Global Policy Forum

Civil Society Wonders What Role it Will


By Gustavo Capdevila

Inter Press Service
March 24, 2006

This Mar. 15, the Ides of March - an ominous day for the ancient Romans - signalled the death of an institution that played a decisive role in the modern history of human rights, but also witnessed the birth of a successor that has inspired both hope and trepidation among observers.

The United Nations Commission on Human Rights will receive its last rites next Monday when it holds its final session, after 60 years of work during which it has made history while gathering praise as well as scathing criticism. It will be replaced by the new U.N. Human Rights Council, which will begin to emerge on May 9, when its 47 members are elected. Unconcerned about ancient superstitions, the U.N. General Assembly voted on Mar. 15 to reform the highest U.N. human rights body, with the goal of making it less political and more objective.

But a different sort of presentiment, one of uncertainty, is predominant among other key human rights actors: non-governmental organisations (NGOs), which are still very unclear as to what the new Council will mean for them. The outlook would appear to be dim for NGOs, especially taking into account the secondary role that the Commission's 53 member states have reserved for them in its closing ceremonies on Monday. Only one NGO, representing civil society as a whole, will be allowed to speak, and the length of the statement will be a mere four short paragraphs. But despite the brevity, the NGO speaker will not refrain from reproaching the governments, and will ask the member countries to take note of the NGOs' decision not to accept similar treatment in the future.

This is significant because the debate on the role that NGOs will play in the new Human Rights Council - which civil society helped create - has already begun. The positions taken by activists are not homogeneous, although the immense majority have demanded that the Council grant the "special mechanisms", like special rapporteurs, experts and working groups on specific countries and themes, the same importance they enjoyed in the Commission. The NGOs want to know if the independent mechanisms will play a leading role in the Council's periodic human rights assessments, said Eric Sottas, director of the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT).

Sottas was referring to one of the innovations introduced by the General Assembly when it instructed the Council to periodically review each state's human rights record. The OMCT director told IPS that the new peer review system would make it possible to block the censuring of a state that violates human rights if a majority is opposed to such a motion. "We do not know how much weight will be granted to the special mechanisms, which are made up of independent experts. Therefore, the risk that selective criteria will be applied in sanctions persists," stressed Sottas. "We also do not know what role will be played by NGOs in this process of evaluating the conduct of states," he added. Nevertheless, in the statement to be made on Monday, the NGOs will reaffirm their will to participate in the work of the new Council.

Another aspect of the new body that troubles NGO representatives is the way in which its 47 members - six less than the old Commission í» will be chosen. The U.N. resolution established that Council members must be elected by an absolute majority of General Assembly members through a direct, universal and secret vote. The seats on the Council will be distributed among regional groupings, with 13 corresponding to Africa, 13 to Asia, eight to Latin America and the Caribbean, six to eastern Europe, and seven to western Europe and other states.

But the main problem is that the rules have not been changed, said Sottas. Each region can put forward any number of candidates it wants to, and if it proposes the same number of candidates as the number of seats corresponding to it, its candidates will be automatically elected, he observed. Sottas noted that matters like these will be clarified on May 9, "but it seems to me that we will end up with the same problems that the Commission had by allowing the incorporation of states that are ‘unpresentable' when it comes to human rights," he predicted.

He recalled that during the negotiation process to establish the new Council, some countries, like the United States, were criticised for recommending a considerable reduction in the number of members as compared with the Commission. "They were doing this by seeking to reserve access to those deemed ‘worthy', while laying claim to automatic inclusion for themselves," he commented. "This self-satisfied attitude was particularly shocking in that it came after the revelations on Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib," he added.

Meanwhile, Sottas recognised that the new Council represents an advance because its annual sessions will last 10 weeks, while the Commission met for only six. In addition, there will be regular meetings at set periods throughout the year. At the same time, however, he remarked that it will be very difficult for NGOs in Asia and Africa to travel to Geneva every two months to follow the Council sessions.

Finally, the OMCT director observed that the discredit into which the Commission on Human Rights had fallen ultimately resulted in a positive impact on human rights structures, but he warned that the new Council will not be exempt from political negotiating, the root cause of many of the faults attributed to the old Commission.

More Information on NGOs
More Information on NGO Access at the UN
More Information on the Creation of the Human Rights Council

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