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UN: General Assembly Votes To Create New Rights Council

Manuel Rodriguez-Cuadros, Peru's ambassador and president of the 62nd Commission on Human Rights (left), and Louise Arbour, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, on March 13 (epa) The UN General Assembly voted overwhelmingly today to establish a new Human Rights Council which will replace the long-criticized Human Rights Commission. The United States, the world body's most influential member, voted against the Council but said it will work diligently to make the new body as efficient as it can be. The new Council will be the preeminent international human rights watchdog. It will aim to expose human rights abusers and help nations draw up rights legislation.

UNITED NATIONS, March 15, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- The new 47-member UN Human Rights Council will replace the 53-country Geneva-based Human Rights Commission, which in recent years has included countries with extensive record of human rights violations, such as Sudan, Cuba, and Zimbabwe. It was approved by a vote of 170 to four with three abstentions.

The United States opposed the establishment of the council because, it said, the new body's rules are not strong enough to prevent human rights violators from getting a seat.

"Absent stronger mechanisms for maintaining credible membership, the United States could not join consensus on this resolution. We did not have sufficient confidence in this text to be able to say that the Human Rights Council will be better than its predecessor.”

John Bolton, the U.S. ambassador to the UN, said that despite the "no" vote, the United States will work closely with other member states to make the council as strong and effective as it can. As it stands now, Bolton said, Washington cannot support it.

"Absent stronger mechanisms for maintaining credible membership, the United States could not join consensus on this resolution," Bolton said. "We did not have sufficient confidence in this text to be able to say that the Human Rights Council will be better than its predecessor.”

Bolton said that the United States will be supportive of efforts to strengthen the council and that it is looking toward serious review of the new institution’s structure and work.

Perhaps A New Suspension Option

Jan Eliasson, the president of the UN General Assembly, created the draft for the council that was approved today, after five-months of intensive consultations with the member states. He repeatedly said that the draft may not be perfect but that nevertheless, it introduces better control mechanisms which were largely absent in the old commission.

”We need to make sure that we consider human rights as serious obligation and if there are serious violations, gross violations of human rights, we are now introducing something absolutely new, namely, a suspension possibility,” Eliasson said.

Bolton said that one of the things that the United States intends to change is the rule that allows a member state to join the council if it gathers a simple majority in the General Assembly, but at the same time requires a two-thirds majority to expel a member accused of gross human rights violations.

Annan Predicts A Strong Council

Many UN member states and major human rights groups share the United States' concerns about the new council. At the same time they refused to reject it outright, fearing that reopening the negotiations or postponing the vote will further damage the United Nations, which has been plagued by allegations of mismanagement, corruption, and sexual abuse.

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan repeatedly said that the new council should be established as soon as possible and that any imperfections in its work could be polished later through consultations.

"I think the U.S. has played a good role in human rights. I’m sure it will not do anything that will jeopardize the new council," Annan said. "We will find a way to move forward, and I don’t think that we are going to see the sort of dramatic situation about the Human Rights Council falling apart. It will not fall apart and with the support of all member states we will make it a strong council.”

The council will conduct periodic reviews of the human rights records of all UN member states, beginning with those elected to the council. The recommendations will be binding.

The Next UN Secretary-General?

The Next UN Secretary-General?

Thoraya Ahmed Obaid (courtesy photo)

The women's rights group Equality Now has noted that no woman has held the position of secretary-general of the United Nations in its 60-year history. While geographic regions take "turns" in nominating candidates, women have never had their "turn," despite many qualified candidates. Below -- in no particular order -- is a selection of some of the women that Equality Now has put forth as possible candidates for secretary-general.

SADAKO OGATA served as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) from 1991 to 2000. Before her career as UNHCR, she was the independent expert of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights on the Human Rights Situation in Myanmar in 1990. In 1982-85, she was also representative of Japan on the United Nations Commission on Human Rights. Ogata has also been a prominent academic figure, serving as dean of the Faculty of Foreign Studies at Sophia University in Tokyo from 1989 until 1991. Prior to that she was director of the Institute of International Relations at the same university.

TARJA KAARINA HALONEN is the current and first female president of Finland. She is currently running for a second term. Halonen has a master of law degree from the University of Helsinki. She is a very popular politician and she was Finland's foreign minister from 1995 until 2000.

AUNG SAN SUU KYI is the 1991 winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. As a pro-democracy campaigner and leader of the opposition National League for Democracy party (NLD), she has spent most of the past 16 years in some form of detention under Burma's military regime. Born on 19 June 1945 to Burma's independence hero, Aung San, Suu Kyi was educated in Burma, India, and the United Kingdom. Her father was assassinated when she was 2 years old.

THORAYA AHMED OBAID is the executive director of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), the world’s largest multilateral source of population assistance. Obaid was appointed head of UNFPA on 1 January 2001 with the rank of undersecretary-general of the United Nations. She is the first Saudi Arabian to head a United Nations agency. Before joining UNFPA, Obaid was deputy executive secretary of the Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA) from 1993-98. In 1975, Obaid established the first women's development program in Western Asia.

GRO HARLEM BRUNDTLAND served three terms as prime minister of Norway in the 1980s and 1990s and was director general of the World Health Organization (WHO) in 1998–2003. In the 1980s, she gained international recognition by championing the principle of sustainable development as the chairwoman of the World Commission of Environment and Development (the Brundtland Commission).

(Compiled by RFE/RL; to see the complete list, click here.)