February 24, 2006

February 24, 2006 | News Releases on International Organizations

United Nations Experts Agree: U.N. Resolution on Human Rights Council Does Not Deserve U.S. Support

Washington, Feb. 24, 2006-Anne Bayefsky, senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, Danielle Pletka, vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at AEI, and Brett Schaefer, Jay Kingham Fellow in International Regulatory Affairs at the Heritage Foundation, today issued the following statement on yesterday's release of the text of a resolution establishing a new Human Rights Council by U.N. General Assembly President Jan Eliasson, intended to replace the discredited U.N. Commission on Human Rights:

Yesterday's resolution on the proposed United Nations Human Rights Council is a bitter disappointment to friends of democracy and allies in the international protection of human rights. The United States would do the legacy of Eleanor Roosevelt, the first Chair of that commission, as well as countless oppressed and abused people around the world, an enormous disservice by agreeing to this proposal.

The United Nations' record on promoting basic human rights has come under well deserved criticism in recent years. Members of the Commission on Human Rights (CHR), the U.N.'s primary human rights body, include some of the world's worst human rights violators, such as China, Cuba, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Venezuela and Zimbabwe. Even Secretary-General Kofi Annan has acknowledged, "The commission's declining credibility has cast a shadow on the reputation of the United Nations system."

The embarrassment of an ineffective CHR led the United States and other countries to call for the abolition of the Commission and its replacement with a new Human Rights Council. Over months of negotiation, these efforts to create a credible human rights body have been strongly opposed by human rights abusers in the U.N. Such states have sought to perpetuate their hold on the CHR in order to block scrutiny of their policies.

The text demonstrates that the abusers have succeeded in thwarting the goal of democratic societies to build an international human rights institution worthy of a leadership role in the 21st century.

U.S. support for this proposal is especially unwarranted because the name change from Commission to Council will erroneously suggest renewed credibility in a body which has failed to undergo fundamental change.

Among the many disappointing aspects of the Feb. 23 resolution:

  • There are no criteria for membership on the Council. The proposal merely suggests a state's human rights record be "taken into account" "when electing members." Even states under Security Council sanction would not automatically be excluded. While there is a provision for suspending a Council member that commits gross and systematic violations of human rights, the step can be taken only with the agreement of two-thirds of the members of the General Assembly. Not even 50 percent of the General Assembly could agree that Sudan was guilty of human rights violations in November 2005.
  • All member states are eligible for Council membership. While there is a periodic review requirement, there is no guarantee that even those countries found complicit in massive and sustained human rights abuses would be censured. The review is not tied to a mandatory outcome and takes place only after the elections.
  • Instead of a much smaller body designed to attract the best citizens of each regional group, the proposal includes only a minimal reduction from 53 members to 47.
  • The proposal significantly shifts the balance of power away from the Western regional group. The African and Asian groups will hold 55 percent of the votes. The proportional representation of the Asian group will see the greatest increase and the Western group, the greatest decline.
  • States that are elected must rotate off every two terms. The United States, which had been a member of the Commission since 1947 with one exception and has played a leadership role in efforts to promote human rights throughout its history, as well as contributing 22 percent of its costs, would be ineligible for Council membership every six years.
  • Special sessions of the Commission can be called by only one-third of the Council's membership. Hailed as an improved capacity to deal with urgent human rights situations, the composition of the new Council will make it more likely that special sessions will be about the United States and Israel than about China or Sudan.
  • The Council is given a mandate to follow up goals and commitments "emanating from U.N. conferences and summits," many of which have been specifically rejected by the United States.
  • A last-minute addition in response to the Organization of the Islamic Conference and the Danish cartoons affair places the emphasis on roles and responsibilities rather than explicitly endorsing freedom of speech.

The Eliasson proposal will not create a credible U.N. human rights body. On the contrary, it will give rise to a new agency just as likely to operate against the interests of the United States and fellow democracies as the prior Commission. The difficulties in negotiating a credible international human rights body, in an institution which gives serial human rights abusers a veto over the result, are a systemic U.N. problem. But that does not justify democracies capitulating to the pressure to make newness an end in itself.

We urge the United States to resist the inevitable clamor to approve this proposal without a complete overhaul. It is far better to say no than to reinvigorate a discredited Commission under another name.


Anne Bayefsky, Hudson Institute, 917-488-1558; Danielle Pletka, American Enterprise Institute, 202-862-5800; Brett Schaefer, The Heritage Foundation, 202-608-6097.

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