By Fabíola Ortiz | IDN-InDepthNews Analysis
GENEVA (IDN) – “What we are doing to improve human rights situation around the world is not enough,” stated the American attorney and diplomat Alfred Moses in a critical reflection on the tenth anniversary of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) stressing that the state of human rights has broadly deteriorated with atrocities being committed worldwide.
“What we need is action. We must ask ourselves why is it that the UNHRC has done so little,” noted the Ambassador speaking on a panel at the Geneva Summit on Human Rights and Democracy in Switzerland on February 23.
The inter-governmental body within the United Nations system made up of 47 member states, which are elected by the UN General Assembly, was created in 2006. It replaced the functional Commission on Human Rights (UNCHR) within the overall framework of the UN.
UNCHR was established in 1946 by ECOSOC, the UN Economic and Social Council, and was one of the first two “Functional Commissions” set up within the early UN system, the other being the Commission on the Status of Women. It was created under the terms of the United Nations Charter – specifically, under Article 68 – to which all UN member states are signatories.
The Human Rights Council was established by a decision of the heads of state and government at the 2005 World Summit and then formalized on March 15, 2006 by the resolution 60/251.
By holding three regular sessions every year at the UN Office in Geneva, it is responsible for strengthening the promotion and protection of human rights around the globe and for addressing situations of violations, and make recommendations.
The 31st regular session at Palais des Nations in Geneva is scheduled for February 29 to March 24. However, Ambassador Moses is rather skeptical and refrains from arousing expectations for the 2016 kick-off session.
“The HRC is mostly an exercise of speeches with no significance. Discussions among the countries resolve the issues based on their political interests. Countries who perpetrate human rights abuses get a free pass. It doesn’t encourage them to have better practices because there is no penalty attached,” declared the American attorney who is also chair of the UN Watch, an NGO that monitors the Council’s activities.
Investing in human rights is not a precondition for membership in the Council, Ambassador Moses told IDN. Each year, the Geneva Summit invites victims, activists, dissidents and leaders to focus on urgent human rights situations and threats demanding global attention. The one-day conference usually takes place a week ahead of the start of the HRC session.
“We are talking to ourselves and hoping that in future summits political leaders would take part. Human rights violations are not even heard, discussed or mentioned in the Council’s sessions. The message we are trying to give is that the perpetrators are politically important,” he said.
According to Hillel Neuer, the executive director of UN Watch, the unifying message from civil society is that if the UN takes human rights seriously, the Council should do a far better job. Only 38% of the countries at the HRC are democracies, he told IDN.
“I don’t think that our own democracies are living up to their obligations. What we find is that on its tenth anniversary since Kofi Annan (former UN Secretary General 1997-2006) got rid of the Commission and created a new and improved Council, democratic composition has never been lower with countries that are not concerned about human rights.”
According to Neuer, when the Commission was “put to sleep” in March 2006 and, three months later, a new Council arose “like a phoenix from the ashes” in June, there were the same ambassadors as before. “For the most part we changed just the name. We put on some make-up,” he said.
Activists openly show frustration with loads of talks and speeches about human rights but too little attention to the violations of those rights in some specific countries or ineffective resolutions of international solidarity.
Besides, some nations such as China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Cuba and Venezuela are repeatedly elected to join the membership. Indications are that during its 10th anniversary celebrations, HRC will not go in for a formal review of its work and functioning.
As it is, the majority of the world’s worst rights abusers enjoy immunity and impunity. They are able to do whatever they want because they are members of the Council. “It is so outrageous,” regretted Neuer.
Among the new mechanisms and procedures created with the HRC was the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) – one of the primary innovations that is meant to review the human rights records of all 193 UN member states, once every four years.
The executive director of UN Watch welcomes this concept. “Some countries raise important issues during those hours and pose real questions. There is a tiny minority that is using this mechanism (appropriately). For the most part, however, it is a farce.”
The 124-page study entitled “Mutual Praise Society” by UN Watch scanned 300 speeches delivered by 55 countries, including several that participate in the Council as non-voting observers. It came to the conclusion that the reviews conducted by a great majority of the countries participating in the UPR process were failing to achieve the stated purpose.
“Tragically, a majority of 32 out of 55 countries acted as a mutual praise society, misusing the process in order to legitimize human rights abusers, instead of holding them to account”, states the document.
The commissions of inquiry are also an important instrument that has shown some effectiveness, claimed Daniel Mekonnen, an exiled Eritrean human rights lawyer and scholar.
“If we look into the growing number of commissions of inquiries that were established, it is definitely attributable to the HRC. These commissions are making some contributions to the advancement of the jurisprudence of the international criminal law”, told IDN.
The Eritrean case, he said, received global visibility when a special rapporteur was announced in 2012 and a commission of inquiry was set up in 2014.
“We Eritreans are very grateful for the Council. It is better to have something rather than nothing. The HRC operates in the context of international law that lacks efficiency of enforcement mechanism. Taking into consideration all the institutional limitations, I think it is still making some gradual improvements. There is a lot though to be expected from the Council,” argued Mekonnen.
While in exile, he has been actively involved for the last 15 years in exposing gross human rights violations committed by the Eritrean Government. According to him, the state of democratization worldwide is at “a very bad stake”. “The Council was created at a time when global development was not very favourable to human rights or democratization.”
Mekonnen believes, nevertheless, that this new body has been more effective than its predecessor. “It has had a modest progress but the world would be much worse if it wasn’t for the HRC,” he declared. [IDN-InDepthNews – 27 February 2016]
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Photo: A view of the conference. Credit: Fabiola Ortiz/INPS