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. The Council’s actions were seen as legitimate because they were supported by a globally representative body.
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.
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.