- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 26, 2006

A major overhaul of the United Nations’ discredited human rights agency is “quite likely” this year, the State Department’s lead negotiator said yesterday, but he also said the United States would insist on real reforms before agreeing to a deal.

The United States backs a plan to scrap the current 53-member U.N. Human Rights Commission, which critics say has been co-opted by some of the world’s worst human rights abusers, including Sudan, Zimbabwe and China.

“I think it is quite likely we can get a new human rights council, although it is not certain,” Mark Lagon, deputy assistant secretary of state for international organization affairs, said at a Washington roundtable on U.N. reform.

U.N. officials have pushed for the overhaul to be completed before the old human rights panel’s scheduled March meeting in Geneva, but Mr. Lagon said it was more important to do things right than to do them quickly.

“The U.S. is not hung up on artificial deadlines,” he said. “We feel it is important that any replacement body must be definitely better.”

The debate over the human rights agency has become a flash point in the larger debate over reforming the world body itself, which has been rocked by scandals such as the Iraq oil-for-food program.

Critics say the current commission essentially has been taken over by the worst abusers, with countries such as China and Sudan seeking seats on the panel specifically to block scrutiny of their human rights records.

The United States and other leading democracies want to end the automatic rotation of members on the commission, setting up a leaner Human Rights Council that blackballs countries with poor records and has real powers to investigate and spotlight abuses.

At a summit of world leaders in New York in September, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan endorsed the reform effort and called for a doubling of the budget of the office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights.

A small group of states — including Zimbabwe, Belarus and Cuba — has opposed the more-stringent membership idea. Negotiations on the shape of the new council began Jan. 11, and some private human rights activists say the U.S. government has been slow to press its case.

Mr. Lagon said the United States wants the bulk of the new council’s workload to be helping fledgling democratic states move toward greater political freedom, civil liberties and the rule of law.

The emphasis, he said, “should be on operations in the field. We don’t want to have just another think tank in Geneva.”

With its new credibility, it “can then speak more effectively in the face of horrendous violations,” he said.

Mr. Lagon said the new council should not mean the end of special expert missions approved by the current commission. U.N. “rapporteurs” have won praise from human rights groups in recent months with missions critical of abuses in countries such as Belarus, Iran and Uzbekistan.

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