Wednesday, May 31, 2006

The birth of the UN Human Rights Council

The birth of the UN Human Rights Council : the new body shares the mixed nature of the whole UN enterprise: a heady admixture of high principles and standards together with the abrasive realities of international politics. It is welcome that the new institutional structure (unlike the outgoing Commission on Human Rights) filters out most of the states with low regard for human rights, but disappointing that abusive states like China, Pakistan, Zimbabwe, Egypt and Saudi Arabia have succeeded in obtaining Council seats. Perhaps the best feature of the new Council is the requirement for council members to undergo a periodic review of their human rights performance. The quality of this review, and the way in which it is presented, is critical to the success of the new Human Rights Council.

States whose reviews will be embarrassing will try to have the result of the reviews kept secret, or presented in such an obscure format that they are not accessible to anyone but a librarian or research student. People who care about human rights will wish to see the reviews made public in an accessible form. Wordy, qualitative reviews should be reduced to numbers, and the numbers ranked in order, so that an interested observer can tell at a glance at which end of the scale any Council member is positioned.

The long term importance of this approach is that what applies to Council members now may eventually be applied to all UN members. Assuming that we truly wish to see the principles contained in the Declaration of Human Rights applied in political reality across the board, we must measure human rights performance by all nation states, and publish the results in an easily accessible form. It is axiomatic that to manage something, it must be measured.

This is a debate that is just beginning to stir among human rights NGOs. The major worry has related to the difficulty of getting an accurate measurement of such a multi-faceted quality as human rights performance. Perfection is of course never achievable, but there is an elegant intrinsic corrective mechanism within the idea of an index of human rights, since it is open to any state objecting to their assessment to make their prisons available to inspection for a putative UN human rights ranking appeals tribunal. Prior to the arrival of the tribunal, we could confidently expect to see a number of political prisoners released.

The other objection that is often brought to bear, paradoxically, by human rights advocates, is that of political practicality; it is objected that states such as the USA and China will never allow it to come about they say, since they would not wish to lay themselves open to criticism. This objection lies at the heart of the UN paradox: somehow, a group of states motivated purely by self interest have managed to create a community at whose core lies a statement of high ideals. Instead of worrying about the reaction of abusers, who will surely be ready to speak up for themselves when the time comes, those who would wish to see progress in human rights should be murmuring into the ears of the best practitioners the suggestion that an instrument exists which, once put in place in the UN, would exert a gentle, continuous, upward pressure on human rights practices world wide.

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