UNITED NATIONS: People’s engagement with Human Rights Council must now begin

The new Human Rights Council was elected on May 9, 2006. According to the General Assembly Resolution of April 3, 2006, 

When electing members of the Council, Member States shall take into account the contribution of candidates to the promotion and protection of human rights and their voluntary pledges and commitments made thereto; the General Assembly, by a two-thirds majority of the members present and voting, may suspend the rights of membership in the Council of a member of the Council that commits gross and systematic violations of human rights [A/60/L.48, para 8].

The Resolution further requires the Council within a year to

… assume, review and, where necessary, improve and rationalize all mandates, mechanisms, functions and responsibilities of the Commission on Human Rights in order to maintain a system of special procedures, expert advice and a complaint procedure; the Council shall complete this review within one year after the holding of its first session [para 6].

Countries being voted into the Council is only the first step in creating the sort of Human Rights Council expressed by the General Assembly Resolution, and even more importantly, as expected by people around the world. Among these people, those who wish the Council to play a pronounced role are from countries where human rights abuses are most prevalent. In the coming months people will test their hopes against the possibilities created by the Council to deal with the world’s most difficult human rights problems.  

That many of the countries elected are themselves known to have serious human rights problems need not be an obstacle to the Council fulfilling its role, as long as all countries approach the Council with a view to resolving known human rights problems. The starting point must be an acknowledgement of these problems, followed by a concerted effort to resolve them. This is the only way to maintain the Council’s legitimacy. The pledges made by member countries for the improvement of human rights must be the basis for the Council’s work. Under no circumstances must the Council be used as a forum for the denial of human rights abuses. Only then will it be possible for the Council to generate genuine debate on human rights and their implementation.

According to the Resolution giving birth to this Council, the Council will work on the basis of universally accepted human rights norms and standards. At present however, there is a global threat to some of these fundamental norms. One such norm is the absolute prohibition against torture. Many of the countries in the Council have a known record of torture. The Council’s determination to become the world’s human rights leader may greatly depend on the way it addresses this basic issue.

The role played by the Council will also depend significantly on the manner in which civil society, including the media, academics and particularly human rights groups throughout the world are able to engage with the Council in its crucial formation period. Such engagement should not merely relate to how and when civil groups can attend Council meetings and in what ways they can make submissions. While these are necessary questions, far more crucial is the daily engagement regarding the Council’s formation and activities.

Modern media facilities provide enormous opportunities for people around the world to observe and discuss ways in which the Human Rights Council should play a role in resolving human rights problems. Forging an international body to deal with these problems requires unrelenting efforts to widen this debate as much as possible.

The earlier Commission on Human Rights was unable to catch the imagination of the people around the world. Most people did not even know of the existence of such a body or its purpose.  It is essential that at this early stage of the Council’s formation, such a situation is avoided. Ordinary people around the world must learn to hold the Human Rights Council accountable. If such public awareness can be achieved, the Council may be successful in fulfilling its mandate as set out down by the UN Resolution.