< Viewpoints < 2006

“Every country should be monitored – and should welcome that

[12/06/06] A fundamental principle is at stake in the new UN Human Rights Council: that the human rights situation of each state be scrutinised. The resolution which created the Council asked for a periodic, universal review of the fulfilment of human rights obligations in all countries.

A genuine implementation of this principle would put an end to the major weakness of the previous UN Commission on Human Rights. The discussion on country resolutions became deeply politicised and this undermined the credibility of the whole system.

Member states were selective and did not act on principle. Most of them resisted any discussion about themselves. The debates centred on whether or not this or that country should be monitored, and when a resolution was adopted on a particular country, the perception was that it had “lost”.

Some countries escaped criticism – not because they did not deserve it, but because they succeeded in exerting pressure. This is the reason why the Commission never adopted any resolution on China or Zimbabwe, while other countries without lobbying resources had to accept monitoring.

Of course, this corrupted the work of the Commission. It also prolonged the notion that monitoring was something hostile – and not a help to define problems which ought to be addressed. The constructive intention of human rights programmes became hidden.

The General Assembly resolution (60/251) gave the Council one year to develop a mechanism for regular reviews of all states. In this, the Council should build on the experience of previous human rights monitoring. The main lesson is that such fact-finding and analysis are best done by independent experts. Government representatives are bound to politicise.

Such experts should be “of high moral standing and recognised competence”, to borrow the expression in the Convention on the Rights of the Child. They shall serve in their individual capacity and not represent any government.

In the Council of Europe this distinction between independent reviews and political conclusions is established and working well. Apart from the European Court of Human Rights, there are independent review bodies on torture, social rights, national minorities and racism/xenophobia – this helps to establish the facts.

One important role of the political bodies – the Committee of Ministers, the Parliamentary Assembly and the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities – is to take political action to secure that the recommendations of the expert mechanisms are respected. At that level there are also discussions about new norms.

Within the UN there are also expert panels. One type is the committees which oversee the implementation of the conventions. States that have ratified the treaties are required to report regularly on implementation, and their reports are dealt with by the committees in rotation without distinction.

This is a good system but its effectiveness has been reduced by the fact that not all states have ratified all the key conventions. For example, the USA has not ratified the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and China has avoided ratifying the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The effect is that some of the most significant problems are not covered by the treaty system. This calls for an urgent campaign to achieve universal ratification.

It is also important to give the treaty system the necessary resources for competent work. Furthermore, the time has come for a serious discussion about setting up one comprehensive committee to review the implementation of all the conventions. This would certainly require a panel working full time throughout the year.

Apart from the expert committees, there is a need for flexible instruments like the existing Special Rapporteurs and Special Representatives. That system should be maintained and developed.

To guarantee independent, principled monitoring it is also essential that the authority of the High Commissioner is strengthened. The Human Rights Council should not micro-manage her office. She should be protected from political pressure and be respected as a voice of conscience.

If there is genuine goodwill among its members, the Human Rights Council should be able to secure more consistent UN monitoring – and take action to prevent human rights problems.

The Council of Europe Commissioner is ready to co-operate with the new UN mechanisms.

Thomas Hammarberg

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