The United States Embarks on a High-Risk Gamble That Could Undermine Critical UN Reform: The UN Human Rights Council
The Open Society Policy Center is supporting efforts to replace the UN's existing Commission on Human Rights with a more effective and legitimate Human Rights Council. Secretary-General Kofi Annan called for this reform in his March 2004 "In Larger Freedom" report. The U.S. Administration, Congressional leaders and the U.S. Institute of Peace Task Force on the UN have endorsed the establishment of a reformed Human Rights Council where countries address egregious human rights abuses and promote the highest standards in human rights.

March 7, 2006

For more information on the state of negotiations and the most recent proposal to reform the body please click the PDFs to view.

The Open Society Policy Center is supporting efforts to replace the UN’s existing Commission on Human Rights with a more effective and legitimate Human Rights Council. Secretary-General Kofi Annan called for this reform in his March 2004 “In Larger Freedom” report. The U.S. Administration, Congressional leaders and the U.S. Institute of Peace Task Force on the UN have endorsed the establishment of a reformed Human Rights Council where countries address egregious human rights abuses and promote the highest standards in human rights.

The United States embarked on a high-stakes gamble, when it unilaterally rejected the latest proposal to establish a reformed Council in late February. The latest proposal is the result of over five months of intensive negotiations. The last-minute attempt by the U.S. Administration to reopen negotiations is unraveling a fragile compromise and could result in a weakened body or indefinite delay in this critical UN reform. The European Union and other US allies support the current resolution, isolating the United States. On February 23, prominent human rights and democracy organizations joined to urge U.S. Secretary of State Rice to support the resolution that would establish a new Council. (see letter below).

Although not ideal, the current resolution can result in a stronger body if the United States and its allies in the Democracy Caucus organize a coordinated effort to fight for effective implementation of the current resolution. As Nobel Laureates and prominent human rights organizations outline in the letters linked above, the resolution includes many provisions that would result in an improved body, including:

Improved membership:

  • For the first time, member states must be elected by absolute majority in direct and individual voting.
  • For the first time governments are directed to consider a candidate’s human rights record, pledges and commitments when electing members and must pledge to cooperate with the Council.
  • Also for the first time, members of the Council that commit gross and systematic violations of human rights may be suspended.
  • The U.S. and its allies in the UN Democracy Caucus can use this new mechanism to organize a united front in support of each other’s candidacies and against the worst abusers.

Improved function and capacity

  • Meetings will take place at least three times a year for ten weeks, instead of just one six-week session a year, and additional sessions may be called by one-third of the Council membership enabling the body to address urgent cases of gross violations.
  • A system of universal periodic review offers a new opportunity to hold states accountable to their human rights obligations in a less politicized process.

The US attempt to renegotiate would likely result in a much weaker resolution or no body at all.

The current resolution represents the culmination of five months of intensive negotiation and compromise among 191 Member States on what is perhaps one of the most sensitive and divisive issues at the UN. If reopened, spoiler states (for example Cuba, Sudan, Pakistan and the Organization of Islamic Conference) are ready to introduce amendments that would dramatically weaken the body.

The United States government has not yet outlined a leadership or negotiation strategy to win support for its proposals which were previously rejected by the majority of states, including our allies. An effort by the US to reopen the text at the 11th hour must include only a small number of innovative or new proposals that could garner support from our allies and minimize the risks of other countries demanding their own changes to weaken the proposal.

Please contact Alison Giffen of the Open Society Policy Center, agiffen@osi-dc.org for more information.

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