The spread of human rights norms and conventions, and the extension and diffusion of international humanitarian law, were among the truly great achievements of the last century. The United Nations was at the center of that effort.
In 1948, conscious of the atrocities committed by the Nazis while the world looked away, the U.N. adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This is the embodiment and the proclamation of the human rights norm.
On par with the other great historical documents like the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and the American Declaration of Independence, the Universal Declaration was the first international affirmation of the rights held in common by all.
Sometimes, especially around Asia, it is mistakenly described as an imposition of values and norms by the West on the rest of the world. In fact, it marked a repudiation of trends in Western civilization that had led, in particular, to the Holocaust, the attempted extermination of Jews by Nazi Germany.
The Universal Declaration was followed by two international covenants in 1966: one on civil and political rights, and the second on social, cultural and economic rights. Together they mapped out the international human rights agenda, established the benchmark for state conduct, and inspired provisions in many national laws and international conventions. They have been a beacon of hope to many whose rights are routinely snuffed out by brutal regimes.
According to U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, “The promotion and protection of human rights is a bedrock requirement for the realization of the Charter’s vision of a just and peaceful world.”
Yet the U.N. Human Rights Commission is so dysfunctional and discredited today that it is dragging down the image of the rest of the world body among many people and governments. In some ways the 52-member commission became a victim of the world body’s growing success in promoting human rights and monitoring abuses. As the international community aimed the searchlight of critical scrutiny more directly on the human rights abuses of governments, many regimes decided that their best defense was to join the commission.
To reverse growing cynicism about the hypocrisy of existing institutions and practices, and noting that states often seek membership on the commission to shield themselves from scrutiny, the High-Level Panel on U.N. reforms recommended universal membership.
But this would not prevent human rights violators from acting in a bloc to shield themselves and their abusive peers from international scrutiny. The more challenging recommendation would have been to strengthen, not enlarge, the commission, by laying down benchmarks for election such as ratification of all U.N. human rights treaties, cooperation with U.N. investigations, and willingness to discuss country-specific allegations of abuse.
In a report, Annan affirms that the promotion and protection of human rights does not have to entail tradeoffs with security or development. Despite many real human rights successes, he acknowledges that “the system for protecting human rights at the international level is today under considerable strain.” The Commission on Human Rights, in spite of some notable strengths, has been overtaken by new needs and undermined by the politicization of its sessions and the selectivity of its work.
Annan’s solutions include more dedicated resources for the U.N. human rights machinery and a more active role for the high commissioner in discussions with the Security Council and with the proposed new Peacebuilding Commission. Noting the “credibility deficit” of the Human Rights Commission, he rejects the idea of universal membership in favor of a smaller Human Rights Council that would facilitate more focused debate and discussions.
Basing it in Geneva and treating it as a principal organ would give it more status alongside the Security Council and the Economic and Social Council. But this would require U.N. Charter amendment, which is a very difficult task. Alternatively, it could be a subsidiary body of the General Assembly with lower status, but much more easily accomplished. Its composition and term of office will also need to be determined.
Unlike the present commission, which meets for a few fixed months every year, the new council would be a standing body, able to meet regularly, allowing for timely and in-depth discussion of human rights issues. It would also be able to meet at any time to deal with imminent crises.
Its members would be elected directly by two-thirds of the General Assembly, free of the regional rotation system that has seen some of the worst abuser regimes elected to the watchdog body. Election by all members would give the council greater authority while ensuring its accountability.
Its functions would include giving technical assistance to states and policy advice to governments and U.N. bodies alike. While continuing to be a forum for dialogue among states with the involvement of civil society, it should play a pivotal role in overseeing and contributing to the interpretation and development of international human rights law.
Describing the proposed council as “a chamber of peer review” with the power of “universal scrutiny” over the human rights performance of all countries over “the entire spectrum” of civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights seems somewhat optimistic with respect to the international tolerance threshold of the United States and some other Western democracies.
One of the questions not addressed — maybe because it is too sensitive — is why the community of democracies should subject their actions to critical scrutiny by self-serving regimes with dubious domestic records.
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