I have to say, that after reading several reports from this year’s UN Commission on Human Rights, I think the institution is ripe for reform. Having a smaller, more accountable body of governments responsible for overseeing the human rights work of the UN and the human rights situation throughout the world seems an essential part of the UN’s mission. The current Commission is so politicized and contentious as to almost be useless as a tool for the promotion and protection of human rights.
I have been editing stories and articles that are posted on the civil society monitoring site on the Commission on Human Rights called ngochr.org. So I am getting a pretty good picture of what is going on over there, even though I am in New York and the Commission is in Geneva.
There is certainly still lots of good work done at the Commission, mostly by NGOs, to bring to light publicly situations that need further attention and action, such as Human Rights Watch’s work on Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. The “special procedures” of the Commission, the various experts charged with monitoring certain countries, situations or issues, often do a remarkable job with almost no resources.
But the heart of the Commission is its ability to highlight areas of the world where serious violations of human rights are occuring and calling for action to remedy the situation. So where Dalits are being persecuted in India, or girls are forced to have their genitals cut in Africa, or prisoners are tortured in Tunisia, then the Commission should be able to examine, discuss and propose action on those sitautions.
Right now, the way the Commission works is that accusations of human rights abuses come from NGOs and from Western governments against developing countries. Africans accuse Westerners of racism, Asians accuse them of cultural imperialism, Muslim countries talk about “islamophobia.” Cuba levels attacks against the US embargo, while the US criticizes Cuba’s imprisonment of political dissenters and journalists. It’s a battle royalle that does little to promote concerted action or reform.
The SG acknowledges the problems of the Commission in his report “In Larger Freedom” on UN reform:
… the 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.
I agree with the Secretary General that the UN needs a smaller body than the 53 member states elected by ECOSOC. The Secretary General stops short of recommending any requirements for membership in the new Council, such as ratifying the main human rights treaties or allowing visits by all special procedures, but he does note that “those elected to the Council should undertake to abide by the highest human rights standards.”
Something has to change. This is no way to protect people’s lives and freedoms. Maybe his “Human Rights Council” can get us closer to that goal.