GENEVA, Switzerland (April 4, 2005) – A panel of UN Experts and senior diplomats leveled strong critiques against key elements of the reports recently presented by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and the High Level Panel he tasked to propose reforms for overhaul of the world body.
In the first-ever debate held at the Commission on Human Rights over Annan’s new proposals, UN Watch, a Geneva-based human rights monitoring organization, brought together the Irish Ambassador to the UN in Geneva, the Canadian Mission’s Human Rights Counsellor who is also Rapporteur of the Commission’s current 2005 session, along with the UN experts on Disappearances and Freedom of Religion. Entitled "What To Do About the Commission on Human Rights: A Response to Proposals for Reform", the UN Watch debate attracted hundreds of Commission delegates, including Senator Rudy Boschwitz, Head of the U.S. Delegation, Australian Ambassador Mike Smith, and Dutch Ambassador Ian de Jong. Hillel Neuer, Executive Director of UN Watch, chaired the discussion.
Ambassador Mary Whelan, speaking in her personal capacity, refuted the assertion of the Secretary General’s report that states seek membership on the Commission in order to criticize others. "I am not aware of any member of the Commission on Human Rights which sought membership in order to criticize others. That phrase is perhaps not accurate," said Whelan.
The Irish Ambassador also took the Secretary General’s report to task for ignoring positive elements of the Commission, for instance, the Commission’s functioning as a "cooperative enterprise" between states, civil society and other actors. Whelan accused the report of giving short shrift to the significant engagement of numerous government Ministers who participate in the Commission’s High Level Segment during its first week, as well the as many parliamentarians who attend Commission debates. Pointing to the Optional Protocol on Torture, Whelan said the Commission’s initial role as a standard-setting body is not yet over, and the Commission works better than ever before.
Professor Stephen Toope, Chair of the UN Working Group on Disappearances, criticized Western states and NGOs for their failure to "exercise discipline" in proposing new resolutions without providing adequate resources. Toope, an international law scholar and former dean at the McGill University Faculty of Law, said that human rights by definition involve political matters. Human rights cannot escape from "political machination" and "we should stop pretending that it’s possible to do so." The Commission "is a political body that won’t defer to expertise." Toope urged a "realistic assessment" of the UN, instead of continuing to give "false hope to suffering people" which is "a strategic and moral failing."
Toope strongly supported Annan’s proposal to turn the Commission into a smaller council, and advocated human rights criteria for states to qualify as members. They should be "weak criteria," said Toope, in order to achieve agreement. Asma Janhangir, the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion and a venerated human rights figure in Pakistan, countered that the existence of any set of criteria would risk giving an implied seal of approval to all included states.
Toope blasted the High Level Panel’s proposal to open the 53-member Commission to all 191 states. "In my view, the worst idea in the High Level Panel report is the expansion of the Commission to universal membership. This resulted purely because the high level panel could not agree on any other option," said Toope. "It may be time to start looking at an application of the United Nations Charter that allows for the suspension or expulsion of member states which consistently breach values of the Charter."
Deirdre Kent, Human Rights Counsellor at the Canadian Mission to the UN in Geneva, and Rapporteur of the current 61st Session of the Commission, emphasized the need to strengthen the Commission’s independent human rights experts, known as "special procedures". However, Ireland’s Ambassador Whelan pointed out that "There is a problem in selecting them. Not all Special Rapporteurs are outstandingly good. I think we should acknowledge that. The pool we are drawing from is part of the problem."
Though no names were mentioned, many ambassadors in Geneva have recently expressed embarrassment over the mandate of Jean Ziegler, the UN expert on hunger, who has been accused of abusing his post in order to repeatedly single out the USA and Israel. UN figures in Geneva were aghast in 2002 when Ziegler was awarded Libya’s "Muammar Khadaffi Human Rights Prize," a prize he himself helped establish in 1989. Last week, Ziegler accused the USA of committing "genocide" in Cuba and issued a report accusing the USA of creating malnutrition in Iraq. Whelan said that some of the reports by independent experts are of little worth, a problem that cannot be attributed to lack of resources.
UN Watch, founded in 1993 to monitor the UN according to the principles of its own Charter, organized the event in tribute to John Peters Humphrey, founding Director of the UN Division of Human Rights, and principal drafter of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The current session of the Commission began on the 10th anniversary of Humphrey’s death in 1995.
UN Watch is accredited as an NGO in Special Consultative Status with the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC).