UN Commission on Human Rights

The 61th session of the UN Human Rights Commission is winding down to its completion in Geneva this week. Or should I have written that the Commission is ratcheting up towards its grand finale? Because with two powerful movers and shakers in the world, the Americans and the UN Secretary-General—Okay: With one powerful mover and shaker, and one all-shook-up Secretary-General—lobbying for the permanent retirement of the Commission as part of their general project to render the United Nations an even less effective instrument for forging collective responses to the shared threats and shared needs of the peoples of this world, it is awfully hard to tell.

For what can only be explained as an attempt to make the Americans happy—a “sop to the Americans” was how The Independent described it at the time—the Secretary-General’s recent proposals to reform, restructure, and revitalize the United Nations (here paraphrasing the kind of boilerplate rhetoric that abounds in his In Larger Freedom document) includes changes not just for the General Assembly, the Security Council, the Secretariat, the Economic and Social Council, and something called “System-wide coherence.” But also the Commission on Human Rights.

As In Larger Freedom puts its case for the proposed changes to the Commission (Par. 182):

[T]he Commission’s capacity to perform its tasks has been increasingly undermined by its declining credibility and professionalism. In particular, States have sought membership of the Commission not to strengthen human rights but to protect themselves against criticism or to criticize others. As a result, a credibility deficit has developed, which casts a shadow on the reputation of the United Nations system as a whole.

These are harsh words. I don’t recall the Secretary-General ever having spoken of a “credibility deficit” within the Security Council, for example, because not just one, but two of its Permanent Members jointly launched an illegal war of aggression over Iraq in March 2003, and the Security Council, the one organ of the United Nations which the UN Charter grants the “primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security” (Article 24), coudn’t do a damn thing about it. Nor can I recall the Secretary-General ever having taken the Security Council to task over its lack of credibility and professionalism. Much less over the shadow that it casts on the reputation of the United Nations as a whole. If ever a case could be made about the forces undermining the capacity of the United Nations to perform its primary tasks, surely the Security Council’s incapacity to prevent two of its own Permament members from attacking Iraq, or to come to the defense of the Iraqi people after the U.S. and U.K. governments launched their war, deserves a place of honor.

(Quick aside. It bears repeating that all that the Security Council has ever managed to accomplish with respect to the U.S. and U.K. war over Iraq is a rewriting of the history of the invasion and occupation: Namely, Resolution 1546 of June 8, 2004. From 1546 onward, the officially sanctioned UN version of History—University of Michigan professor and blogger Juan Cole’s version too—notes now that the “presence of the multinational force in Iraq is at the request of the incoming Interim Government of Iraq and therefore reaffirms the authorization for the multinational force under unified command established under resolution 1511 (2003), having regard to the letters annexed to this resolution” (Par. 9)—the letters annexed to 1546 having been formally exchanged between the Prime Minister of the incoming Interim Government, Ayad Allawi, and the American Secretary of State, Colin Powell, just a few days before, the first letter inviting the Americans to stay on as the leaders of the so-called multinational force, and the second letter saying, “Thank you. We don’t mind if we do.” Thus has the American-dominated Security Council enhanced not only its credibility and professionalism in this young century. But also international peace and security. Indeed. The Secretary-General’s proposals for reforming the Security Council are so insipid (pars. 167-170) that the absolute vetoes currently enjoyed by the Permanent Five would remain unaltered. In other words, nothing fundamental would change. Nothing at all.)

No. Instead it is the Commission on Human Rights that suffers from the aforementioned “credibility deficit.”—And how does the Secretary-General propose to redress this deficit?

183. If the United Nations is to meet the expectations of men and women everywhere — and indeed, if the Organization is to take the cause of human rights as seriously as those of security and development — then Member States should agree to replace the Commission on Human Rights with a smaller standing Human Rights Council. Member States would need to decide if they want the Human Rights Council to be a principal organ of the United Nations or a subsidiary body of the General Assembly, but in either case its members would be elected directly by the General Assembly by a two-thirds majority of members present and voting. The creation of the Council would accord human rights a more authoritative position, corresponding to the primacy of human rights in the Charter of the United Nations. Member States should determine the composition of the Council and the term of office of its members. Those elected to the Council should undertake to abide by the highest human rights standards.

That parenthetical conditional—”if the Organization is to take the cause of human rights as seriously as those of security and development“—reveals a lot more than the Secretary-General and his staff recognize. Leaving the “development” side of it to one side for now, if the Commission on Human Rights were to take the cause of human rights as seriously as the Security Council takes the cause of international peace and security, “what rascals we should all be.”

So then why propose replacing the Commission with a standing Human Rights Council? Do you suppose the Secretary-General’s reason is that, after polling the heads of state of the Commission’s 53 members, he has determined that a simple majority wants to replace the Commission, as the Commission’s rules for voting require? Or that a two-thirds majority of the 191-member UN General Assembly would like to do away with the Commission, having been embarrassed by its “credibility deficit”?

Or do you suppose the “credibility deficit” that the Secretary-General alleges has struck the Commission over the years strikes it hardest when it circulates documents such as the Special Rapporteur Shaista Shameem’s on the “use of mercenaries as a means of violating human rights and impeding the exercise of the right of peoples to self-determination” (E/CN.4/2005/14)? As well as votes on resolutions like the one sponsored by Cuba and a bunch of other states on the “Right of Peoples To Self-Determination and Its Application To Peoples Under Colonial or Alien Domination or Foreign Occupation” (E/CN.4/2005/L.6)?

