The new United Nations Human Rights Council held its inaugural session today, with Secretary-General Kofi Annan calling for “a clean break from the past” and a “new era” as the enhanced body seeks to give teeth to the protection of rights for all, an issue that often seemed to elude its much-criticized predecessor.
“What must be apparent, above all, is a change in culture,” Mr. Annan told representatives from over 100 countries at the first meeting of the 47-member body in Geneva, appealing for an end to the confrontation and distrust that pervaded the now-replaced Human Rights Commission.
“Never allow this Council to become caught up in political point-scoring or petty manoeuvre,” he entreated those present. “Think always of those whose rights are denied - whether those rights are civil and political, or economic, social and cultural; whether those people are perishing from brutal treatment by arbitrary rulers, or from ignorance, hunger and disease.
“The truth is that those denials go together. All too often, it is those who seek to improve the welfare of their communities who become the victims of oppression; and it is the lack of freedom and of legal safeguards that inhibits economic and social development,” he declared.
The creation of the new Council was a major plank in Mr. Annan’s UN reform package “In Larger Freedom,” which he issued in March last year and which was later endorsed by the World Summit at UN Headquarters in New York in September.
Although its final form does not contain all the elements Mr. Annan sought, it is regarded as a significant improvement on the Commission, with several features to make it stronger and more effective. These include its higher status as a subsidiary body of the General Assembly, its increased number of meetings throughout the year and an examination of the human rights records of its own members.
“It is hardly an exaggeration to say that the eyes of the world - especially the eyes of those whose human rights are denied, threatened or infringed - are turned towards this chamber and this Council,” Mr. Annan said today.
He noted that in his report he had stressed that human rights form the third of the three pillars, with economic and social development and peace and security, on which all UN work must be based.
“I argued that these three are interlinked and mutually reinforcing, and are the pre-requisites for our collective well-being. No society can develop without peace and security,” he said. “No State can be secure if its people are condemned to poverty without hope. And no nation can be secure or prosperous for long, if the basic rights of its citizens are not protected.
“In short, lack of respect for human rights and human dignity is the fundamental reason why the peace of the world today is so precarious, and why prosperity is so unequally shared,” he added.
Mr. Annan held out the prospect of even greater enhancement of the Council, noting that at the moment it is a subsidiary organ of the General Assembly, pending a review within five years.
“I venture to hope - and I suggest it should be your ambition - that within five years your work will have so clearly established the Human Rights Council’s authority that there will be a general will to amend the Charter, and to elevate it to the status of a Principal Organ of the United Nations,” he declared.
He stressed that although human rights are an inherently sensitive topic, that does not mean they are inherently intrusive, or antithetical to State interests. “Nor should we accept the widely parroted notion that there is a built-in tension, or a necessary trade-off, between freedom and security, he said.
“This Council represents a great new chance for the United Nations, and for humanity, to renew the struggle for human rights,” he concluded. “I implore you, do not let the opportunity be squandered.”
In an opening address, General Assembly President Jan Eliasson urged Member States to continue working in a spirit of compromise and responsibility. “Now you have to show determination and courage to translate intentions and words to the changing of realities and taking action,” he said. “This requires from all of us statesmanship and preparedness not only to examine each other but also to examine ourselves.”
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour called on members to look beyond national interests. “Through its deliberations, the Council should search for, articulate and implement a broad concept of universality of rights and freedoms, designed to reflect first and foremost individual human dignity, rather than cater to the narrow pursuit of national self-interest and regional factionalism.”
Luis Alfonso de Alba of Mexico was elected as Council President. “We are at a crossroads of an historic nature,” he told the session. “We can and should contribute to improve the respect of human rights all around the world, and at the same time, we can and should contribute to the reform and strengthening of the multilateral system.”
The Council also elected four Vice-Presidents: Tomas Husak (Czech Republic) (Eastern European group), Mohammed Loulichki (Morocco) (African group), Blaise Godet (Switzerland) (Western Europe and Others Group) and Musa Burayzat (Jordan) (Asian group), who will assume the role of rapporteur.