Friday, 2 January 2009

Human Rights Council

Your correspondent has touched upon absolute moral standards before and will do so again. As part of this today's post looks at the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) - a body tasked with strengthening human rights around the world.

Few can doubt the value of such a mission, and for all the UN's detractors this is something in which it has some good form: the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted in 1948, is one of the most powerful documents created by man and a clear demonstration that fundamental rights are not to be picked or chosen by different cultures, but are innate for all citizens.

Since the declaration events have not gone as well for the UN's human rights efforts. The predecessor body to the HRC was the UN Commission on Human Rights. Ironically the trouble with this body boiled down to one of democracy - commission members were elected from any UN state, and inevitably this led to some countries that, to say the least, were unqualified to promote human rights. At the time of the commission's abolition (2005) China, Saudi Arabia, Zimbabwe and Swaziland were all members - not bastions of human rights support.

Thus the HRC was born. While it still features elected members, the process for election is supposed to require applicants to demonstrate high standards of respect for the body's ideals, and each member must individually be elected by the UN General Assembly. This, clearly, assumes that the majority of the world's countries support the application of human rights, something Freedom House, a organisation monitoring world freedoms, would disagree with. As if to prove this point many of the members of this new council are the same states as before, who don't appear to have cleaned their act up as part of the initiation process.

One mechanism, the universal periodic review, may boost the body's standing above that of its forerunner. Every UN state will be audited on its human rights standards, theoretically preventing the worst abusers from avoiding criticism simply by having enough friends to divert attention elsewhere. This could force those who have previously shown no interest in mending their ways to at least be subject to public scrutiny, although all the council can do is make recommendations to its parent, the general assembly.

So far the signs are mixed - the council made some of the right noises over Congo, but has veered into a familiar trap in its preparations for a 2009 anti-racism conference with some countries singling out Israel as the only country worthy of significant attention.

Scepticism is warranted, but support for the body is essential - the audit of every country is certainly a good idea; it cleverly ensures that the unacceptable activities of countries that should be leading lights of the human rights movement are reported, and thus prevents the worst abusers from deploying moral equivalence as their defensive weapon. The council is, perhaps necessarily, rather toothless. The way that the General Assembly responds to recommendations from the HRC will say a lot about the council's worth. Unfortunately, while those who are the persistent rights offenders carry significant clout democracy amongst members will not be enough. Countries who are serious about Eleanor Roosevelt's work will need to put their morals where their mouth in when the council starts to report on some of the less savoury states.

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