Last year's session was chaired by Libya, a country considered to have one of the world's worst rights records. Many of the commission's 53 states teamed up to effectively blunt discussion of the rights records of China and Iran. Commission members also voted against resolutions that would have spotlighted Russian abuses in Chechnya and Zimbabwe's crackdown on dissent.
The session provoked calls for reform of its membership, which continue to resonate as the body begins its annual six-week meeting in Geneva on 15 March.
The U.S. State Department's recent survey on human rights practices said the commission must be strengthened by the presence of democratic states. Prominent watchdog groups also say some Western governments are weakening in their defense of rights standards because of new alliances formed in the war on terrorism.
UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan commented in December on the problem of abusive states campaigning in the commission: "Really, I wish they would move away from this tendency to band together in groups to protect each other and to ensure that they are not criticized by the commission and look at it from the point of view of the rule of law and the individual."
Last year, for instance, the body was still able to muster votes for resolutions criticizing -- for the first time -- the records of Turkmenistan, Belarus, and North Korea. All are scheduled to come up for review this year. There is some hope that the tenor of debate will improve this year because the commission will be chaired by democratic Australia.
Rights activists are generally impressed by the work of the 36 human rights rapporteurs appointed by the commission. In addition to country assignments, the rapporteurs investigate everything from torture to freedom of belief. This year's commission is expected to appoint new rapporteurs on genocide and trafficking in humans.
A Human Rights Watch expert, Joanna Weschler, told RFE/RL that the commission makes progress each year, despite its spotty membership. "We consider it as a body with very important potential which is undergoing a really serious crisis, but we haven't given up on it," she said.
This view is shared by Jef Julliard, news editor for the press watchdog group Reporters Without Borders. The group is banned from this year's commission because of a protest at the opening of last year's session against the Libyan chairmanship. Julliard says his organization's suspension, spearheaded by Cuba, highlights the problems with the commission, but he says he still has hope for it. "We think that this commission could still be very useful to protect human rights, but it needs a very urgent reform," he said.
Adrian Karatnycky is a senior scholar for another prominent NGO, Freedom House. He told RFE/RL that it is particularly important for the commission to maintain the "naming and shaming" practice of resolutions singling out countries for criticism. Such resolutions, he says, have an especially big impact in closed societies where civic groups have been unable to operate. "It's pretty clear that from the fierce way in which countries battle against these resolutions -- Cuba, in particular -- that they understand that this has impact and that this is a potentially damaging thing to their interests, to their international credibility."
There are plans for a newly constituted group known as the Community of Democracies to hold meetings during the session in Geneva. Karatnycky is hopeful these talks will advance the process toward forming a formal caucus of democracies at the UN, which could help shape developments in bodies like the Human Rights Commission.
Members of the Community of Democracies include South Korea, South Africa, India, Chile, and many European states. Karatnycky says their diversity is key to overcoming the current trend in alliances on the commission. "The advantage of having a democracy caucus is that it really takes the edge off the north-south divide which often also becomes a way of creating a kind of false solidarity with tyrannies," he said.
Some rights activists have called for new criteria, such as democratic credentials, for commission membership. That's an issue that must be approved by the UN's Economic and Social Council, which appoints commission members.
But such criteria could be difficult to establish, says Waly Bacre Ndiaye, director of the New York office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. He told RFE/RL that, even among democracies, there are differences -- such as laws regarding the death penalty -- which could pose problems when trying to establish benchmarks for commission membership.
Ndiaye sees value in a commission composed of both rights champions and countries with mixed records. He says there is general acceptance -- at least rhetorically -- of the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights and that the commission is on a path toward increasing support for rights principles. "Of course, sometimes the path is slower, sometimes it is quicker, but generally it is moving towards more universal support and more opening to listen to the human rights discourse and to accept to discuss it, whatever the content will be," he said.
Of more immediate concern is the UN membership's lack of financial support for the office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. A previous high commissioner, Mary Robinson, expressed alarm about funding problems three years ago.
Funding for the high commissioner's office remains minimal despite a steady increase in its workload. For 2004, it is due to receive $27 million from the regular budget and is going to appeal for an additional $55 million from donors, typically the United States and Western European states.
Ndiaye says the low funding undermines one of the UN's core missions. "It is almost unconceivable or unacceptable that the UN general budget has less than 2 percent for [its] human rights agenda, if you compare the importance of the human rights agenda in the overall concept of the UN Charter," he said.
As for the commission, rights watchdogs also are concerned about a softening of the approach to country resolutions by the countries which are normally the main proponents of reform -- the United States and members of the European Union. There has been more support in recent years for statements instead of resolutions concerning countries of concern.
For countries like Uzbekistan, where there have been widespread reports of torture, some states favor offering technical assistance rather than condemnation. Weschler of Human Rights Watch believes this would be ineffective. "People are being tortured to death in Uzbekistan," she said. "How do you deal with this through technical assistance?"
The first few days of the Human Rights Commission session are usually dominated by procedural issues. The country resolutions -- many of which are still being discussed by commission members -- are voted on toward the end of the six-week session.