Impasse on Human Rights

Friday, January 20, 2006

IF NO ACTION is taken, a pitiful parody of an international human rights commission will convene in Geneva in March under the auspices of the United Nations. Among the 53 delegates who will judge abuses of freedom around the world will be representatives of Zimbabwe, Sudan, China, Cuba, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Nepal and Russia -- the very states that should be at the top of the commission's list for examination. As Secretary General Kofi Annan acknowledged a year ago, the world's most conspicuous abusers of human rights have pushed their way onto the panel to prevent it from acting effectively in their cases; in so doing, they have turned what was once one of the more worthy U.N. institutions into its greatest disgrace. Mr. Annan's attempt to end this travesty while preserving a U.N. human rights body is bogged down in a predictable impasse between democratic and autocratic states. At the least, they should be able to agree that the present commission will not meet in March, or ever again.

Mr. Annan proposed to replace the human rights commission with a council that would be smaller, more effective and harder for chronic human rights abusers to join. A draft resolution to create the new body, issued by a working group in December, has some positive features, including a commitment to meetings throughout the year by the new council, instead of the current system of one annual session. But almost every important detail of the organization remains in dispute. Western democracies and human rights groups want to reduce the number of members to 30, require that they be elected by a two-thirds vote of the General Assembly and hold sessions at least four times a year for 10 weeks. The dictators' lobby wants more members, a lower threshold for getting on the commission, fewer meetings and a requirement that any resolution about a country be adopted by a two-thirds vote.

Who argues for the autocrats? Among their advocates are Egypt and Pakistan, two U.S. allies that rank among the world's leading recipients of U.S. government aid. Both regimes are headed by generals who claim they are steering their countries toward democracy; if that's true, they should have little to fear from a reinvigorated U.N. Human Rights Commission. Several Caribbean countries have also resisted the proposals of the democratic states; they, too, should have no reason to oppose a strong human rights commission, unless it is on behalf of their new financial benefactor, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. None of these states would be likely to insist on thwarting the

new council if they believed it would do significant harm to their relations with the Bush administration.

The administration's support for the reform, however, has been lukewarm. Until recently it delegated the negotiations to junior officials; when John R. Bolton, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, finally intervened early this year, it was to make the unhelpful demand that all permanent members of the Security Council be granted seats automatically. This would ensure a place for the United States but also for Russia and China. The administration has since softened this position, but it will need to make other concessions if the most important reforms are to be pushed through -- and it will have to put more pressure on Egypt, Pakistan and other allies. If the new council cannot be agreed on by March, the United States should insist that the current commission nevertheless be abolished. Better that the United Nations have no human rights body at all than a mockery of one.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company