Kofi Annan: Despite Flaws, UN Human Rights Council Can Bring Progress

Article excerpt

As Human Rights Day 2011 approaches, skeptics say the new UN Human Rights Council has not lived up to its mandate. Some suggest democratic nations should abandon it. At a time when we should be making it stronger, forsaking the Council is the wrong way to advance human rights.

Five years ago, the United Nations replaced the much-maligned Commission on Human Rights with the Human Rights Council, a historic move that I hoped would mark a new era for the UN's work in safeguarding the rights of millions of people around the world. The Human Rights Council recently concluded its first review, and it is clear that as a result of robust engagement by its members, the Council has made important progress in promoting and protecting human rights around the world.

Still, many believe the review did not result in the fundamental changes they had hoped for. Some critics have even suggested that Western and democratic states should walk away from the Council. But at a moment when we should be making it stronger, forsaking the Council is the wrong way to advance human rights.

Recent events in the Middle East, North Africa, and elsewhere once again demonstrate that we must have a credible, balanced, and preeminent global body to expose human rights abuses and take actions to alleviate them. Human rights are universal and must be universally upheld. Therefore, to be effective, this body must be accountable to all countries - not only to a few - and also be broadly representative. The Human Rights Council is both.

Some say that by enabling authoritarian states to be elected as members, the Council's effectiveness is diminished. They argue further that the time and effort expended to improve the Council's methods is not worth the incremental progress. Instead, they believe democratic states should not use up their diplomatic capital at the Council, but seek instead to advance human rights in other forums.

It is true that the Council has not always lived up to its potential and that at times the diplomatic effort it requires is time consuming and difficult. But these are not sufficient reasons to give up on it. Imagine an ostensibly global human rights body that was only accountable to and representative of a handful of countries. It could not credibly or effectively speak out against or influence human rights situations in much of the world.

In the midst of the Arab Spring, the Human Rights Council - backed by the UN General Assembly's universal membership - voted unanimously to suspend Libya's membership. The Council has also condemned Syria's human rights violations by a strong majority vote, forced it to withdraw its bid for a seat, and appointed an investigation into human rights violations there. …