New Human Rights Council Sessions Disappointing, Says State Official

By Carolee Walker
Washington File Staff Writer

Washington – Many of the new U.N. Human Rights Council’s collective decisions have been troubling, even if the records of its individual members represent a slight improvement over those of the now defunct Commission on Human Rights, said Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Mark Lagon at a congressional hearing on September 6.

“The United States is committed to improving this United Nations body, although unfortunately the new council’s sessions so far have been disappointing,” Lagon said.

“We believe that the cause of freedom, democracy and human rights defenders around the globe requires our best effort,” he added.

The new Human Rights Council met for the first time in June in Geneva.

Erica Barks-Ruggles, deputy assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor, testified that the record of the Human Rights Council (HRC) is mixed with regard to membership, a factor that continues to pose the greatest concern for the United States. Serious human rights violators such as Sudan, Iran and Zimbabwe are not members, she said, but Cuba has retained its seat and “enjoys a disproportionately influential role in the U.N.’s chief human rights body.” Barks-Ruggles also said she is concerned about the change in allocation of seats by region.

“Over half of the HRC seats are occupied by African, Asian and Eastern European members, regions with mixed records on human rights,” she reported.

“This is significant because many African and Asian countries tend to favor economic, social and cultural rights over civil and political rights,” Lagon said. “These regional groups have historically sought to eliminate country-specific resolutions, which the U.S. has always considered a crucial human rights tool.”

Although countries campaigning for HRC membership are required to make public pledges about how they would enforce human rights obligations and standards, both at home and abroad, Barks-Ruggles said, making pledges is not enough.

“We acknowledge the significance of this step, but the follow-up on these pledges – both in terms of what is delivered and how those governments that do not measure up will be judged by their fellow members – will determine whether this is more than lip service,” she said. “We will be watching closely.”

Forty-seven countries are members of the council. The United States elected not to join, citing concerns about criteria for membership not being strong enough to keep human rights abusers off the HRC. (See related article.)

Barks-Ruggles said she was encouraged that the new universal periodic review, which subjects council members to review before other countries, kept some countries, especially Egypt, Eritrea, Guinea and Zimbabwe, off the HRC. Barks-Ruggles was disappointed, however, that China was elected to the council.

One of the HRC’s essential tools is the ability to offer technical assistance and to call special sessions to discuss emerging human rights situations, Barks-Ruggles said.

“After all, it is better to address human rights problems as they are beginning to emerge rather than when there is a full-blown crisis,” she said.

Transcripts of testimony by Lagon and Barks-Ruggles at the congressional hearing entitled “U.N. Human Rights Council: Reform or Regression” will be available on the Web site of the House International Relations Committee’s Subcommittee on Africa, Global Human Rights and International Organizations.

For further information on the U.N. Human Right’s Council, see the organization’s Web site.