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Ahead of elections for new Human Rights Council, Annan urges support for its work

Ahead of elections for new Human Rights Council, Annan urges support for its work

In historic vote, GA creates new  Council
Upcoming elections for the new United Nations Human Rights Council will mark a fresh departure from its predecessor, the much-criticized UN Commission on Human Rights, Secretary-General Kofi Annan wrote today in a leading newspaper, urging all Member States to fully support the work of the new body.

In an historic move last week, the General Assembly voted overwhelmingly to set up the 47-member Council, which is scheduled to hold its first session on 19 June and which has a higher status and greater accountability than the much criticized Commission that meets yearly in Geneva.

“In just seven weeks time, on May 9, the UN will elect its first Human Rights Council. That moment can, and must, mark a new beginning for all the UN's human-rights work,” Mr. Annan wrote in an Op-Ed published in The Wall Street Journal, noting that 170 nations, including all of Washington’s NATO allies, voted last Wednesday for the resolution creating this new Council.

“In short, there is every reason to hope that the new Council will combine the best features of the old system with some much-needed changes. All those who want it to fulfill this promise now have seven weeks to make it happen. Let no one who cares about human rights remain on the sidelines of this struggle.”

Despite last week’s overwhelming vote to set up the Council, Mr. Annan noted that “sadly, the US voted against, joined only by Israel, the Marshall Islands and Palau.” Belarus, Iran and Venezuela abstained.

However, he wrote that it was “very encouraging” that despite the United States ‘no’ vote, US Ambassador John Bolton had explained its position “in a constructive speech” and pledged that his country will work cooperatively with other Member States to make the Council as effective as possible.

“Ever since Eleanor Roosevelt helped to draft the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, the US has been a leading champion of human rights at the UN. I hope and believe it will remain so,” Mr. Annan wrote, referring to the wife of former US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

The Secretary-General outlined why he believed “some Americans were disappointed with the text,” noting that this was “essentially because they fear that in the new Council, as in the Commission that it replaces, some notorious human-rights abusers will win seats and shield themselves from scrutiny.”

While acknowledging that this concern was shared by many other countries, he noted that General Assembly President Jan Eliasson had persuaded Member States to “include other provisions which will make it more difficult for gross human-rights violators to sit on the Council.”

In particular, he noted that Council members must be elected, "directly and individually by secret ballot by the majority of the members of the General Assembly," and said this means that “nations will not get on the Council as they did on the Commission, simply because there is no rival candidate from their own region.”

Another safeguard, wrote Mr. Annan, is that Council members are required to "uphold the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights," and to submit their own human-rights record to the Council's scrutiny during their term of membership.

The General Assembly will have the power to suspend Council members that do commit gross and systematic violations during their term – a power it did not have over the Commission, he noted.

While the Commission was “entirely reactive, the Council is mandated to contribute to preventing human-rights violations,” he noted.

But he emphasized that much would ultimately depend on the support of Member States.

“Taken together, these provisions should make it very hard for a notorious violator to win election, and should deter the worst offenders even from running. How effective they are depends, of course, on how seriously the UN membership takes them.”