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United Nations8.03.2006

Proposed Human Rights Council - Reporters Without Borders fears a reform that stops half-way

Reporters Without Borders does not support adoption, as it stands, of the resolution proposed by UN General Assembly president Jan Eliasson establishing rules for the functioning of the future Human Rights Council. It has major flaws.

Reporters Without Borders is one of the press freedom organisations that have campaigned for a thorough overhaul of the UN Commission on Human Rights. We hailed Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s proposals for the creation of a Human Rights Council to replace the commission.

But we do not support adoption, as it stands, of the resolution proposed by UN General Assembly president Jan Eliasson establishing rules for the functioning of this future Human Rights Council. It does not satisfy us.

We could follow other organisations in backing what some have called a half-reform, hoping that it will evolve in a positive direction. But we are convinced that, if this resolution is adopted in its current form, it will prove impossible to reform the new council for many years. This half-reform will be regarded by many member states as a significant and definitive advance, which they will not want to meddle with any more.

The most repressive states will continue to be represented

This resolution does not offer enough guarantees. The system of electing states to be members of the future council will not exclude those countries that respect human rights the least. Election by a simple majority, linked to a system of regional quotas, will ensure that the dictatorships will continue to present at the table for those who are supposed to ensure that human rights are protected throughout the world. For example, granting 13 seats on the council to the Asian countries obviously means that regional powers such as China and Pakistan will keep a prime seat on the council although they are both regularly guilty of massive human rights violations.

It would take a two-thirds majority, which is much harder to get, to exclude a country from the council for failing to respect human rights. And the dictatorships know how to establish alliances withing the UN system. Exploiting regional, political or religious solidarity, it would be easy for them to muster the support of more than a third of the member states in order to avoid a humiliating exclusion.

The new distribution of seats is equally astonishing. Two additional seats are granted to the Asia group (13 seats) and the Eastern Europe group (six), which include such notorious human rights violators as Belarus, Burma, China, Iran, Laos, Maldives, Nepal, North Korea, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Vietnam. On the other hand, the Western Europe and other countries group, which includes Canada, will have only seven seats instead of ten in the commission.

Religious freedom prioritised at the expense of other human rights

In the preamble of the resolution creating the Human Rights Council, none of these rights is named except... religious freedom. There is no mention of the right to life, the right to health, women’s and children’s rights, or freedom of expression and association, for example. It is unacceptable that the council’s founding resolution supports one right more firmly than others.

The concept of free expression makes no appearance. But the media are explicitly asked to promote tolerance and respect for religions and beliefs. This phrasing very closely resembles what is to be found in the constitutions and press laws of the Muslim countries that are the most repressive in this area.

This half-reform is even disturbing as regards this last point. While the resolution contains some advances (for example, the council’s sessions will be longer than the commission’s), we think the negotiations should be reopened. The United Nations must show greater firmness in the face of the reluctance of its member states. Monitoring respect for human rights is one of its principle missions. It has no reason to act in haste and thereby risk depriving itself of an effective tool.

In 2003, Reporters Without Borders issued a report entitled “Wheeling and dealing, incompetence and non-action,” which detailed the excesses and shortcomings of the UN Commission on Human Rights and proposed a radical overhaul.

To read the report, go to: