Doubts over new human rights body
By Mark Turner at the United Nations and Hugh Williamson in,Berlin
Published: May 6 2006 03:00 | Last updated: May 6 2006 03:00
Cuba, China and Russia appear almost certain to win seats on the UN’s
inaugural Human Rights Council, prompting questions about how committed
the new body will be to protecting people from oppression, torture and
The outcome of the council’s May 9 elections will be watched closely by
UN supporters and critics alike, amid fears that compromises in
establishing the body will undercut efforts to restore credibility lost
in the Human Rights Commission in Geneva.
The 47-member council is a centrepiece of the UN’s faltering reform
process, and its failure or success may be the most visible testimony of
the attempts by Kofi Annan, secretary-general, to breathe new life into
The UN secretariat and non-governmental organisations have rallied
behind it, despite disappointment that its rules fell short of their
ambitions for tough membership conditions.
They argue that the council, whose members need to win 96 votes in the
191-member General Assembly, make pledges, and submit their records to
review, marks significant progress.
Human Rights Watch, the New York-based pressure group, says greater
scrutiny has already dissuaded some of the worst offenders from
standing, such as Sudan, Zimbabwe, Libya, Syria and Nepal. “That in
itself is a major step forward,” said Kenneth Roth, its director.
At the same time, many countries that have declared their candidacy also
have poor human rights records, both domestically and in their
commitment to standards elsewhere in the world. Mr Roth singled out
Cuba, Russia and China as the offenders most likely to win, but also
highlighted candidacies of Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Azerbaijan.
Even some democratic candidates, with relatively good records at home,
had a weak record of standing up for the rights of others. India and
South Africa, for example, “obviously don’t think people in other parts
of the world are good enough to enjoy the freedoms they have at home”,
Mr Roth said of their voting records.
The US, which did not vote for the establishment of the council and is
not standing for a seat, has been the institution’s most prominent
sceptic. But some Europeans, who generally back the new body, also have
* US officials acknowledged yesterday that the “shocking images” of
abuse at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq had damaged US human rights
leadership in the world, but said there had been “relatively few actual
cases” of ill-treatment of foreign detainees.
Giving evidence to a UN committee on US compliance with international
law on torture, John Bellinger, legal adviser at the State Department,
said the Bush administration was absolutely committed to the eradication
of torture, which was prohibited by law.