- The Washington Times - Monday, June 19, 2006

Today, armed with a powerful new mandate, the members of the new Human Rights Council take their seats, embarking on a major enterprise aimed at strengthening the U.N. human rights system and equipping it to respond better to the challenges of our time. The council represents a defining moment for the Organization’s work for “the protection of all human rights and fundamental freedoms for all.”

Yet it is profoundly wrong to believe we start from scratch. The 61-year old U.N. human rights system has a proud legacy, which the now-defunct commission helped form. It has codified a wealth of international human rights norms and standards, established numerous independent mechanisms to monitor those standards, and stood up for human-rights defenders, victims and the vulnerable in countries around the world. The challenge now will be to ensure the new Council lives up to that rich historic legacy, while doing what is needed to promote and protect human rights in today’s conditions.

Several new features give us reason to believe the council will be a significant improvement on its predecessor. Even the way its members were elected last month marked a welcome departure from “business as usual.” Commission members were preselected behind closed doors and then “elected” by acclamation. By contrast, the new members of the council had to compete for seats, and successful candidates had to win the support of a majority of all member states, in a secret ballot.

For the first time in history, candidates gave voluntary commitments to promote and uphold human rights, and will be expected to meet them or else face possible suspension from the council.

The resolution establishing the council stresses the importance of ending double standards, a problem that plagued the past commission. What the politicized debates of the past often obscured is the irrefutable fact that all states have human rights problems, and all must be accountable for their shortcomings.

The test, then, is not membership, but accountability. To that end, a new universal periodic review mechanism will offer the Council — and the world — the opportunity to examine the records of all 191 member states of the United Nations. This is a dramatic development with the potential to improve human rights throughout the world.

Perhaps most significantly, the council will meet throughout the year, whereas the commission’s limited six-week schedule severely impaired its effectiveness and flexibility. With this precious additional time, the council will be able to undertake preventive initiatives to defuse simmering crises and to devote particular attention to shoring up responses on the ground in situations where there are early signs of a human rights crisis. And the council will also have an improved mechanism for meeting to deal with urgent human rights crises in real time.

But all these changes will amount to very little unless members of the new council are prepared to look beyond their immediate political interests and embrace the cause of human-rights victims worldwide. That will require principled leadership from every one of them. The choice of Ambassador Luis Alfonso De Alba of Mexico, a strong human-rights advocate, as first president of the council, is a welcome sign members mean business. Stewardship of the new body has been placed in safe, impartial and competent hands.

The road ahead is fraught with challenges — many of which will require intense debate and discussion. Starting with a review of the commission’s work, members must make difficult choices. The new body should build on the commission’s recognized strengths and retain its established best practices and features. Any weakening of the human rights system’s mechanisms is emphatically not what is needed.

At the heart of the matter is how council members can lend more teeth to the implementation of existing and evolving human rights standards. It is to be hoped they will give equal priority to all human rights — economic, social, and cultural, as much as civil and political. Above all, this improved and more effective framework requires the member states to be ready to act, rather than just declare.

The commission met the challenge of its age in setting global human-rights standards. Let the era of the council be the era of implementation. Member states have promised as much. The public expects as much. Victims and the vulnerable, in all parts of the globe, deserve nothing less.

Louise Arbour is the United Nations high commissioner for human rights.

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