Today, 10 January, marks the 60th anniversary of the first session of the UN's General Assembly. Then, as now, the agenda of the world's only universal intergovernmental body was dominated by peace, security, and human rights. But its human rights body now stands discredited, prompting efforts to reform and restore faith in the UN's ability to ability to safeguard rights.
Washington, 10 January 2006 (RFE/RL) -- No special events are scheduled to mark the anniversary of the first General Assembly session, held in London 60 years ago.
Instead, the 191-member body finds itself gripped in a debate involving one of its founding principles -- universal respect for human rights. At issue is how to reform the UN's much-criticized Human Rights Commission.
The Commission is supposed to be the world's top forum for the investigation of human rights problems. But, increasingly, the 53-member Commission is seen as a place where rights-abusing states such as Sudan and China team up to block efforts to probe their actions.
At the UN summit in September, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan called on world leaders to remedy the "failures of the Human Rights Commission," as well as to double the budget of the office of the high commissioner for human rights and strengthening the high commissioner's powers.
So far, there is little agreement except that there should be a new body with a new name, the Human Rights Council.
Negotiations in the General Assembly about the nature and form of the new council begin on 11 January.
One group, composed mainly of Western democracies, is seeking to ensure that states who systematically abuse human rights are not elected to the new body. This reforming group wants members of the Human Rights Council to be chosen by at least two-thirds of the members of the General Assembly, replacing the current politicized system in which regional groups put forward candidates for approval by the Economic and Social Council.
Reformers also want the new body to meet regularly and to be required to consider country-specific situations.
Belarus, Cuba, and Zimbabwe lead a small group of states opposed to any new criteria that would threaten their membership of the new council.
There are also a number of developing-world democracies -- such as South Africa and India -- who generally support reform but have not taken a strong position.
The position of the United States has disappointed rights activists. Recently, the U.S. ambassador to the UN, John Bolton, said Washington will push for the five permanent members of the Security Council to be given seats on the Human Rights Council. Two of the Security Council's five members, Russia and China, are among the states that most actively seek to block scrutiny of their rights records.
Changes In The UN Culture
Ted Piccone, director of the Democracy Coalition Project, an independent U.S.-based organization that has pressed for the UN to reform the Human Rights Commission and do more to promote democracy, says it is not clear what reforms the General Assembly will approve.
"No one has been able to come up with a result that will guarantee that you will get the worst countries off [the human rights body] and the better countries on," he says. "What we've had to fight against is that UN culture, the way things are done."
The General Assembly has historically played an important role in establishing human rights norms, including the codification of treaties. In 1948, it adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which set a common standard for all states.
The General Assembly also created a post for a high commissioner for human rights and funds numerous expert missions worldwide.
Rights activists are generally impressed by the work of the UN's human rights rapporteurs. In the past year, rapporteurs been active in Uzbekistan, which was recently subject to scrutiny by an independent UN expert and by rapporteurs concerned with torture and extra-judicial executions. Iran has also faced criticism, for violence against women and for violations of housing rights.
In December, a UN special rapporteur, Adrian Severin, raised concerns about freedoms in Belarus following legal changes that would punish contacts with foreign states and organizations.
Edward Luck, a UN expert who teaches at New York's Columbia University, says it is important that any new rights council continue the work of such experts. "There is a substructure of professional work going on looking at the individual conventions and, for example torture or whatever, and checking on implementation of them and doing reports about them and doing reports about countries as well," he says. "That part is certainly of value, so whatever is created in the Human Rights Council, one hopes they can transfer that kind of expertise and that kind of precedent into the new council."
Luck credits Secretary-General Annan with helping to integrate a human rights sensibility into the work of other UN bodies, such as the Security Council.
The UN also played a leading role in helping to set up the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission after the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001.
Luck says human rights have become a normal component of UN post-conflict planning, with peacekeeping missions being obliged to have human rights monitors on staff. "It's become an integral part of any healing process, any post-conflict peace building [that] you've got to respect human rights, you've got to have the legal institutions, the justice institutions, criminal law mechanisms in place," he says.
Luck and other experts believe that a similar emphasis on the need to foster democracy is spreading within the UN. The organization has become increasingly involved in helping organize and monitor elections and in helping states to draft constitutions.
The General Assembly is due to vote this year on whether to establish a UN democracy fund. More than $40 million have already been donated to the fund.
But democracy-building efforts could be overshadowed by a deadlock on the new human rights body. The negotiations due to begin on 11 January face a tight deadline. UN officials want to have a consensus about the Human Rights Council before the current rights commission meets again in March.
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