A New Human Rights Council — Real Change or More of the Same?
That’s going to be the question facing the new U.N. Human Rights Council when it convenes for the first time June 19 in Geneva, Switzerland. Yesterday, the U.N. General Assembly elected the first 47 members of the newly-created Council. It will replace the much-maligned Human Rights Commission, which achieved notoriety for letting the wolves guard the proverbial hen house (i.e., some Commission members, such as Sudan, Cuba, Libya, and Zimbabwe, were better known for violating human rights obligations than for protecting and advancing the human rights cause).
In some ways, yesterday’s election will provide additional fodder for those (Hi Julian!) who want to criticize the new body as “more of the same.” In establishing the Council, U.N. General Assembly Resolution 60/251 provides that “when electing members of the Council, Member States shall take into account the contribution of candidates to the promotion and protection of human rights and their voluntary pledges and commitments made thereto.” Nevertheless, it appears, the inaugural Council will continue the Commission’s precedent of having member states who have questionable, if not poor, human rights records. Members elected yesterday include Azerbaijan, China, Cuba, Pakistan, Russia, and Saudi Arabia (the United States did not run for election, thus avoiding a possible debate about its human rights record in light of recent counter-terrorism activities). Of these six states, it is worth noting that five were singled out for mention in the introduction to this past year’s State Department Report on Human Rights. (another Council Member—Ecuador—was also mentioned for unseating a democratically elected president).
But for those looking to be optimistic, there was some good news. Keep reading after the jump to learn more.
In contrast, the Council will operate as an organ of the U.N. General Assembly, cutting out any role for ECOSOC. A majority of the entire General Assembly determines the Council’s composition. Moreover, although seats are still allocated geographically, there will now be more candidates in each region than seats available. Thus, yesterday witnessed states such as Colombia, Egypt, Greece, Iran, Iraq, and Venezuela lose in their bids to join the Council.
A second sign of optimism lies in the fact that Council members will face some public accountability for their own human rights actions. Under Resolution 60/251, “members elected to the Council shall uphold the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights, shall fully cooperate with the Council and be reviewed under the universal periodic review mechanism during their term of membership.” Thus, states like China and Pakistan have effectively agreed to have their human rights’ records reviewed as part of the cost of Council membership. This is an improvement over the Commission, where states sought membership so that they could effectively block unfavorable reviews of their own practices.
Now, I’m not naïve enough to think that this means China or Cuba will dramatically change their methods of governing as a result of their election to the Council. Nor am I suggesting that the Council will offer a real change over the Commission in terms of halting or minimizing human rights abuses; states are still likely to debate the content of human rights’ obligations, just as they are likely to argue over whether the facts exist to find violations of those human rights on which all agree. But, for the Council to have any success, it needed to improve dramatically over its predecessor. Yesterday’s elections suggest some improvement, but it’s surely not enough. The Council still has very few tools to address the human rights problems that it finds. In theory, it will be able to call public attention to violations through its new universal review mechanism, but the method of review and its frequency remain to be determined by the new Council Members. It is also possible that if a Council member is responsible for “gross and systematic violations,” two-thirds of the General Assembly may vote that member off the Council. I’d be very surprised, however, if these removal provisions are actually put into play with respect to any of the Council’s inaugural members, no matter how poor their human rights record may be. Still, the Council’s first meeting in June will bear watching to see if members will work to avoid the mistakes of their predecessors or if we’re doomed to more of the same.