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New Council Opposed by Unusual Duo: U.S. and Cuba

New Council Opposed by Unusual Duo: U.S. and Cuba

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U.S. Ambassador John Bolton was not the first to oppose a draft resolution establishing a new U.N. Human Rights Council—Cuba beat him to it.

The parameters of the resolution proposed by Jan Eliasson, president of the General Assembly, were already well-known in the diplomatic community after months of negotiations. Cuba denounced the proposal on the eve of its release. In a statement by its United Nations Mission on Feb. 20, Cuba warned that it ''will neither be an accomplice to nor will it remain a silent spectator over the obvious attempt to impose the creation of the Human Rights Council under the United States and its main allies' conditions.''

Cuba went on to denounce ''the strong pressure exerted in the last few weeks to force, in an untimely and inopportune manner, a decision allowing the creation of the Human Rights Council by the imperialistic interests proclaimed in the so-called 'Project for the New American Century,' which is the Washington hawks' plans to rule the world.''

Within minutes of the release on Feb. 23 of the text of the proposal establishing a Human Rights Council, Ambassador Bolton signaled U.S. opposition, stating, ''It's now time to consider whether it's time to begin real international negotiations on the text.''

Again, however, Cuba was first off the mark. On Feb. 24, the Cubans circulated to all U.N. members seven proposed amendments to weaken the text, including to increase the size of the Council; lower the threshold required for election; remove the human-rights standards for members and the clause allowing their suspension; shorten the time for Council meetings; and make it more difficult for the Council to adopt resolutions condemning rights violations in specific countries.

Next at bat was again the United States, with Ambassador Bolton announcing formal U.S. opposition to the proposed Council on February 27, based on unspecified ''deficiencies'' in the draft. Asked at his press appearances on both Feb. 27 and 28 to name any of those deficiencies, the ambassador finally identified one at his second appearance: the modest term-limits proposal that would bar countries from serving more than six years out of seven. ''One problem we had is the provision in there now for term limits,'' Bolton said. ''My concern now, given the term limits, is that America will go off, and that will be to the detriment of the Commission.''

A salutary effect of the U.S. opposition to the text is that it may increase the willingness of countries that were not very happy with some of its stronger provisions to accept the proposal. Cuba might even forego its amendments, pleased to allow the United States to isolate itself and make Cuba look like a champion of human rights.

On the other hand, should U.S. opposition force the proposal to a vote, all sorts of weakening amendments are expected from countries, including Cuba, who find the Council proposal far too strong. Further, the Organization of the Islamic Conference, which has signaled that its member states could accept the text as-is, including only the mild preambular provision urging the promotion of tolerance and respect for freedom of religion and belief, will instead press to incorporate language that restricts freedom of expression.

Having fought against Cuban positions for many years at the Commission on Human Rights, we would not like to see the very damaging amendments threatened by Cuba introduced against the proposed Human Rights Council proposal in the General Assembly.

The United States has no serious chance to improve the text through its effort to re-open the negotiations, but can state its reservations about the proposal on the floor of the General Assembly without blocking the consensus to adopt it. If the U.S. delegation calls for a vote, this will only open the door to changes that would make the Council weaker.

The proposed Council represents a major improvement over the existing Commission through improved membership standards, election procedures, suspension provision, meeting schedule and universal periodic review of all countries. We would hate to see these advances put at risk by the United States recklessly and unilaterally putting the proposal up for amendments by Cuba and others in the General Assembly.

Lawrence C. Moss is the special counsel for U.N. reform at Human Rights Watch

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