End of the line for UN rights commission

Human rights face a new start at the UN Keystone

Swiss officials hope the demise of the Geneva-based UN Human Rights Commission, which ended its work on Monday, heralds a brighter future for victims.

This content was published on March 27, 2006 - 21:33

The United Nations body, which has been widely criticised for allowing some members to escape condemnation, is to be replaced on June 19 by a new global human rights watchdog.

"We hope this is a new start," Jean-Daniel Vigny, minister for human rights at the Swiss Mission to the UN in Geneva, told swissinfo.

"Even if it was discredited in some ways, the commission has done considerable work over the past 60 years. The challenge for the future is to take this on and it won't be easy."

The 53-member commission, which will be formally abolished on 16 June, is being replaced in Geneva by a Human Rights Council.

The new body – the result of a Swiss initiative – will comprise 47 members who will be elected on May 9 by the UN General Assembly. Switzerland has already said it will be a candidate.

Speaking at the close of the final session, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour insisted that progress on human rights could not be achieved in a climate of mistrust and self-interest. She said reform needed to be accompanied by a "profound culture shift".

"There are millions of people all over the world right now who are looking to the United Nations for protection and redress against the violation of their rights and the deprivation of their freedoms," she added.

"It is to them, and to future generations, that the work of the Human Rights Council must be dedicated."

Out with the old

Although acknowledging the commission's flaws, Arbour said it would be "a distortion of fact" not to recognise that it had built the framework for international human rights protection.

According to Arbour, key achievements included the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the system of special procedures for responding to abuses around the world, and the adoption of resolutions against specific countries.

She said the commission's independent monitors had "given a voice to the often silenced victims of human rights abuses".

The Canadian jurist recalled the commission's stance against South Africa's apartheid regime, as well as the special sessions called to address the situations in East Timor, Kosovo, the Palestinian territories and Rwanda.

Not all bad

Adrien-Claude Zoller, president of Geneva for Human Rights, agreed that there had been many positive points and said responsibility for the commission's disappearance lay squarely with individual states rather than the body itself.

He pointed out that UN members themselves had been responsible for countries with chronic rights records, including Libya and Indonesia, getting the chair of the commission.

"If you look objectively at what has been done – all the treaties, declarations, standards and special procedures – there is no doubt that progress has been made," he said.

"The fact that you can have public debate between the victims and representatives of dictatorships is something that was unthinkable 30 years ago. I simply hope the council will offer a better opportunity for real human rights work."

swissinfo, Adam Beaumont with agencies

Key facts

The UN Human Rights Commission was created in 1946.
It wrote the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was adopted on December 10 1948.
On May 9 the General Assembly is due to elect the 47 member states of the council.
The new council is due to open its first session in Geneva on June 19.

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In brief

Unlike the commission, which held an annual six-week session in Geneva, the new body will meet at least three times a year for a minimum of ten weeks, with the option of convening emergency sessions.

The council will periodically review the rights records of all 191 UN member states. Members can be suspended for gross human rights violations by a two-thirds majority of the General Assembly.

The United States was one of only four countries to oppose the council when it was adopted by the General Assembly on March 15. Washington wanted tougher mechanisms for keeping rights violators off the council, but has said it will work with the new body.

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