Patrick Goodenough | International Editor | Thursday, November 8, 2007
As early as Thursday, the General Assembly will be asked to approve a package of proposed changes to council procedures. The procedures in question include making it more difficult for members to name specific countries for rights violations; ending the mandate for special investigators of rights abuses in Cuba and Belarus; and subjecting Israel to permanent censure under a fixed agenda item.
Critics want the Assembly to amend the proposed changes, not simply validate them.
Furthermore Israel's ambassador, Dan Gillerman, is pushing for a vote that would give countries the opportunity to record their opposition.
A vote would also give the United States, which is not a member of the HRC and has been among its most vocal critics, the chance to send a message.
Speaking to reporters in New York, Gillerman said Israel wanted a vote to break the "consensus."
"I'm not naive. I know what the outcome will be," he said. "But we stand by our position, and we hope that at least another few countries, brave and moral countries, will stand by us."
Since its establishment in mid-2006 to replace the discredited Human Rights Commission, the Geneva-based council has sparked criticism for singling out Israel while paying relatively little attention to some of the world's most troubling rights-violating situations.
Critics attribute some of the problems to the fact that members of the Islamic bloc and their allies effectively dominate the council (African and Asian regional groups hold 26 of the HRC's 47 seats, in line with a negotiated formula. Islamic states hold a majority in both of those regional groups.) Also, the council's members include countries that rights campaigners name among the world's worst abusers, including China, Cuba, Saudi Arabia and Russia.
"Some appear more determined to use the council to defend abusive governments than to protect the victims of human rights violations," U.S. diplomat Robert Hagen told the General Assembly on Tuesday.
He cited what he called the council's "relentless focus on Israel," the eliminating of the mandates relating to Cuba and Belarus, and a "reluctance to address principal violators and violations of human rights."
Those three problematic issues dominate the so-called "institution-building" package that will apply to the council's future work. The package was pushed through the council last June under circumstances which came under fire from the Canadian government, which said its objections were not taken into account.
Addressing a U.N. social, humanitarian and cultural committee this week, Canadian ambassador John McNee complained that agreement on the package had been declared when there was in fact no consensus, saying that the manner in which it was pushed through did a disservice to the council.
Nonetheless, numerous other countries' representatives speaking during the committee session referred to the package having been adopted "by consensus." One of then, Mahmoud Jooyabad of Iran, added that it would be counter-productive to reopen it for further negotiation.
Also addressing the committee, Feda Abdelhady, the observer for the Palestinian Authority, challenged the assertion that focusing on the Israel-Palestinian situation was selective.
That situation did not stand out by choice, but because of its painful reality, she said, adding that the council should not shy away from its responsibilities because of politicized criticism.
'Press freedom predators'
Twenty-seven non-governmental organizations led by U.N. Watch and Freedom House have written to all U.N. member states, asking them to amend the package.
The proposed changes to council procedures would make it harder than ever to introduce resolutions against "serial abusers" like North Korea and Sudan, said Hillel Neuer, executive director of U.N. Watch, a Geneva-based NGO affiliated with the American Jewish Committee.
"U.N. officials and member states have one last chance to save the Human Rights Council from itself," he said.
In a separate appeal to the General Assembly, the press freedom watchdog Reporters Without Borders focused on the decision not to renew the mandates of the investigators -- known in U.N. jargon as "special rapporteurs" -- for Cuba and Belarus.
"This setback is the result of a deliberate policy on the part of these countries' dictatorships to obstruct the rapporteurs," the Paris-based organization said in a statement, calling them "two of the world's worst press freedom predators."
In a "world press freedom index" for 2007, Cuba was placed 165th out of 169 countries, and Belarus 151st.
Borders Without Frontiers expressed concern that the council was moving to phase out the special rapporteurs altogether, noting that since the mandates for Cuba and Belarus were terminated, two other countries subject to rapporteurs, Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo, had also asked that those mandates be ended.
(The council also has rapporteurs mandated to investigate Somalia, Haiti, Liberia, Burma, North Korea, Burundi, Cambodia and the Palestinian areas. In all cases the mandates are reviewed regularly, except in the case of the Palestinian one, where the package says "the duration of this mandate has been established until the end of the occupation.")
"The wheeling and dealing between member states that discredited the former Human Rights Commission has not gone away," Borders Without Frontiers said.
"It is the General Assembly's duty to ask the council for explanations and to adopt all necessary measures so that the council can finally do what it is supposed to do -- combat human rights violations throughout the world."
One of the procedures in the council's "institution-building" package that has been generally welcomed is known as the "universal periodic review," under which every member state's human rights record will be evaluated once every four years.
But U.S. envoy Grover Rees told the U.S. committee this week that the mechanism would not replace country-specific actions -- an "irreplaceable tool" for exposing rights-abusing governments.
Last September, the U.S. Senate passed an amendment to an appropriations bill saying that no U.S. funding for the U.N. can go to the Human Rights Council, unless the president determines otherwise in the U.S. national interest, or unless the U.S. joins the council. A similar measure passed in the House earlier in the year.
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