- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 8, 2006

The United Nations will soon decide whether to replace its current Human Rights Commission (HRC) with a new body that can, with credibility, highlight and address human rights abuses around the globe. There is, of course, a broad consensus that the HRC is deeply flawed. Its membership includes a number of states with abysmal human rights records. However, despite Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s call for a smaller body composed of states abiding by the highest human rights standards, agreement on how to reform this critical institution has proven elusive.

Indeed, the most recent proposal, for a Human Rights Council of 47 members (down six from the current 53 members), would only be window dressing. As a result, the United States and other democracies should oppose this plan. The time for fixing the HRC is now, but it has to be done right. This is one policy exercise where seeking perfection (or, at least, genuine reform) is both desirable and necessary.

There are two fundamental problems with the existing HRC. First, its members are selected based upon the United Nation’s regional bloc system, which allocates a certain number of seats to each of five geographic groups, such as Africa or the Western European and Other Group (which includes the United States). As a result, countries with poor human rights records, but who may be highly important or influential in their own region, are regularly seated on the HRC. More than anything else, the participation of oppressive regimes such as Sudan, Libya and Saudi Arabia has destroyed the HRC’s credibility and effectiveness. Second, the HRC has increasingly focused its attention on alleged human rights abuses by Western democracies, especially the United States and Israel, and has not done enough to address egregious violations of human rights norms by such countries as, for example, Cuba, Iran or North Korea. Obviously, these problems are related and solving the first will go a long way toward solving the second.

There is, of course, wide agreement that the HRC’s work has been undercut by the participation of severe human rights abusers, and that an appropriate mechanism must be found to ensure that such states are excluded from membership. The problem is creating a mechanism that will both be effective and acceptable to U.N. membership.

There are a number of suggestions, including election by a majority of the United Nation’s general membership, featured in the pending reform proposal, a two-thirds-majority requirement (favored by the United States) and barring any state that is currently subject to Security Council sanctions. While the super majority requirement would make it more difficult for the human rights abusers to be selected, all of these proposals fall short. The only effective way to ensure that states with the worst human rights records are not permitted to serve on the HRC is to establish some strong membership eligibility criteria.

First and foremost, all members should have governments selected by free, fair and regular elections — as certified by the United Nations itself. This one requirement may indeed be sufficient in and of itself.

Other prerequisites could be based on the work of various human rights nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) — countries described as persistent and systemic human rights violators in various NGO annual reports should, at a minimum, be required to respond in detail and in writing before being considered for selection as human rights watchdogs. This unprecedented private-public partnership would both help ensure that the new body’s membership reflects the highest human rights standards, and might well offer a model for helping reform other portions of the U.N. machinery. As one concession to practical politics, the five permanent members of the Security Council can be considered eligible for election based on that status alone, since their participation would also give the new body some real-world muscle.

Once the HRC’s membership is reformed, its tendency to focus its resources on democracies, to the detriment of efforts to highlight and address the multitude of terrible human rights situations around the world, would very likely solve itself. A human rights body composed of real respecters of human rights will not ignore allegations brought against democracies, but will view them in perspective — and, hopefully, without a political agenda. Here, again, the work of various human rights NGOs would be a good source for helping to structure the agenda.

Although the current HRC has been irredeemably delegitimized, the pending proposal changes that body without actually reforming it. The United States should block the current pseudo-reform proposal and should lead its fellow democracies back to the drawing board — even if this means that this flawed institution will continue for a time.

This effort should be supported by the human rights community and by Mr. Annan. There simply is no alternative to getting this right.

David B. Rivkin and Lee A. Casey are members of the U.N. Subcommission for the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights, an expert body advising the HRC. The views expressed here are their own.

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