Wednesday, March 15, 2006


US Isolated in Opposing New Human Rights Body

The United States is being reduced to a minority of one in its unyielding opposition to a proposal to create a new Human Rights Council (HRC) to replace the U.N.'s existing much-maligned Human Rights Commission in Geneva.

On the opposite side of the aisle are strong supporters of the proposal -- an overwhelming majority of the U.N.'s 191 member states -- including the 25-member European Union, the 114-member Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) of developing nations, plus virtually all of the key U.S. human rights organisations.

U.S. Ambassador John Bolton, refusing to make any political concessions, says Washington will not support the current proposal -- until and unless there are amendments to it. "If it is put to a vote (in the General Assembly), we will vote no," he told reporters Thursday.

Since the president of the General Assembly, Jan Eliasson, is seeking a consensus on the landmark resolution, he was forced to postpone a meeting scheduled for Friday, primarily to avoid a fractious vote, with a hope for a solution next week.

One of Bolton's demands is that the new Council should elect its members by a two-thirds majority, making it increasingly difficult for "habitual human rights abusers" such as Sudan, Zimbabwe and Burma to find a seat.

But the proposal for the new HRC, crafted after months of negotiations by Eliasson, calls for a vote by absolute majority, meaning 96 out of 191 members, not two-thirds.

This was the best compromise that Eliasson was able to reach with a majority of member states during his long drawn-out negotiations.

Bolton says that Eliasson's best is not good enough for him, because 96 votes will be relatively easy for the "abusers" to garner in order to gain membership in the HRC.

On the contrary, an African diplomat told IPS, "In reality, 96 votes are as difficult to get as two-thirds." "And more so," he said, "because voting will be by secret ballot."

The secret ballot, he said, can also go against the United States, which is now accused of human rights violations in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay. "There are many member states who think that Washington is also a human rights violator and has no place in the new Council."

South African Ambassador Dumisani Kumalo has a different take on it. Asked about the U.S. stance, he told reporters that "this is not a quality issue".

"The United Nations is not an apple factory assembly line where you can pick up a clean one and throw out the under-ripe and over-ripe ones," he said.

He pointed out that there is no mechanism in the United Nations where member states could be barred for some reason or another.

"What it requires us to do, which is a difficult thing, is to come up with a formula where we choose only member states that uphold, protect and promote human rights," Kumalo said.

Besides the two-thirds majority, the United States also wants a smaller Council of about 25 to 30 members, instead of the proposed 47. Additionally, it is opposed to any term limits on membership so that countries can virtually have lifelong status on the Council.

An earlier U.S. proposal that the all five permanent members of the Security Council -- the United States, Britain, France, China and Russia -- also be permanent members of the Human Rights Council was shot down in the early stages of negotiations.

According to the draft resolution, membership in the Council shall be based on equitable geographic distribution and seats shall be distributed among regional groups: 13 for the African Group; 13 for the Asian Group; eight for the Latin American and Caribbean group; six for the Eastern European Group; and seven for the Western European and Other States Group.

All members will serve for three years but will not be eligible for immediate re-election after two consecutive terms.

The General Assembly, by a two-thirds majority of the members present and voting, may suspend the rights of membership in the Council of a member of the Human Rights Council that commits gross and systematic violations of human rights.

Despite the fact that Washington has taken a strong stand against human rights abuses worldwide, the opposition to the proposed new Council has also generated a conspiracy theory at the United Nations.

"We feel that the United States is in reality trying to weaken the U.N. human rights machinery, not strengthening it, perhaps for selfish reasons," says one Third World diplomat.

With rising criticism of U.S. human rights abuses, particularly in the Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad, the Bagram airbase in Afghanistan and the Guantanamo Bay detention facility in Cuba, Washington is fearful of the fact that the torture and mistreatment of prisoners by U.S. soldiers will be high on the agenda of the new Human Rights Council.

"I can see no other reason why Washington wants to kill the proposal," he added.

Meanwhile, a coalition of 32 U.S. and international non-governmental organisations has appealed to all member states "to join the consensus that has emerged in countries from all regions of the world and to adopt the draft resolution".

The organisations include Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the United Nations Foundation, Citizens for Global Solutions, Human Rights First, International Commission of Jurists, ActionAid International and the World Organisation Against Torture. "We [the undersigned NGOs] believe that the draft resolution to establish a Human Rights Council presented by the President of the General Assembly is a sound basis to strengthen the U.N.'s human rights machinery," says the letter currently in circulation..

The proposed Human Rights Council will be better equipped than the existing Commission on Human Rights to address urgent, serious and long-running human rights situations wherever they occur, the organisations say.

"It will hold more frequent meetings throughout the year instead of only one. More competitive election procedures will encourage a membership that is more dedicated to the protection of human rights."

Instead of slates being adopted by acclamation, members must be elected individually and a higher threshold of votes applies -- at least 96 individual votes out of 191 members.

A country's human rights record will be taken into account by those voting and those committing gross violations of human rights can be suspended from the body, the letter notes.

All members must fully cooperate with the Council and they will undergo a review of their human rights record through a new universal review system that will apply to all countries, the organisations say.

"This is an historic opportunity to create a better human rights protection system within the United Nations," the letter said, adding that no country should call for a vote or propose amendments to the resolution.

"To do so will seriously jeopardise this sound and carefully balanced agreement that we have before us," they added.

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