Without overhaul, U.N. reform is unlikely
By Richard Schifter
At a time when global atrocities cry out for a massive response, the United Nations Human Rights Commission is failing miserably to live up to its name.
The commission's refusal to deal with the issue of genocide in Darfur has underscored its shortcomings, causing Secretary-General Kofi Annan to refer to it as "dysfunctional" and generating calls for drastic change in the way it operates.
The commission was created by the U.N.'s Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) in 1946. Its membership is elected by ECOSOC members by secret ballot. The members of ECOSOC, in turn, are elected by secret ballot by the U.N. General Assembly. At present, the commission has 53 members.
Using the classifications of Freedom House, the current Human Rights Commission membership consists of 22 states classified as "free," 13 as "partially free" and 18 as "not free." The "free states" thus constitute only 42 percent of the commission's membership.
Under this system, the United States was shut out of membership in 2001, when there were four candidate-states for three "Western regional" memberships. We regained membership the next year.
What can be done to make the U.N.'s human rights mechanism work better? The proposal that has received the most attention calls for the commission to be replaced by a new Human Rights Council, with a smaller membership.
To assure that the council membership is dedicated to human rights, it has been proposed that the General Assembly adopt clear standards of eligibility that would exclude known violators of human rights.
Some believe this problem can be cured by requiring that council members be elected by a two-thirds vote and on an at-large basis, rather than by the present method of allocating seats by region. However, this "cure" could be worse than the disease.
Consider what would happen if a majority of the General Assembly were to adopt a new higher standard of eligibility for election to the Human Rights Council and then ignore it by electing to the council members that have consistently violated human rights.
Currently, there is no tribunal that would have the authority to reverse such an action. The General Assembly's decisions on the membership of the council would be final, and given history, it might not side with the reformers.
There are those who believe that even if a new standard cannot be legally enforced, the mere fact that it was adopted would shame U.N. members into barring human rights violators from election to the council.
This is problematic. For example, is it realistic to believe that states that voted to elect Sudan to the human rights commission despite the horrific genocide in its southern region would cast a different vote if a rule were adopted barring human rights violators?
Not likely. The underlying problem is that the General Assembly is not committed to the cause of human rights even though it sets the standard for the U.N.'s performance on the subject. Even with a two-thirds vote, the United States and other democracies easily could be kept off the commission given the composition and disposition of the General Assembly.
The present U.N. system has failed to address the most egregious human rights violations brought to its attention, although it has provided a forum for those states that are prepared to speak out against human rights violators.
If the new Economic and Social Council were composed exclusively of states elected by a two-thirds majority, it is likely to be one that will not only fail to confront human rights violators, but would not even have members that are prepared to criticize the violators. The current regional allocation of memberships would at least make it possible for the United States and its friends to raise these issues.
Real, meaningful reform will require real — not cosmetic — changes in the U.N., as our ambassador to the U.N., John Bolton, has recently noted. The solution is clear; whether the U.N. has the collective will to take the necessary steps, unfortunately, is highly questionable.
Richard Schifter, a member of the Committee on the Present Danger, represented the United States on the U.N. Commission for Human Rights from 1981 to 1986 and again in 1993. Readers may write him at CPD, 1146 19th Street NW, Suite 310, Washington, DC 20036.