Secretary-General Kofi Annan today voiced the hope that the new United Nations Human Rights Council, a major reform he had sought, would broaden its work from just considering the Palestinian-Israeli issue so as to avoid the perception of unfairness.
Speaking to reporters at the UN’s European Headquarters in Geneva at the last news conference he is scheduled to give there as Secretary-General before stepping down after serving for 10 years at the helm of the UN, Mr. Annan was asked about the credibility of the Human Rights Council, which he had sought to replace the Human Rights Commission, widely perceived as both ineffective and over-politicized – specifically over the new body’s devoting three special sessions to the Middle East.
The Council “was expected to look at the human rights record of all countries,” he replied “I myself suggested that one should look at the records, human rights records of the Council members; before they move on to look at records of others, they should start with themselves…
“When you focus on the Palestinian-Israeli issue without even discussing Darfur and other issues, some wonder what is this Council doing, don’t they have a sense of fair play, why should they ignore other situations and focus on one area? I hope as we move forward, they will broaden their work and look at human rights situations of other countries and deal with it, because if they concentrate only on the Palestinian-Israeli issue, we will hear the comments that you have indicated.”
Mr. Annan, who is expected to give one more news conference at UN Headquarters in New York, also discussed another major plank of his reform agenda: the stalled enlargement of the 15-member Security Council. He called on Member States to move forward and “not wait for another 10 years.”
Among his greatest sources of pride during his 10 year tenure, he cited the adoption by the UN World Summit of 2000 of Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) which, among other targets, aim to halve extreme poverty and hunger, ensure universal primary education, slash child mortality by two-thirds and maternal mortality by three-quarters and halt and reverse the incidence of HIV/AIDS – all by 2015.
Asked about his greatest regret, Mr. Annan said it was the fact that the Security Council was not able to stop the war in Iraq. “I firmly believe that the war could have been avoided, and that the [weapons of mass destruction] inspectors should have had a bit more time,” he said, referring the war that the United States-led coalition launched in March 2003, although chief UN inspector Hans Blix had requested a few more months to complete verifying whether Iraq still possessed any of the banned weapons.
Mr. Annan in his reform proposals had recommended that the Council’s members be elected by a two-thirds majority in the General Assembly, which however opted for a simple majority.
On the issue of Security Council reform he noted that that the behaviour of the five veto-wielding permanent members (P5) – China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and United States – “has not always been helpful,” citing their successful demand for five automatic seats on the new Peacebuilding Commission and a similar but abortive demand for the Human Rights Council.
“Of course the Member States reacted and they backed off that. And of course when this sort of thing happens, the smaller countries and the large number of non-aligned governments believe that the appetite for power amongst the P5 is insatiable and you have this sort of struggle,” he said.
“So I would hope that the proposal on the table, that would expand the [Security] Council to 25, and either create six more permanent seats without veto, or six semi-permanent seats, will propel the Member States forward,” he added.
On Iraq, Mr. Annan said: “The US in a way is trapped in Iraq, trapped in the sense that it cannot stay and it cannot leave… but the timing of its departure will have to be optimal in the sense that it should not lead to further deterioration of the situation but try and get it into a level that when it leaves, when it withdraws, the Iraqis themselves will be able to continue to maintain a situation that would ensure a reasonable secure environment.”
He stressed that both Syria and Iran should be urged “to use their influence and to do whatever they can to help pacify Iraq,” noting that neighbours can either exacerbate or de-escalate critical situations. “One should not look at it in terms of whether it is helping the United States or (the) multinational force, it is their backyard too, and what is happening in Iraq does have a negative impact on them,” he said.
And the future after the UN? Mr. Annan said he would want to work with African governments and others on the continent’s scourge of hunger to encourage them to take agriculture and agricultural productivity seriously. “Probably do some writing,” he added. “There will be plenty to do, I'm not worried about that, but I would want to devote some time to Africa as well.”