Membership in UN rights council brings greater responsibility, scrutiny – Pillay

14 May 2009

In becoming a member of the United Nations Human Rights Council, a country not only takes on greater responsibility for tackling abuses worldwide, but also lays bare its own record for the scrutiny of others, the world body’s top rights official said today.

“Council membership is not a reward for good behaviour. It is a responsibility, one that exposes members to increased accountability before their peers,” High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay wrote in an opinion piece published today in the International Herald Tribune.

She noted that critics of the Council point to the fact that among its 47 members are countries with “less-than-pristine” human rights records.

“To those critics I say two things: Is there any country that has a blemish-free record? Human rights violations are not the bane of any particular country or region. And even if such a thing were possible, what impact would a club of the virtuous have on those outside?”

Ms. Pillay called the Universal Periodic Review – by which the human rights record of every country in the world, including its own members, is examined – one of the “true innovations” of the three-year-old body. Almost 80 countries have already been scrutinized.

This week the United States became one of five countries – along with Belgium, Hungary, Kyrgyzstan and Norway – elected to the Council for the first time. “President [Barack] Obama’s decision to seek membership is a welcome step to restoring international trust in US support for human rights,” noted the High Commissioner.

She added that participation in the Council is indispensable if States wish to influence how it develops, and also crucial to confront global human rights challenges and threats.

On terrorism, Ms. Pillay said that, in their countermeasures, the US and other governments have expanded executive power at the expense of the legislature and the courts, and eroded many of the most basic human rights guarantees of the modern era. “Experience shows that if checks and balances are not adequate, the margin of abuse is high.

“Although much more needs to be done, President Obama’s determination to resolve the untenable situation of detainees at Guantánamo Bay, ban CIA prisons and implement the prohibition on torture in compliance with international standards is highly welcome,” she wrote.

“The US should also shed light into the still opaque areas that surround capture, interrogation methods, rendition and detention conditions of those alleged to have been involved in terrorism, and ensure that perpetrators of torture and abuse are held to account,” Ms. Pillay added.

The Geneva-based Council replaced the Human Rights Commission – which faced increasing criticism over the years as being ineffective and not accountable – in 2006.

 

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News Tracker: Past Stories on This Issue

US among 18 nations elected to UN Human Rights Council

The General Assembly today elected 18 countries to serve on the Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights Council for three-year terms starting next month, including – for the first time – Belgium, Hungary, Kyrgyzstan, Norway and the United States.