“Every country should be
monitored – and should welcome that
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
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
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
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
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