Oct 17, 2007

Burma: First Test for the Human Rights Council

Eighteen months after the United Nations jettisoned its Human Rights Commission, human rights activists say the crisis in Burma is testing whether its replacement, the Human Rights Council, can emerge as an effective force.

Eighteen months after the United Nations jettisoned its Human Rights Commission, human rights activists say the crisis in Burma is testing whether the institution that replaced it, the Human Rights Council, can emerge as a force for promoting human rights.

Below is an article by Nick Cumming-Bruce for The International Herald Tribune:

The successor organization, the Human Rights Council, is hoping to dispatch its own investigator even as Myanmar's military junta responded last weekend to calls for restraint and dialogue by arresting even more student protest leaders.

Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, the council's special rapporteur, is assembling a team to visit Myanmar to assess the state of human rights for a report to the Security Council. His first hurdle will be getting there.

Pinheiro held the same post on the disbanded commission, and Myanmar's generals have not let him into the country for four years. The council is under no illusion that a regime that this year shut down operations of the International Red Cross will warm to independent scrutiny of its policies. At the same time, Pinheiro is clear this is not so much a problem for him as for the credibility of the council.

His mandate comes from a resolution passed unanimously by a special session of the council on Oct. 2 [2007]. "Myanmar has to pay a price if it does not cooperate with me," Pinheiro said by telephone. "If the council is not able to deal with this, its recognition will be affected."

It would also reinforce concerns among some human rights organizations that the council, far from developing a new resolve and culture needed to fulfill its mandate of protecting human rights, will succumb to politicking, often by states with poor human rights records, which discredited its predecessor.

Diplomats applaud the council's willingness to convene a special session on Myanmar and its ability to achieve consensus on a resolution passed with the support of India and China, key influences on Myanmar but with their own strategic and commercial interests in Myanmar. The special session and the resolution emerging from it, Pinheiro said, represented "an extraordinary demonstration of maturity."

The Myanmar meeting brought to five the number of special sessions the council has held in 15 months, the same as the number held by the commission in 60 years, said Luis Alfonso de Alba, Mexico's ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva and president of the council in its first year. "It doesn't mean the council is perfect, far from it," he said, "but it shows it has the potential to become much more fair and efficient and much quicker in its reactions than the commission."

Human rights groups are less impressed. Even the old commission had little difficulty achieving consensus on Myanmar, analysts monitoring the United Nations said. The council, to achieve unanimity on its resolution, watered down the text to "deplore" the junta's crackdown, a far weaker formulation than the "revulsion" expressed on Sept. 27 [2007] by foreign ministers of the Association of South East Asian Nations.

Moreover, the resolution did not press for any action beyond the special rapporteur's visit. "Without action, they are just a talk shop, and what's the point," said Brad Adams, Asia director of Human Rights Watch. "There's a lot going on at the council, but if you stand back, it isn't amounting to anything."

A similar chasm divides views of the council's operating mechanisms that were the main focus of discussions in its first year. Unlike the commission, in which members decided which countries' human rights performance to study, the council has adopted a review process to look at the human rights records of all countries, including the United States, Russia and China, which previously deflected scrutiny.

That should help to address criticisms of the commission that it was selective and thus ensure equal treatment of all states. "We have started to do things that were not done before and that is a good sign," said the council president, Doru-Romulus Costea. "There is nothing like this in the rest of the UN."

The universal reviews have good potential, human rights activists said, but come as part of a package of measures that make the deliberations of the council increasingly state-centered.

"Member states were told by the General Assembly to improve on the commission, but there have been no significant improvements. We either have had regression or an architecture which could still turn out to be ineffective," said Nick Howen, president of the International Commission of Jurists.