The council was set up last year in a bid to burnish the poor image of the United Nations on human-rights protection.
However, that image might be poised to take yet another hit.
The 47-nation body's president, Mexico's Luis Alfonso de Alba, has proposed a set of reforms to make the panel more credible. Human-rights advocates criticize the package, yet acknowledge the proposals are the minimum necessary to maintain the council's credibility and allow it to fulfill its mandate.
Yet it's far from clear whether the council, which is debating the proposals today in Geneva, will reach the consensus necessary to pass the reforms.
If that proves the case, human-rights groups say, the body will be severely compromised.
"If they can't agree on this package it does raise serious questions about the council's ability to do its mandate, to perform," says Peggy Hicks, global advocacy director for Human Rights Watch.
The reforms include the establishment of a "universal periodic review" mechanism under which all countries will have their rights record examined regularly, so as to remove any accusation of bias against a particular state.
The council would also continue its practice of "naming and shaming" specific human-rights violators, such as Somalia, Sudan, Myanmar, North Korea, and the Palestinian territories.
However, diplomats appear to have agreed that probes into Cuba and Belarus -- notorious offenders of human rights -- would be dropped. Neither country has allowed the UN's special investigator on human rights to visit.
Hicks calls the Belarus and Cuba exceptions "unjustified."
"As part of the compromise to try to ensure that that system of so-called country mandates is protected, the package that's been put on the table eliminates the mandates for Cuba and Belarus," she says. "From our perspective, of course, that decision is entirely unjustified. Both Cuba and Belarus deserve the continuing attention of the council, and we feel strongly that, especially given the [UN] General Assembly's condemnation of Belarus in December and its recent rejection of Belarus' candidacy for the Human Rights Council, that the Human Rights Council itself should do better."
Hicks adds that the provisions on Belarus and Cuba appear to be based on purely political considerations, not human-rights criteria.
"Russia has been a strong supporter of Belarus, and the need for Russia's support for the package overall, I'm sure, had a role to play in Belarus' mandate being not one of the ones that President De Alva recommended continuing," Hicks says.
Overcoming A Tainted Legacy
The Geneva-based UN Human Rights Council last year replaced the Human Rights Commission, the old UN body whose image was tarnished by its inclusion as members of such notorious rights offenders as Libya.
Hicks says activists hold out hope the council can still improve on the old commission. But she acknowledges that, like the old body, the council has a controversial membership.
"There are a number of states that we have concerns over, and it's a range," she says. "But some that we have pointed to in the past are Saudi Arabia and China, as well as, of course, Cuba and Russia. So it's certainly the case that there are states on the body who have more interest in reducing human-rights scrutiny than they do in promoting a strong and effective human-rights body."
One measure of those conflicting interests can be seen in another proposal put forth today by African nations. They have introduced a code of conduct for council-appointed human-rights experts.
Activists say the code could seriously hinder the ability of the experts to carry out their work.
The council's decision on whether to accept the reform package is expected as soon as today.
UN General Assembly delegates applaud the creation of the UN Human Rights Council on March 15, 2006 (epa)
A FRESH START ON HUMAN RIGHTS: The United Nations General Assembly on May 9 elected members to its 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. (more)