Happy New Year! But Will It Be A Happy "New" UN?

by Duncan Hollis

The New York Times greets the arrival of 2006 with this lead story about UN efforts to revise the much maligned Human Rights Commission (it has counted among its members Sudan, Cuba, and Zimbabwe; Libya chaired it in 2003). Although I had earlier predicted (see here) UN hopes to have a new “Human Rights Council” in place by the end of 2005, the NYT story provides a new timetable, suggesting efforts are now focused on having a UNGA resolution for the new Council adopted by March 2006. The key sticking points appear to be how to convert a body that now meets semi-annually and is composed of members chosen by geographic region with little independent power into a standing body whose members are elected directly and authorized to act freely when human rights violations are alleged.

My own sense is that at the end of the day, any new Council will not differ all that dramatically from the current Commission (last month, Seth offered a similar assessment on UN reform more generally – see here). The NYT story emphasizes the opposition to reform from developing countries worried about the impact reform will have on their sovereignty – either to open their internal practices to UN oversight, or to exclude them from Council participation because of such practices. Certainly, we can count on these countries to work against more restrictive membership requirements and greater UN autonomy.

But what about the United States? Publicly, the United States has pushed for reform – critiquing the Commission for allowing states with poor human rights records to be Commission members and noting the restrained nature of the Commission’s reporting on violators as a result. I wonder, however, how firm U.S. support for a robust Council will be in the final negotiations. The United States may want to exclude states such as Sudan, Cuba and Zimbabwe from the Council, but is it prepared to accept membership requirements that might allow other states to oppose U.S. membership given U.S. detainee and rendition policies? (Indeed, I would expect U.S. negotiators to bear in mind the 2001 fallout when the United States was voted off the Commission). Similarly, how independent does the United States really want the Commission to be if it means that body would opine in some authoritative way on U.S. practices and policies?

Let me be clear – I am not suggesting the Commission does not need reform. Nor am I suggesting the United States will not push for some reform. But, I suspect U.S. efforts will seek to reform the Commission in limited ways: i.e., to produce a new Council with less controversial members and greater reporting, but not to invest the new body with any authority that would influence or restrict U.S. conduct in meaningful ways. In that sense, we are still faced with the age-old problem of human rights law – how can states participate in the creation of generally applicable rules and procedures when each state is most concerned with ensuring such rules and procedures do not require unwanted changes to its own activities. Thus, it will be interesting to see at the end of the day what new Human Rights Council is created, and exactly who gets the credit (or blame) for its final structure and authorities.


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