Or when “Israeli settlements in the Occupied Palestine Territory, including East Jerusalem, and the occupied Syrian Golan” (E/CN.4/2005/L.2) came up for a vote? “Torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment” (E/CN.4/2005/L.54)? “Basic principles and guidelines on the right to a remedy and reparation for victims of gross violations of international human rights law and serious violations of international humanitarian law” (E/CN.4/2005/L.48)? Or one of the many follow-ups to the “World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance and the comprehensive implementation of and follow-up to the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action” (E/CN.4/2005/L.13)?

How about the “Situation in occupied Palestine” (E/CN.4/2005/L.5)? The “Human rights situation of the Lebanese detainees in Israel” (E/CN.4/2005/L.3)? The “Adverse effects of the illicit movement and dumping of toxic and dangerous products and wastes on the enjoyment of human rights” (E/CN.4/2005/L.16)? The “Access to medication in the context of pandemics such as HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria” (E/CN.4/2005/L.27)? “The right to food” (E/CN.4/2005/L.20)?

Might anyone care to pick out the documents from among the foregoing that have contributed to the Commission on Human Rights’ “credibility deficit”? Might anyone care to list one or more of the criteria by which we can tell?

Or how about when representatives of the 53 States were asked to vote on the “Situation of human rights in Cuba” (E/CN.4/2005/L.31)? The “Situation of human rights in Belarus” (E/CN.4/2005/L.32)? The “Situation of human rights in Myanmar” (E/CN.4/2005/L.29)? And the “Situation of human rights in the Sudan”—and not just once, either, but in two separate resolutions (E/CN.4/2005/L.33 and E/CN.4/2005/L.36)?

Now. Do you suppose that it is resolutions such as these concerning human rights abuses—and in at least one case mass displacement and dying—in Cuba, Belarus, Myanmar, and the Sudan that the Secretary-General has in mind when his In Larger Freedom document deplores the States that “have sought membership of the Commission not to strengthen human rights but to protect themselves against criticism or to criticize others”? Or do you suppose that it is the earlier sample of special reports and resolutions that the 61st session of the Commission has taken up this March and April—the ones critical of the Americans’ pet causes, not the least of which is Israel, and the ones that affirm the human right to resist colonial oppression, to eat food, to receive much-needed medical care, to live a life free of poisons, and the like?

“[T]he Commission’s ability to perform its tasks has been overtaken by new needs, and undermined by the politicization of its sessions and the selectivity of its work,” Kofi Annan said in an April 7 address delivered in Geneva before the members of the Commission. He continued:

We have reached a point at which the Commission’s declining credibility has cast a shadow on the reputation of the United Nations system as a whole, and where piecemeal reforms will not be enough.

A Human Rights Council would offer a fresh start. My basic premise is that the main intergovernmental body concerned with human rights should have a status, authority and capability commensurate with the importance of its work. The United Nations already has councils that deal with its two other main purposes, security and development. So creating a full-fledged council for human rights offers conceptual and architectural clarity. But what is most important is for the new body to be able to carry out the tasks required of it.

Whenever I read passages such as this about the “declining credibility” of the Commission and the need for a drastic overhaul, I can’t help but wonder: In whose eyes?

Postscript (April 19): A friend tells me that the links I’ve provided to the UN Commission on Human Rights’ documents in the paragraphs above are failing (i.e., “Official Documents System: There is an end-user problem…”). So let me provide a different route—one via which I’ll leave it up to readers to explore on their own:


From here, one might proceed to the List of documents for the Sixty-first session of the Commission on Human Rights (very comprehensive), or 2. Reports, or 5. Draft Resolutions, and so on.

Apologies for any inconveniences. But the logistics at my end are a pain in the neck.

Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (Homepage)
UN Commission on Human Rights (Homepage), 61st Session, March 14-April 22, 2005

An Agenda for Peace: Preventive Diplomacy, Peacemaking and Peace-Keeping (A/47/277-S/24111), Report of the Secretary-General, Boutros Boutros-Ghali et al., June, 1992
An Agenda for Development (A/48/935), Report of the Secretary-General, Boutros Boutros-Ghali et al., May, 1994
Supplement to An Agenda for Peace, (A/50/60 – S/1995/1), Report of the Secretary-General, Boutros Boutros-Ghali et al., January, 1995
(Please note that all three of these documents are electronically archived by the United Nations Association of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.)

The Responsibility To Protect, Report of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, Gareth Evans and Mohamed Sahnoun et al., September, 2001 (For the HTML version of the same.)

United Nations Millennium Declaration (A/55/L.2), UN General Assembly, September 8, 2000
“We the Peoples”: The Role of http://www.un.org/largerfreedom/report-largerfreedom.pdfthe United Nations in the 21st Century, Kofi A. Annan et al., United Nation, 2000
UN Millennium Development Goals (Overview with links)
UN Millennium Project (Homepage)
A More Secure World: Our Shared Responsibility, Report of the Secretary-General’s High-level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change, Anand Panyarachun et al., 2004 (For the complete PDF version of the same.)
Investing in Development: A Practical Plan To Achieve the Millennium Development Goals, Jeffrey D. Sachs et al., 2005 (For the complete PDF version of the same.—Also see the accompanying Media Release.)
In Larger Freedom: Towards Security, Development and Human Rights for All, Report of the Secretary-General of the United Nations for decisions by Heads of State and Government in September 2005 (A/59/2005), Kofi A. Annan et al., United Nations, 2005 (For the PDF version of the report.)

Secretary-General Outlines Major Proposals to Reform UN Human Rights Machinery (SG/SM/9808), April 7, 2005

“In Larger Freedom” I, March 20, 2005
“In Larger Freedom” II, March 21, 2005
“In Larger Freedom” III, March 21, 2005
“In Larger Freedom” IV, March 22, 2005
“In Larger Freedom” V, March 25, 2005
“In Larger Freedom” VI, March 26, 2005
“In Larger Freedom” VII, March 28, 2005

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