Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Human-rights panel reform falls short

Posted on Tue, Feb. 28, 2006

Human-rights panel reform falls short

The United Nations plan to reform its discredited Human Rights
Commission is a major disappointment. The heart of the matter comes down
to a need for genuine improvement in the quality of the panel's
membership, but this proposal does little to separate the wolves from
the sheep. If the United Nations wants to have any credibility
whatsoever when it comes to human rights, it must come up with a better

Commission a farce

Secretary General Kofi Annan deserves credit for realizing that the
existing Human Rights Commission has become a farce, what with major
human-rights violators such as Cuba and Sudan on the panel. The problem
is, the proposed changes will prove no hindrance to membership by these

Mr. Annan tried to make the best of the reform plan unveiled last week
by saying that ''there are enough good elements on this to build on.''
That's hardly a strong endorsement. When the reform plan was outlined
one year ago, it required that countries be elected by a two-thirds
majority, a tougher standard than the existing rule that permits
selection by a simple majority of those voting. Instead, the new draft
would require a majority of all General Assembly members -- 96 votes.
That's better than the existing rule but not as good as the two-thirds
plan and hardly an obstacle to membership.

It makes no sense to allow Cuba to have any role in protecting the human
rights of the international community when it violates the Universal
Declaration of Human Rights on a daily basis. Under the current draft,
any country that can make a backroom deal for votes can win a seat. The
draft merely asks that U.N. members ''take into consideration'' the
human-rights record of the candidate country, without obliging them to
abide by conventional human-rights standards.

The proposal contains just enough concessions to attract the support of
legitimate human-rights organizations, such as Amnesty International.
These include a declaration that council members uphold high standards
of human rights and cooperate with the council. In theory, that would
rule out Cuba and other human-rights outlaws, but that leaves it up to
the council to enforce the rules against other member nations -- an iffy

Compromises allowed

The chance to reform the rights panel comes along only once in a
generation. Getting this far hasn't been easy, and, yes, compromises
must be made. But human-rights supporters must ensure that cosmetic
changes don't take the steam out of the drive to make a clean break with
the past. This opportunity is the best chance for meaningful change that
we are likely to have for a long time. It must not be allowed to slip away.

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