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A New Human Rights Council
Nov-24-05 12:15 am

Last week, the Institute for International Law and Politics at Georgetown sponsored an address by Dr. Mark P. Lagon, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for International Organization Affairs. In the talk, entitled "The United Nations and Democracy," Dr. Lagon argued in favor of abolishing the United Nations Human Rights Commission and replacing it with a new "Human Rights Council." Lagon explained:

The United States believes that the 53-member Human Rights Commission is beyond repair. The UN Secretary-General himself noted before the body in April 2005 that, "…the Commission’s capacity to perform its tasks has been increasingly undermined by its declining credibility and professionalism. In particular, States have sought membership on the Commission not to strengthen human rights but to protect themselves against criticism or to criticize others. As a result, a credibility deficit has developed, which casts a shadow on the reputation of the United Nations system as a whole."

In 2002, UN Member States voted the United States off the Commission on Human Rights. In 2003, they elected Libya as the Commission’s Chair. In 2004, they voted Sudan onto the Commission for a second consecutive term, in the midst of the genocide in the Western Darfur region, and in 2005, they elected Zimbabwe in the midst of allegations of widespread election fraud. Clearly, there is something amiss in the way UN Member States look at the UN’s role in protecting human rights.

Let me turn briefly to Sudan as a case study of the failings of the UN human rights machinery. In the spring of 2004, the Commission on Human Rights passed a very weak resolution on Sudan. The U.S. sought to revise and replace the text, but it simply was not strong enough with regard to the atrocities taking place in Darfur, and ultimately we opposed the resolution. A few days later, Sudan was reelected to the Commission on Human Rights. When Sudan was reelected, the U.S. delegation reproached the body by walking out of the meeting and issuing a public, very critical, statement.

Although we believe that the Human Rights Commission is so flawed that it is beyond repair, the U.S. certainly has not given up advocacy for human rights within the UN. The Department of State remains fully committed to the promotion and protection of democracy and human rights. We see it as the calling of our time. As Secretary Rice has said, "The survival of liberty in our land is dependent on the growth of liberty in other lands."

This is why the United States seeks the creation of a Human Rights Council to replace the dysfunctional Commission on Human Rights, with a mandate to help countries fulfil their human rights obligations. We believe that the Council’s mandate should include the ability to draw the world’s attention to urgent or continuous human rights violations. The Council should have the power to deploy human rights monitors and investigators to the field in order to put pressure on governments and remind them that the world is aware of their actions, and also to send a message of political solidarity to the victims of abuses.

Further, we support a membership for this new Council which is more credible and committed to human rights than that of the Commission. It is inappropriate for countries lacking the will to protect the human rights of their own people to be making decisions about human rights in the rest of the world. It may not be a pure club of democracies, but the election procedures must winnow the critical mass of audacious autocracies and spoiler states that exist in the broken Commission in the new institution.

Our task now is to build consensus among countries that share these values and to replace the Commission on Human Rights with a functional, credible, and effective body. I am coordinating the U.S. government’s effort to do so.

Given the problems of the current Human Rights Commission, Dr. Lagon's arguments make a great deal of sense. A new Human Rights Council could give the United Nations a better vehicle to respond to human rights problems throughout the world. Such a Council, however, will only be effective if the states that have a leadership role in the United Nations exercise the necessary political will to make the Council function. As the noted political scientist, Inis L. Claude, Jr., has often observed, international organization, the United Nations included, is only as effective as the member states that lead it.

Tags: human rights

About the editor:

Anthony Clark Arend


Commentary and analysis at the intersection of international law and politics.

» Contact the editor

» Learn more about the M.A. in International Law and Government at Georgetown University.

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