Ilankai Tamil Sangam

Association of Tamils of Sri Lanka in the USA

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New UN Body to Fight for Rights

by Peter Capella,, March 27, 2006

The new Human Rights Council will meet at least 3 times a year in Geneva. The new Council has some capacity to respond to emergencies and has some proactive, preventative capability.

NGO access to the Council has been preserved. NGOs will continue to have access to materials and sessions of the Council, and will be able to submit documents for the Council's consideration. New rules of procedure, however, are to be drafted soon. Whether statements are the best way to engage the Council, for instance, is being examined.

There will also be a review of the 'special procedures,' which cover the Special Rapporteurs, Independent Experts, etc.

The new members of the Council will be elected by the UN General Assembly on May 9 and the first session of the Council will be June 19.
-- Editor

Geneva - The 60-year-old United Nations Human Rights Commission was due to bow out on Monday to make way for a streamlined council that activists hope will be sprightlier in tackling abuse.

The 53 states in the Human Rights Commission were holding their final session before the 47 freshly elected members of a new Human Rights Council take over on June 19.

Karin Ryan (center) joins (from left) Rachel Groux, counselor to the president of the General Assembly; assembly President Jan Elliason, and Panamanian U.N. Ambassador Ricardo Arias, co-chair of the negotiations, immediately after the adoption of the resolution.

After two week-long suspensions, the annual meeting was due to gather for a few hours instead of the usual six weeks to allow heads of the UN's regional groups to formally hand over to the forthcoming body.

Set up in the aftermath of World War II in 1946, the Commission was widely regarded as discredited in recent years because governments with a record of abuse and superpower diplomacy stifled concrete action.

However, the United Nations human rights office defended the body's "proud history of achievements" on the eve of its last session, starting with the 1948 Universal Declaration on Human Rights.

Political will

It highlighted the body of international laws created by the Commission which also underpin action against genocide, racism and torture or that are meant to protect children.

Until the 1970s, the Commission's statutes did not allow it to target governments directly with criticism.

But that barrier started to tumble when it set up the system of independent special rapporteurs and experts, initially to keep tabs on abuse by the military dictatorship in Chile, then the apartheid regime in South Africa.

"They have given a voice to the often silenced victims of human rights abuses," Diaz said.

The assembly also provided a "unique" public forum for non-governmental organisations by allowing them to intervene in debates, the UN added.

The advocacy group Human Rights Watch said the new Council, which will retain the special rapporteurs, should be a major improvement.

But it cautioned that its effectiveness would depend on the ingredient that was lacking in its predecessor, political will.

"Its ability to protect the weakest will now depend on the commitment of governments to curb rights violations," said HRW director Kenneth Roth.

"States like Nepal, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, or Zimbabwe, which are members of the old Commission, cannot be allowed on to the new Council."

Key changes for the Council include the election of its members by a majority of all 191 states in the United Nations.

Activists hope that requirement will block the appointment of states with paltry human rights records.

Currently members are elected by their UN regional groups with little or no subsequent oversight.

The Council will also meet at least three times a year instead of once a year, theoretically allowing swifter scrutiny of new crises.

The human rights records of all members [of the Council], regardless of their size or political clout, will automatically be subject to review.

Human Rights Watch said that requirement alone was "an important step toward redressing the double standards that the commission was often accused of applying."


Much-maligned rights commission closes


GENEVA -- The discredited U.N. Human Rights Commission held its last meeting Monday before being replaced by a new body, ending a 60-year history in which some of the world's worst offenders often used their membership to protect one another from condemnation.

Peruvian Ambassador Manuel Rodriguez Cuadros, chairman of the 53-nation commission, gaveled the final session to an end. The commission's work will be taken up by a new U.N. Human Rights Council, which debuts in June.

The commission, which originally was inspired by the United States, came to be discredited in recent years because some countries with terrible human rights records - such as Sudan, Libya, Zimbabwe and Cuba - used their membership to protect one another from condemnation.

U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour said member states should now seize the opportunity to improve the U.N.'s tarnished rights record.

"The first opportunity to breathe life into this new institution will come with the elections of its first members," Arbour said. "This is a vital opportunity for the United Nations to begin setting the standard for its human rights work in the future."

The General Assembly voted earlier this month to replace the commission with the new council, ignoring U.S. objections that not enough was done to prevent abusive countries from becoming members.

"The commission will not be mourned by many who value human rights," U.S. Ambassador Kevin Moley told The Associated Press. "The good news is the commission is over. The bad news is that what replaces it isn't much better."

The new 47-member Human Rights Council will hold its first meeting June 19 in Geneva. The U.N. General Assembly will vote on new members May 9.

"It is an opportunity not to be missed - by candidates and the electorate alike - for it will visibly set the tone and the ethos of this new body," Arbour said.

The United States has yet to decide on whether it will seek election, Moley said.

Associated Press reporter Bradley S. Klapper contributed to this report.

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