slaughtered and 2.5 million made homeless.
A report this week by a high-level mission is likely to be buried. That report declares that the United Nations “has proven inadequate and ineffective” in dealing with the Sudanese government, which “has manifestly failed to protect the population of Darfur from large-scale international crimes and has itself orches! trated a nd participated in these crimes.”
Governments committing gross violations of human rights routinely send representatives to council sessions to stifle criticism or denounce the actions of states with far better records. For example, Iran sent the man responsible for the torture and murder of Zahra Kazemi, a Canadian-Iranian journalist, to represent it at the council’s inaugural session last June, and this week it sent Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki, the person responsible for organizing the December Holocaust-denial conference in Tehran.
These violators are circulating a proposal to abolish many of the council’s special rapporteurs, who produce reports on critical issues such as summary executions and disappearances, as well as the human-rights conditions in several countries where abuses have been reported. The one rapporteur whose mandate would be continued reports on alleged violations by Israel.
Another council program also is in trouble. This is the Universal Periodic Review of the human-rights records of U.N. member states. Human-rights violators are trying to sabotage the review by making it a peer review or watering down the criteria.
It was just two years ago, in March 2005, that Annan proposed replacing the discredited Commission on Human Rights with a Human Rights Council. Annan argued that not only had the commission lost credibility because it had been taken over by human-rights violators, but it was also undermining the credibility of the United Nations as a whole.
Indeed, the chair of the commission had passed over the years from Eleanor Roosevelt to an ambassador from Libya, a state that supported international terrorism and had a fearsome record of human-rights abuses.
Ho wever, when the secretary-general, Amnesty and Human Rights Watch failed to stand up for the safeguards that would have made the council an improvement, only U.S. Ambassador John Bolton had the courage to declare that the proposed mandate was flawed.
He was supported by the major liberal and conservative newspapers in New York and Washington, which portrayed it as “The Shame of the United Nations” and “a moral disaster waiting to happen.” But the United States was joined by only three other countries in voting against the seriously flawed document Israel, the Marshall Islands and Palau.
To fix the mandate, certain changes are required. First, the council should be reduced in size to that of the original commission, which had only 18 members.
Second, council members, while elected by states, should be distinguished human-rights champions, like original commission members Roosevelt, Rene Cassin of France, Charles Malik of Lebanon and Carlos Romulo of the Philippines.
In proposing the demise of the commission and its replacement by the council, Annan took a revolutionary step. But until the human-rights violators are swept out of the council and replaced by human-rights champions, his human-rights revolution will remain unfinished and the U.N.’s reputation will continue to suffer.
(Harris O. Schoenberg serves as president of U.N. Reform Advocates, honorary chairman of the U.N. NGO Human Rights Committee and adjunct professor of human rights at New York University.)