Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Reforming the Commission on Human Rights

On Monday, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan released his plan (entitled In Larger Freedom: Towards Development, Security and Human Rights for All) for reforming the United Nations as the Organization approaches its sixtieth anniversary. Reform of the Security Council has, rightly, attracted the most attention in the press (see the links here), but the proposal for an enhanced Human Rights Council may be equally important.

As the following statement from the report (paragraph 183) makes clear, the Secretary-General has chosen not to suggest a specific institutional form for the proposed Human Rights Council. The report states:

If the United Nations is to meet the expectations of men and women everywhere--and indeed, if the Organization is to take the cause of human rights as seriously as those of security and development--then Member States should agree to replace the Commission on Human Rights with a smaller standing Human Rights Council. Member States would need to decide if they want the Human Rights Council to be a principal organ of the United Nations or a subsidiary body of the General Assembly, but in either case its members would be elected directly by the General Assembly by a two-thirds majority of members present and voting. The creation of the Council would accord human rights a more authoritative position, corresponding to the primacy of human rights in the Charter of the United Nations. Member States should determine the composition of the Council and the term of office of its members. Those elected to the Council should undertake to abide by the highest human rights standards.

It is clear from paragraphs 165 and 166, however, that the Secretary-General would prefer to see a strong, independent Human Rights Council occupying a position roughly equivalent in stature to the Security Council and the Economic and Social Council. The report speaks of a need "to restore the balance" that was originally designed to exist among the Security Council, the Economic and Social Council, and the Trusteeship Council, "with three Councils covering respectively, (a) international peace and security, (b) economic and social issues, and (c) human rights." Replacing the Trusteeship Council with a body focused on international justice requires, according to the report, "a far-reaching overhaul and upgrading of our existing human rights machinery."

The Secretary-General is asking for action on his proposals in September of this year. In the next six months, it is imperative that human rights NGOs and other civil society groups examine carefully proposals for a Human Rights Council and then work to generate public support for their preferred plan. Reform of the U.N.'s human rights machinery has the potential to move enforcement of international human rights law to the next step, but not if the Bush Administration is able to take the same approach to a new Human Rights Council that it has taken with the International Criminal Court. Surveys consistently show that the American people approve of the U.N. and international efforts to promote human rights. That support will have to be translated into political pressure between now and September.