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Swiss see progress on UN human rights body

The creation of a Human Rights Council is a UN priority for 2006 Keystone

Switzerland says it is confident that agreement can soon be reached on a new United Nations body to replace the discredited Human Rights Commission.

This content was published on January 11, 2006 - 10:46

Negotiations on the proposed Human Rights Council aimed at defining its parameters and composition resumed in New York on Wednesday.

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan announced in December that the creation of "an effective, impartial Human Rights Council" was a top priority for 2006.

It would replace the 53-member Human Rights Commission, which has been widely criticised as toothless and lacking in credibility.

Countries with poor human rights records sit on the commission, and members in recent years have included Libya, Zimbabwe and Cuba.

Discussions on a replacement have been continuing since early last year and the UN is hoping to have a final resolution in place by March when the commission is set to hold its annual six-week session in Geneva.

States are currently divided on the new council's size, how often it would meet and how members would be chosen.

"I am confident that there is a deal out there supported by a lot of countries, which would mean more meaningful human rights work in the future than in the past," Peter Maurer, Switzerland's ambassador to the UN in New York, told swissinfo.

"We are not out of the woods yet, but I think there is an increasing sense that we need a new approach to human rights and we need a new organisation dealing with human rights."

Permanent five

The United States threw an additional spanner in the works last week when it suggested that the five permanent Security Council members – the US, Britain, France, China and Russia – should be entitled to a seat.

The Swiss have made it clear that they do not see this as a criterion for membership and instead favour a system whereby countries would be elected by the UN General Assembly, while ensuring a fair regional distribution of seats.

Maurer said it was important that the council was broadly representative and did not simply become an elitist "good guys' club". But he stressed that the worst human rights offenders should be excluded.

"We still have to find a balance in negotiations between the principle of openness and ensuring sufficient possibility to keep the worst offenders out," he said.

"For us the most important issue in these negotiations is that the council should not just address human rights during one meeting over six weeks, but that there should be the possibility for the council to meet on a more continuous basis and to be able to convene when there are urgent human rights violations."

Peer reviews

As well as meeting regularly, it is envisaged that the council would carry out peer reviews of member states – an idea that is said to be gaining support.

One of the main criticisms of the commission has been its inability to take action when faced with abuses.

Maurer said Switzerland still leant towards dialogue and cooperation with offending countries rather than confrontation and condemnation.

"But we cannot exclude that situations will arise where this is not possible and then the council must be able to act and make recommendations to the rest of the UN system... even without the consensus of the country concerned," he said.

Peggy Hicks, global advocacy director for Human Rights Watch, said she too was optimistic that a stronger, more effective body was within reach.

"The main issue is whether this can be done before March," she told swissinfo. "The range of issues has narrowed substantially but there are still some key provisions that haven't been assured."

One of the unresolved issues is whether existing members of the commission would be "carried over" to the council, something Hicks said would damage the new body's credibility.

Human Rights Watch also wants the council to meet more frequently than the four sessions laid down in a draft proposal.

"How regularly it meets will substantially determine how effective it can be," said Hicks.

swissinfo, Adam Beaumont in Geneva

In brief

The Human Rights Commission was established in 1946 and is currently made up of representatives from 53 countries nominated by regional groupings.

It meets every year for a six-week session in Geneva to assess the human rights situation around the world.

The proposed Human Rights Council is based on a model drawn up by Swiss human rights expert Walter Kälin.

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said during a trip to Switzerland in October that the new body would also be based in Geneva.

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