Geneva, June 19, 2006 – UN Watch today called on the UN's new Human Rights Council to adopt concrete measures that will mark a break from its discredited predecessor, the Commission on Human Rights, and announced five benchmarks by which it will judge the council's first year.
In a statement delivered at the non-governmental organization's headquarters in Geneva, UN Watch Executive Director Hillel Neuer was cautiously optimistic that the council "has the potential to make a difference if the UN's free and democratic members show enough unity and determination." Neuer expressed concern, however, that "47 per cent of the new council's members fail to meet democratic standards, with 19 per cent ranking as repressive regimes, including China, Cuba, Russia, and Saudi Arabia." (See UN Watch analysis of country records here.) Worse, said Neuer, the non-democracies control the council's two largest regional groups, Asia and Africa, which together hold 26 of the council's 47 seats.
Asked to assess the efforts of democracies in the council's preliminary sessions, which were held in Geneva over the past two months, Neuer said that "there have been some accomplishments, but in general the West has shown passivity in the face of hypocrisy, and a reticence to assert the liberal values of the UN Charter that are under continuous assault."
Syria, Saudi Arabia and other countries belonging to the 56-strong Islamic bloc have demanded that the council perpetuate its predecessor's special agenda item against Israel, along with another item on "religious intolerance," its euphemism of choice for the cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed published by Denmark's Jyllands-Posten on September 30, 2005.
Reuters reported yesterday that "European countries warned they will not allow Israel to be the only one signaled out for censure. Its routine condemnation, in resolutions repeated year after year, symbolized for many the sterility of the old commission." Similarly, Secretary-General Kofi Annan said at a press conference on Thursday that "I hope we are not going to see a situation where the Human Rights Commission focuses on Israel, but not on the others."
Neuer gave credit to Western countries for working behind the scenes to support the council's President, Luis de Alba of Mexico, in keeping an agenda clean of the selectivity and politicization that tainted the old commission. He expressed concern, though, over a compromise whereby Europe has apparently agreed to single out a handful of countries for differential treatment under a generic "pressing issues" item. Because the council's first session has only two weeks, said Neuer, its best strategy should be to focus on building the necessary mechanisms of the new body, instead of becoming distracted at the start by heated controversies.
In general, said Neuer, the West has been failing to speak out publicly at council debates to make the case for freedom of the press and other fundamental democratic values. "Why do the free countries remain silent while Saudi Arabia, a country whose schoolbooks continue to teach hatred of Christians and other non-Muslims, has the gall to lecture the world on religious intolerance? Or when Syria, which continues to assassinate Lebanese politicians and journalists, and otherwise flout Security Council resolutions, lectures the world on occupation?"
Neuer said the council's first year will be judged in the eyes of the world by whether or not it: (1) adopts a universal periodic review mechanism that is more than a toothless debating society; (2) maintains the best work of the human rights experts who deal with regions or themes; (3) protects the vital participation of non-governmental organizations (Syria declared last week that "NGOs need to be monitored"); (4) eschews the politicization and selectivity that tainted the commission in the eyes of Secretary-General Annan and world public opinion; (5) speaks out, when urgent issues are addressed, in a fair and balanced fashion against the atrocities in Darfur and against the gross human rights violations occurring in dozens of other countries around the globe.