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Last Updated: Friday, 27 July 2007, 14:26 GMT 15:26 UK
Same old rows hit new rights body
By Laura Trevelyan
BBC News, UN headquarters

The new United Nations Human Rights Council has just celebrated its first birthday.

It replaced the old and discredited Human Rights Commission, which has become a bad joke because it was dominated by some of the worst human rights abusers in the world.

US President George W Bush (file image)
The US has twice refused to join the Human Rights Council

But critics say the council is barely any improvement on its predecessor - and now there are moves in the US congress to try to cut off funding.

It was a dire indictment of the UN Human Rights Commission when, in 2005, the then UN Secretary General Kofi Annan called it "a shadow on the reputation of the UN system as whole".

He was reflecting the opinion of human rights activists worldwide that a commission with Sudan and Zimbabwe as members had to go.

It was simply too embarrassing for the UN to have the regimes in Khartoum and Harare shielded by their participation in the UN's main human rights body.

'Beacon of rights'

So the commission was abolished and replaced by the Human Rights Council (HRC), based in Geneva.

"I think it would be crazy to say that it has not been a disappointing year," says Steve Crawshaw of international organisation Human Rights Watch.

We've really been dismayed by the kind of decisions and actions we've seen coming out of the Council
Kristen Silverberg
US Assistant Secretary of State

"The HRC should have been, if you like, a beacon of human rights.

"We really hoped that the new council would move things forward radically. It has, to be honest, failed to do so."

The US government voted against the creation of the HRC, saying that countries with the worst records would still be able to get elected to it.

"It's really been a grave disappointment to us," says Kristen Silverberg, the US assistant secretary of state responsible for US policy at the UN.

"This is a council that devoted eight different actions to bashing and criticising Israel before it lifted a finger to help people in any other part of the world, including the long-suffering people of Burma, or North Korea, or Zimbabwe."

'Blinkered view'

The council passed nine resolutions criticising Israel's human rights record in its first year but only three resolutions on the situation in Darfur.

Israel says that the 47-member body is dominated by countries who are members of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC).

A meeting of the UN Security Council (file image)
The developing world does not dominate in the Security Council

"We have the problem of numbers," says Itzhak Levanon, Israel's ambassador to the council.

"The OIC which are the Muslim countries, including the Arab countries, they have the majority in the numbers.

"What this means is they can call any time for a special session. Secondly, they can manage to have any resolution tabled on any item.

"So, basically, those countries were only filing resolutions against Israel while disregarding what was going on elsewhere."

Israel is a fault line at the UN. The US, a staunch ally, has used its veto in the UN Security Council to prevent resolutions critical of Israel from being passed.

At the HRC, dominated by developing countries and without the US present, exactly the opposite happens.

Munir Akram, Pakistan's ambassador to the UN, says it was legitimate for the council to spend much of its first year looking at Israel.

"Well, the fact is that there were serious developments on the ground to which the Council responded," he says.

"The council is a political body and of course it is perhaps the only political body in the UN where you don't have the veto, as in the Security Council."

But Kristen Silverberg says Israel is discussed by the Security Council.

"Israel receives more attention and scrutiny within the Security Council than any other country. And that's true not just of the Security Council, it's true of the bodies of the General Assembly," she says.

'Complicated truth'

There was disquiet amongst human rights organisations when Egypt was elected, a country criticised for torturing political opponents.

So how is it possible that countries with bad human rights records should get elected on a body supposed to uphold those very rights?

Steve Crawshaw of Human Rights Watch explains: "It is one of the complicated truths of any kind of multilateral diplomacy, in other words, any kind of diplomacy which involves all the governments all around the world.

"The UN itself is such a body, and the UN Human Rights Council is created by elections by all the governments of the UN.

"Within that, you've got, to be blunt, plenty of governments which don't have a natural human rights agenda and some of whom may simply not really care one way or the other what Belarus' track record is, or Cuba's."

In its last act before breaking for the summer, the council decided to stop its scrutiny of human rights in Cuba and Belarus - while carrying on looking at Israel.

But Munir Akram says the entire structure of the UN is political - the Security Council is dominated by Russia, China, France, the US and Britain (the so-called P5) who can veto decisions and therefore the developing world looks to exercise power where it can.

"Those countries who feel that they do not have a voice in the Security Council, who feel that their views cannot pass muster in a situation of domination by the P5... will seek other avenues to express themselves," he says.

Whatever the difficulties with the council, even its critics argue it is better to have it than not.

Despite the rhetoric of idealism, it seems the council is just another political arena, where the world's divisions are laid bare.

US rejects UN rights council plan
27 Feb 06 |  Americas
UN rights body backs Israel probe
11 Aug 06 |  Middle East
Profile: United Nations
14 Jun 07 |  Country profiles


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