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UN: Leading Human Rights Groups Support Reform Proposals

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan (file photo) Fifteen leading human rights organizations are urging UN member states to quickly establish a Human Rights Council, as recommended by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. Annan wants the new body to replace the current UN Commission on Human Rights, whose conduct he says is undermining the credibility of the entire organization. But some developing nations are calling Annan's proposal simplistic.

Prague, 13 April 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Kofi Annan said public confidence in the United Nations itself is at stake unless it overhauls its human rights machinery.

"We have reached a point at which the commission's declining credibility has cast a shadow on the reputation of the United Nations system as a whole and where piecemeal reforms will not be enough or will not do," Annan said.

Annan is proposing to replace the current Commission on Human Rights with a smaller Human Rights Council, whose members would be directly elected by the UN General Assembly. Current commission members are nominated by regional groupings.

Prospective members would need a two-thirds majority and a "solid record of commitment" to human rights. The new council would also be able to meet at any time, rather than once a year.
"Power politics and double standards have prevented the commission on human rights from addressing and often discussing the widespread and serious human rights violations in many countries."

The 15 human rights groups expressed their support for Annan's reform plan in a joint speech yesterday to the 61st session of the commission in Geneva. The commission is in the fifth week of its annual six-week meeting. The groups include Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the Association for the Prevention of Torture, and the International Commission of Jurists.

"Amnesty International has for a long time called for reform of the human rights machinery of the UN," said Lydia Aroyo, a press officer for Europe and Central Asia at Amnesty International in London. "We have for a long time pointed out the shortcomings of the work of the commission.... We are taking this opportunity to support the call for reform."

Aroyo said Amnesty is looking for the new Human Rights Council to deal with violations "wherever and whenever" they occur by remaining in continuous session.

Amnesty also recommends that the new body develop objective and transparent methods for the analysis and discussion of human rights violations.

"The reform must address the legitimacy deficit of the [current] commission," Aroyo said. "Power politics and double standards have prevented the commission on human rights from addressing and often discussing the widespread and serious human rights violations in many countries. For example, political fractionalism has hampered effective action to address major human rights crises in countries such as Zimbabwe, Iraq, and in Chechnya."

The 53-state Commission on Human Rights is charged with monitoring respect for human rights around the world. But critics accuse it of inaction, even when confronted with clear cases of abuse.

The commission has been denounced because some of its current members -- such as China, Cuba, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Zimbabwe -- are themselves under criticism for human rights abuses.

Other members of the current commission include Armenia, Hungary, Romania, Russia, and Ukraine.

Annan called the Human Rights Council a "fresh start" and said he would like to see the plan approved by September.

"My basic premise is that the main intergovernmental body concerned with human rights should have a status, authority, [and] capability commensurate with the importance of its work," Annan said. "The United Nations already has councils that deal with its two other main purposes: security and development. So creating a full-fledged council for human rights offers conceptual and architectural clarity."

Annan's proposal has been well received by many in the West, including the United States and the European Union. But debate in Geneva yesterday over the reform plan highlighted the concerns of many developing countries.

Egyptian Ambassador Naela Gabr spoke on behalf of African states. She called the idea of a Human Rights Council "simplistic," saying it would do little to tackle the real causes of human rights abuses, such as poverty, underdevelopment, and marginalization.

"African group does not believe that a simplistic transition will resolve all the problems," Gabr said.

Russia's ambassador, Leonid Skotnikov, also wondered who would judge whether a potential member of the council has the solid record of commitment to human rights that Annan is calling for.

Annan's idea for a Human Rights Council is part of sweeping reforms he has proposed for the entire United Nations, including the enlargement of the Security Council.
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    Grant Podelco

    Grant Podelco is the editor in chief of RFE/RL's English-language website. He first joined RFE/RL in Prague in 1995 as a senior correspondent after working for many years as a writer and editor for daily newspapers in New York, Oregon, and Texas. He reported from Afghanistan in November 2002 to mark the one-year anniversary of the fall of the Taliban.