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New UN Human Rights Council - Mark P. Lagon

U.S. Department of State

New UN Human Rights Council

Mark P. Lagon, Deputy Assistant Secretary, International Organization Affairs Remarks to Congressional Human Rights Caucus Washington, DC February 8, 2006

Mr. Chairman and Members of the Caucus:

I would like to thank you for allowing me the opportunity to brief you on the progress that has been made toward establishing a new more effective human rights body within the UN. As you know, the current Commission on Human Rights (CHR) is in a state of such disrepair that the UN leadership and other nations have joined the United States' demand for dramatic reform. The CHR has become a safe haven for the world's worst human rights violators, who use their membership to protect themselves from reproach. It is deplorable when countries like Sudan and Zimbabwe, which lack the will to protect the human rights of their own people, are charged with protecting the human rights of all people.

The CHR's problems are numerous enough and severe enough to warrant a clean break with the past. The Human Rights Council (HRC) is the potential successor to the now discredited CHR. The United States has been extremely active in the negotiations that will establish this body. We will not be satisfied unless this transition encompasses significant procedural and substantive reforms.

On February 1, 2006 Ambassadors Arias (Panama) and Kumalo (South Africa) issued a new HRC draft in their capacity as co-chairs. While the proposals it contains would constitute an improvement over the CHR, the United States will continue to press for additional revisions. The text must meet high standards since it will be the basis for what will become the premiere UN human rights body. Otherwise a historic opportunity will be squandered.

The HRC cannot be merely a change in name, it must provide a fresh start. The U.S. has two primary goals -- reform of the membership and preservation of a strong mandate.

Membership

The US is deeply concerned about the quality of CHR membership. The UN Secretary General originally proposed that the HRC's membership could be improved by requiring countries to be elected by a 2/3 majority, one of the options currently listed in the draft resolution. This is certainly a step in the right direction.

As it stands, the draft merely asks Member States to "take into consideration" a candidate's human rights record when voting. The US believes we can and should do more. To this end, we propose requiring letters from candidates pledging their willingness to abide by human rights standards, and endorsements from regional groups. Sadly, this suggestion is not included in the new text.

We must do more in order to demonstrate that there are some standards that every country must meet to merit membership in the UN's human rights body. We support an exclusionary clause that would prohibit human rights violators from serving on the Council, barring countries under UN Security Council sanctions for human rights violations or terrorism from the HRC. We would be willing to consider alternatives, but remain committed to the principle that we must have a strong mechanism for excluding standards.

Mandate

On the mandate, we have ensured that the HRC will preserve its ability to examine gross human rights violations in specific countries. The US has successfully prevented Pakistan's efforts to require a two-thirds majority vote on country specific resolutions. The new draft states that "the Council should address situations of violations of human rights, including gross and systematic violations, and make recommendations thereon." Along with most other delegations, we also support a renewed emphasis on technical assistance. We have endorsed doubling the resources for the Office of the High Commissioner for this purpose. Cooperative help is the first resort, but frank condemnation must be an available tool as well.

The members themselves will work out the actual agenda of the HRC. It would be better for the new body to shape its own agenda, rather than granting that power to the entire UN General Assembly. We envision the HRC's focus to be geared towards country specific situations and technical assistance.

We believe that it is inevitable that countries will also want to discuss thematic resolutions. A promising opportunity exists in remaking the CHR's agenda -- getting rid of the agenda item on occupied territories -- under which 3-4 anti-Israel resolutions fall every year.

Other Issues

Procedurally, the United States has identified several ways in which a new body could offer improved effectiveness. CHR membership currently stands at an unwieldy 53 and the recently issued HRC draft called for a reduction in membership to 45. The United States believes that a more streamlined body would lead to maximum efficiency while still guaranteeing full regional representation and creating less room for bad actors. The smaller HRC will be more responsive to human rights violations as they arise. The present body meets once a year for no more than six weeks, six weeks of theater. The U.S. envisions a standing body that meets 4 times per year for a total of 12 weeks. The HRC also will be able to hold special sessions relatively easily. The U.S. firmly believes that a small, more regularly convening Council could better coordinate urgently needed technical assistance to the countries that need it most, in order to improve a human rights situation or prevent a human rights emergency. And where a government refuses assistance, it will be poised to highlight unmet obligations for the international community.

One positive carry over from the old body is the continued participation of NGOs. This measure appears in the new draft.

Status of the Negotiations

We began consultations on the new HRC last summer and have been heavily engaged ever since. To be plain, the discussions represent a struggle -- one group of countries seeks stronger human rights machinery while another seeks an impotent body. The challenge is in bringing around the large pool of "middle ground" countries to take advantage of this exciting opportunity to remake the UN's premiere human rights body, that is, liberal developing states which have been something of a "silent majority." We are working on this in New York and in capitals. All of our embassies are engaged on this issue, and our Department Leadership has been traveling and making phone calls and raising the HRC at senior levels.

The negotiations are not easy, and some delegations seem tempted to settle for "good enough." But we have taken the decision not to compromise on our key goals -- this issue is too important.

Conclusion

We hope to make the transition to the HRC as soon as possible. The draft calls for elections in May 2006 and an inaugural meeting the following month. The CHR is scheduled to meet in mid-March, but much remains unresolved. The CHR may have a full or truncated session, or it may not meet at all, depending on the status of the HRC negotiations.

The US certainly has not given up on this once-in-a-generation opportunity to genuinely reform the human rights body of the UN. Our task is to build consensus among countries that share the same vision and to replace the Commission on Human Rights with a functional, credible, and effective body.

Released on February 8, 2006

ENDS


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