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“All Citizens are Equal before Law and are Entitled to Equal Protection of Law”-Article 27 of the Constitution of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh

Issue No: 235
April 29, 2006

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UN Reform

The new Human Rights Council: Acceptance by rights groups

Qumrunnessa Nazly

DESPITE lots of criticisms on the effective functioning of the Commission on Human Rights, it continued to set international Human Rights standards starting from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and, most importantly, it took the efforts to be engaged constantly in the human rights concerns of the states by introducing special procedures.

Anyway, the forum also acted as a platform where countries, large and small, non-governmental groups and human rights defenders from around the world could voice their concerns. The failure of the Commission on Human Rights in protecting and preventing human rights of the people of the world was truly because of the electoral procedure regarding the composition of members of the Commission and the limited mandate given thereto and of course eventually because of the lack of commitment of the member states.

Pursuant with the secretary general's proposal of UN reform in significant sectors like Security Council and Human Rights Commission etc, to make the UN meet the global challenge in the new millennium, in September 2005 world summit, the world leaders pledged to replace the Commission on Human Rights by Human Rights Council with more effective mechanism. And after long discussion, negotiations among the state parties to the UN and opposition by a number of states, on 15th March 2006 the text of new Human Rights Council has been adopted overwhelmingly despite the US voted against the resolution containing the text. Although the text doesn't comply hundred percent of the expectations of the rights groups, they welcomed the new text as better equipped than the Commission on Human Rights to address urgent, serious and long-running human rights situations wherever they occur.

Because of the following elements included in the text, it is being expected that the Human Rights Council will replace as an improvement the Commission on Human Rights:

Ø The Human Rights Council will be composed of 47 members directly elected by secret ballots by General Assembly with absolute majority which will ensure more accountable body. Although rights groups preferred 2/3rd majority for the election of the members, but still it is an improvement over the voting system in Commission on Human Rights where the members were 54 of the Economic and Social Council.

Ø The provision of suspension of the member of the Council by 2/3rd majority of the General Assembly on the ground of gross and systematic violations of human rights has also given the platform for check and balance of the functioning of the Council as the members will not remain beyond scrutiny.

Ø Although the Rights group preferred the Council of Human Rights as one of the principal organs of the United Nations giving significance to the realisation of human rights as one of the three pillars of UN, they welcomed the Council as subsidiary body of General Assembly with the provision of the review status within the next five years which will provide the opportunity to assess the work of the Council as to be promoted as a principal organ of the UN.

Ø The provision stated that Members of the Council shall be reviewed under the universal periodic review mechanism during their term of membership. And it is expected that this individual review procedure will be a forwarding improvement to redress the double standards that its predecessors were frequently being accused of.

Ø Retention of the participation of NGOs and the maintenance of the special procedures will also give positive impact on the functioning of the council.

Ø The body will act as standing body which will meet at least three times a year for ten weeks as an improvement on the Commission's single annual six-week meeting with a right for one-third of the Council members to call additional sessions when needed.

In a summary, it can be said that in terms of composition and accountability of its members the resolution ensured more competent and credible body. But UN Secretary General Kofi Annan has truly said in his statement on the Human Rights Council that the true test of the Council's credibility will be the use that member states make of it. So it is only the strong and honest will of the members of the council including all other members of the global body to take stands and fully utilise their mandates to uphold the human rights of the world citizens. And adoption of the resolution is merely the first step and the very next step is upon the member states to elect to the council only those countries which will concretely pledge to promote and protect human rights, utilising the new standards and procedures built into the resolution.

And as the composition of the council will also be proportionate to regional geographical divisions of the UN, the regional groups should present their nominations to the council at least thirty days prior to election which will be held on 9 May, 2006 to allow for public scrutiny of their human rights records; present more candidates than spot on their slates so that governments have a real choice of countries. Previous practice, in which regional groups offered closed lists of countries immediately before elections, as occurred in the UN Commission for Human Rights, must not continue. And for candidates, they must set forth a concrete and positive human rights agenda at home and for service on the council and commit to cooperate fully with the mechanisms of the Human Rights Council by granting unimpeded access to U.N. human rights investigators.

As the Council is also going to be a forum only for dialogue and cooperation its focus is to help member states meet their Human Rights standards through dialogue, capacity building and technical assistance. Although it added two new commitments like capacity building and technical assistance which UN is doing through the OHCHR, it's lacking any enforcement mandates what its predecessor was lacking severely. So at the very beginning, new council members must adopt rules which will enable fair and transparent proceedings; establish a practice of condemning human rights abuses and making strong recommendations for improvement and design a universal review procedure which will provide neutral, objective scrutiny of the human rights records of all countries in the world starting with council members and make robust recommendations.

Lastly and importantly to come out of the criticism faced by its predecessor, since the beginning the new Council must show its honest commitment to address the worst human rights situations in the world regardless of political considerations, including by convening emergency sessions to ensure a timely and effective response.

Qumrunnessa Nazly is a human rights activist, currently doing internship in Thailand.

Courtesy: Ain O Salish Kendra (ASK)


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