- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 15, 2006

Rights council stalled

NEW YORK — The U.N. Human Rights Commission is to elect today what might be its last chairman as governments and human rights advocates negotiate how to replace the panel with something more credible.

U.N. members from around the world have been presenting papers, lobbying in the corridors and meeting in capitals to win approval for their views of what the new group, called the Human Rights Council, will look like.

Totalitarian governments, which largely have neutralized the commission by blunting its criticism of repressive regimes, seek a body a lot like the old one. Democracies and more open societies seek a body that will be more difficult to join and less politically motivated in its criticisms — a goal whose specifics divide even these frequent allies.

Negotiations have been so difficult that U.N. members were unable to agree on something concrete for world leaders to endorse at the U.N. reform summit in September — and had no more luck by the end of the year.

Even Secretary-General Kofi Annan is growing impatient.

“The decline in credibility of the existing commission casts a shadow over the entire U.N.,” Mr. Annan told developing nations last week. “I urge you, therefore, to act quickly so that a seamless transition between the commission and the council is effected during the commission’s final session this March.”

U.N. officials hope governments can sort out the matter by late February, although diplomats concede that much of the language in the working draft of the resolution is contested.

The stickiest questions remain: How many members should the Geneva-based council have, and how many times can members be re-elected; are they chosen by a simple majority of the General Assembly, or should a two-thirds majority be required? Will seats be assigned by region, or should election be open to all?

At closed-door meetings last week, three dozen member states, from Austria and Brazil to Yemen and Zimbabwe, outlined their preferences for the Human Rights Council.

U.S. Ambassador John R. Bolton warned delegates that “membership on the commission by some of the world’s most notorious human rights abusers mocks the legitimacy of the commission and the United Nations itself.”

The United States, which has advocated a ban on human rights abusers serving on the Human Rights Council, appears to have dropped an effort to win permanent seats for the five permanent members of the Security Council, which would have guaranteed seats to Russia and China, and disturbed nations concerned by U.S. treatment of prisoners of war or its use of the death penalty.

The United States and many other members want to see a smaller rights council, whose members would be elected by a two-thirds majority of the General Assembly, instead of a majority. The Bush administration also rejects the time-hallowed notion of geographical representation, in which seats are apportioned among regions. This would make it more difficult for repressive regimes to serve on the Human Rights Council — and the Sudans, Burmas, Cubas and Zimbabwes would not be elected through horse-trading.

Although few of the speeches last week were formally made public, many delegations indicated that they want to keep the regional distribution and make it more equitable.

But many countries that Washington seeks to exclude insist that the Human Rights Council have a membership as large as 191 nations, which would make it more representative and easier to get elected to.

Belafonte rips Bush

While visiting Caracas, Venezuela, last week, Calypso singer and political activist Harry Belafonte described President Bush as “the greatest terrorist in the world,” to the obvious delight of the host, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

The awkwardness is that Mr. Belafonte is a high-profile goodwill ambassador for UNICEF, run by Ann M. Veneman, who was secretary of agriculture in President Bush’s first term.

UNICEF immediately announced that Mr. Belafonte was speaking as a private citizen, so the fund could not comment on his remarks. That irritated many conservatives, who note that the United States is the most generous donor to UNICEF.

Betsy Pisik is on assignment. Her weekly column will resume when she returns.

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