Bern awaits decisions on new human rights body

The future of a new human rights council is still unclear Keystone

Switzerland will be closely watching events in Geneva and New York this week as the future of human rights at the United Nations comes under the spotlight.

This content was published on March 13, 2006 - 07:49

The UN Human Rights Commission in Geneva is set to open its 62nd session on Monday but will be asked to adjourn for a week to give a new chance for the creation of a Human Rights Council.

Manuel Rodriguez Cuadros, the commission's Peruvian president, will ask for the postponement in the hope that a final decision on the council will be taken at the UN General Assembly in New York.

A decision has been pushed back several times but could be taken in the coming days, according to the assembly's president Jan Eliasson.

The Swede, who has been leading the negotiations on what form the new council should take, wants to take advantage of a few extra days to obtain "the widest support possible to the project". What he means is removing opposition from the United States.

According to the Inter Press Service, the talks will only include Eliasson, the UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, and the American Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice.

Main fault

Washington feels that the future council risks reproducing the main fault of its predecessor in allowing states that seriously violate human rights to sit on it.

It's a view shared by some non-governmental organisations (NGOs) including UN Watch, which is said to be very close to US neo-conservatives, or Reporters Without Borders, which is very critical of the UN.

However, the main organisations that defend human rights, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, feel that the draft negotiated by Eliasson constitutes "a solid basis to strengthen the UN human rights machinery".

Switzerland, the European Union and Latin America also back this view.

Unless there is rapid agreement, the project for a Human Rights Council could be shelved indefinitely.

Direct threat

Failure to agree on the proposed council would also undermine the work of the commission, leaving a vacuum in policing suspected human rights violations.

"This commission session should renew 21 mandates of special rapporteurs. But the 53 member states are totally divided on whether the 62nd session should be held or not. These investigations run the risk of being shelved," commented Adrien-Claude Zoller, president of Geneva for Human Rights.

Zoller fears that authoritarian regimes elected on the commission – the cause of its present discredit – might take advantage of the situation to throw out as many mandates as they can.

The stakes are crucial for Swiss diplomacy. The future of the Human Rights Council, which stems from a Swiss initiative, is in the balance.

But if there is failure, the role of Geneva as the capital of human rights may also suffer. Without a Human Rights Council, the current - discredited - commission will be all the UN has to police human rights.

swissinfo, Frédéric Burnand in Geneva

In brief

The idea for a UN Human Rights Council was put forward by Swiss Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey.

Jan Eliasson, president of the UN General Assembly, has been leading negotiations on the form of the new body with the 191 UN member states. His mandate to do that expires in June.

The future council would replace the Human Rights Commission, which was created in 1946 and holds meetings annually over six weeks in Geneva.

The 62nd session of the commission is due to open briefly on Monday to postpone its work for a week.

The UN General Assembly could approve the project for a new Human Rights Council in the next few days.

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