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UN: New Human Rights Council Taking Shape

The leader of the Belarusian opposition, Alyaksandr Milinkevich, who is currently serving a 15-day sentence in Minsk (file photo) ( A key test of the UN's attempts to reform itself is about to begin, with the election of members of a new human rights watchdog.

UNITED NATIONS, May 9, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- The United Nations General Assembly will today elect members to a new Human Rights Council, a step that reformers hope will help improve the United Nations' sullied record on defending human rights.

The UN's old human rights watchdog -- the Commission on Human Rights -- had long been criticized for granting membership to countries with dismal human rights records, such as Cuba, Sudan and Zimbabwe.

Every member of the new body has to pledge to promote human rights.

Some members of the old commission will not be seeking seats in the Human Rights Council, including Sudan, Zimbabwe, and Syria.

Others that are regularly criticized by human rights defenders will be standing, and some may well win seats. Some may not, however, manage to secure the majority support -- 96 votes -- needed to gain a place.

In all, 65 countries have put their names forward for the 47-member council.

"Any member that will be elected to the council will have to subject its human rights record for review during its term of office"

Winning a seat will be particularly difficult for some countries, as seats are allocated on a regional basis. The five regions are Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe, Western Europe and other states, and Latin America.

Competition will be particularly stiff in Eastern Europe where 13 states will vie for six seats. The 13 are Albania, Armenia, Azerbaijan, the Czech Republic, Georgia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Russia, Slovenia, and Ukraine.

The largest number of seats will be held by African and Asian countries, each with 13 members. Among the 18 Asian candidates are China, Iran, Iraq, and Kyrgyzstan.

There is, though, one notable country that will not be standing -- the United States. It voted against the new council when it was approved on March 15, arguing that the new body's rules are not strong enough to prevent human rights violators from keeping a seat.

However, U.S. Ambassador John Bolton says Washington will work "to make the council as strong and effective as it can be."

Jan Eliasson, the president of the UN General Assembly and the man responsible for overseeing the creation of the council, believes the council will prove more effective than the United States expects.

Eliasson has repeatedly said that the draft of the new council's role, which required five months of consultations with member states, may not be perfect, but that it nevertheless introduces control mechanisms largely absent in the old commission.

"Any member that will be elected to the council will have to subject its human rights record for review during its term of office," Eliasson said. "And secondly, every country that has presented its candidature has also made pledges and commitments."

"There is also a provision by which members of the new Human Rights Council could be removed from the council for gross violations of human rights."

Craig Mokhiber, deputy director of the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, said he expects UN member states to take into account "each candidate's contributions and pledges and commitments to human rights, but also their record in this regard and pledging them then to uphold the highest standards for the promotion and protection of human rights during their term in office."

Mokhiber insists that the new human rights review that each member will face during its three years on the council is "not just empty rhetoric, because there is also a provision by which members of the new Human Rights Council could be removed from the council for gross violations of human rights."

However, this is one of the points on which the United States has been critical. For a member to be removed, two-thirds of the General Assembly must vote for its ouster. The United States believes an absolute majority should be enough.

Less Politicized, More Active

While the new, Geneva-based body has been created largely in response to criticisms of the politicized nature of the old commission, the Human Rights Council will also be more active than the old Commission on Human Rights.

It will sit for at least three sessions a year for a total period of at least 10 weeks. The old commission met just once a year, for six weeks.

There is also an option for a council member to convene an emergency session, if supported by one-third of the other members (16 states).

The council, which is mandated to expose human rights abusers and help nations draw up rights legislation, is scheduled to meet for the first time on June 19.

The creation of the council is viewed as a success for the reform efforts of UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who had been pushing for the council since September 2005.

The UN has been plagued in recent years by corruption investigations, allegations of mismanagement, and sex-abuse scandals, and its leadership has been under increased pressure to introduce and carry out far-reaching reforms.