In it second but arguably first major session, the new United Nations (UN) Human Rights Council convened this week to receive reports from, examine, and reform the existing UN human rights mechanisms. The meetings are largely dedicated to hearing from over 40 Special Procedures mandate holders, each focused on a specific human rights theme or on countries where violations are allegedly taking place.
This spring, the original UN body for addressing human rights, the now-defunct Commission on Human Rights, was officially closed. For many years prior it had been generally seen as being largely ineffective and political, a tool used by human rights abusers to shirk the system.
In her address to the Council on September 18, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour summarized her expectations of the new body, identifying factors that should be carefully watched and addressed.
“Let me once again reiterate that poverty, discrimination, impunity, and lack of accountability fall into this category. And so do torture, the curtailment of freedom of expression, incitement to hatred, terrorism, as well as weak, corrupt, and unresponsive institutions of governance,” she said.
Arbour singled out the Darfur region of Sudan, Iraq, and Sri Lanka as areas of particular concern, where human rights violations are commonplace and escalating.
“…this often occurs because the international community’s action is either unforthcoming or hamstrung,” she explained.
Arbour was not the only Council attendee to highlight the lack of action by governments on persistent human rights abuses.
In the past, invitations for country visits by his office were very seldom granted, said Philip Alston, Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, on September 19.
He described the approach of the past Commission to gaining country visits as “self-defeating,” a system where governments which refused to extend invitations to mandate-holders were rewarded by silence, while those which honored the Commission’s call for accountability were singled out and closely examined.
Alston urged the Council to reform this process.
The same day, the Chairperson-Rapporteur of the Working Group on enforced or involuntary disappearances, Stephen J. Toope, presented the findings of his mandate. He expressed concern that anti-terrorist activities are being used by an increasing number of States as an excuse for not respecting the obligations of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights. He highlighted convincing reports of repression of opposition groups in many states in the name of the “war on terror,” and a large case load in the past year.
Some Council observers are not optimistic about the effectiveness of the new body.
“In its sessions to date, the Council has ignored the vast majority of the world’s human rights violations. Even the dire situation in Darfur merited only passing mention by a few members, and resulted in no statement or action by the Council against Sudan,” wrote the UN watchdog organization UN Watch, in a recent report about the Council sessions preceding the current one.
“The Council remains significantly non-democratic, with a membership that includes such serial human rights abusers as China, Cuba, Russia and Saudi Arabia,” the report said.
The UN Human Rights Council is composed of 47 member states, with terms expiring in 2007, 2008, or 2009. The 2nd session of the Council will run September 18 to October 6.