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Stormy Weather at the United Nations: Will There Be a Human Rights Council? | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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The United Nations is now in the implementation phase of the declaration adopted by Heads of State and Government last September. The Secretary-General and his staff have been actively seeking to demonstrate that the outcome of the summit was a big step in the right direction to bring the UN into the 21st century and equip it to address the new global challenges that lie ahead. In this respect, the recent series of natural disasters – the tsunami, Hurricane Katrina, the mudslides in Central America and the earthquake in South Asia – are a stark reminder of the power of nature and the responsibility of the international community to pay serious attention to the ecology of the planet. On this score, the UN has played a critical role in developing international instruments to mitigate the environmental degradation of the planet and in providing humanitarian assistance whenever natural disasters have struck. On the political front, however, the picture is different.

Today, the organization seems plagued by growing divergences among its membership. Let’s take the example of the ‘human rights council’ advocated by the Secretary-General to replace the Geneva-based Commission on Human Rights. Criticized, on the one hand, by western powers for allowing what are, in their views, the “worst human rights offenders” –read Iran, Sudan, Libya, Cuba, North Korea, Zimbabwe to name a few– to sit on the Commission, and, on the other hand, accused by many developing countries of politicization, the Commission needs, in the view of everyone, to be reformed. The problem is that after almost six months of negotiations on the proposed human rights council, there is no sign of an emerging consensus as to how the new body should look like, how it should operate, or what it should exactly do. The first new round of consultations were initiated this week by the Swedish President of the General Assembly, Jan Eliasson, who outlined an ambitious schedule of negotiations with a view to establishing the human rights council by the end of this year. Indeed, and contrary to the impression given by UN officials that the Summit had established a human rights council, the reality is that after lengthy and tense negotiations, the Heads of State and Government only ‘resolved to establish’ such a body. But with the prevailing political atmosphere at the UN these days, the establishment of the Council is in serious jeopardy despite the intense lobbying and optimism displayed by its staunch advocates, first and foremost, Secretary-General Annan.

The unprecedented letter addressed a few days ago to the Secretary-General by the Group of 77 and China, which represents 133 out of 191 Member States of the UN illustrates the growing tensions and frustrations at the United Nations. The letter sharply criticizes, without naming him, the British Chef de Cabinet of the Secretary-General seen by many as the new powerhouse at the UN, for making derogatory comments in the media about Member States –read developing countries– regarding the negotiations of the Summit’s Outcome Document. The letter also criticized Mr. Mark Malloch Brown for his intervention before the US Congress and reminded Annan that the Secretariat was accountable to the General Assembly and not the legislature of any single State. The Group of 77 and China recalled the obligations under the Charter for all staff of the UN to refrain from any actions inconsistent with their status as international civil servants responsible only to the Organization. Coming on the heels of the recent dismissal by Annan of several staff members accused of violating their obligations under the Charter, this protest by more than two thirds of the membership of the UN illustrates the growing dissatisfaction of many Member States with the stance of the Secretariat too often seen as seeking at all cost to cater to its most powerful member. One could almost read in the letter a polite call for Mr. Malloch Brown to step down.

After the failure of the recent Summit to revamp the Security Council — the organ that everyone agrees is in dire need of reform as it remains fundamentally the way it was created 60 years ago– the majority of developing countries seem bent on ensuring that a new human rights council will not be established and designed in a way that would stifle their voices. Hence, whether the spirited Eliasson will succeed in bringing the Membership of the United Nations together to establish the human rights council remains to be seen. After all, as the first head of the UN’s humanitarian affairs department, Mr Eliasson is very well placed to realize that rallying Member States in the aftermath of a natural disaster is far easier than in the aftermath of a laborious Summit.