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Opinion

Kofi Annan: Despite flaws, UN Human Rights Council can bring progress

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.

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More consequential to the Council’s effectiveness than its composition has been the fact that many Council members – from all regions of the world – have begun to break free from the regional straightjackets of the past and worked together to advance human rights. The regional bloc voting practices of the past are giving way to more considered discussion and collective action. This engagement on the part of countries has helped to make the Council more effective and progressive than other human rights institutions.

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In June, the Council took a historic step by adopting a resolution to protect the rights of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered persons, helping to establish that sexual orientation cannot be grounds for discrimination and the abuse of rights. The effort was led by South Africa, despite vigorous opposition from neighbouring countries, along with support from Brazil, Colombia, the United States, and many others.

Council action in response to the human rights situations in Iran, Libya, and Syria has, in each case, been possible due to the support of countries from Africa and Latin America, and even from within the Middle East.

It is true that conducting effective diplomacy and changing political dynamics is hard, but working to find agreement with countries that have disparate worldviews has always been a difficult endeavor. Nevertheless, it is important and worthwhile.

Human rights are at the core of the United Nations’ identity and enshrined in the United Nations Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. People everywhere still look to the United Nations to uphold respect for universal and indivisible rights.

If we let the UN Human Rights Council fail, which will surely happen if democratic states weaken their commitment and engagement with it, we leave the field free to tyrants to call the shots. That would be a betrayal of those who are, or might one day be, the target of oppression and violence. These people rely on the protection the UN might offer, however imperfect, and even more rely on those committed to human rights to work within the UN to strengthen that protection and make it truly universal.

This is still a work in progress, but there is no greater cause.

Kofi Annan is the former Secretary-General of the United Nations and currrent member of the United Nations Foundation Board of Directors.

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