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New human rights body opens its doors

Switzerland has played a significant role in the creation of the Human Rights Council Keystone

The inaugural session of the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva is being attended until June 30 by more than 100 ministers from UN member states.

This content was published on June 19, 2006 - 08:04

Switzerland, involved in the project from the very beginning, said it would continue to work to ensure the council is more effective than the highly politicised commission it replaces.

"The whole world is watching the Human Rights Council," UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan will state in his opening speech, aware that the new council would be under close scrutiny to see if it does more to protect fundamental freedoms than its discredited predecessor.

"We must show the world that the council means a fresh start in the United Nations' work for human rights," said UN General Assembly President Jan Eliasson, who guided the negotiations that led to the creation of the new council on March 15.

The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights says the council would "build on the recognised strengths of its predecessor and flesh out the features that make it a stronger and more effective human rights body".

Fears remain however that the council may prove just as toothless as the commission it replaces as nations accused of rights violations keep their seats.

Cuba, Saudi Arabia, China and Russia all won seats despite their poor human rights records, although others – notably Iran – were defeated.

"There are countries on the council that have pretty bad human rights records," said an Amnesty International spokesman. "But the council has to reflect UN membership. They reflect the reality of the world."

Swiss Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey described the situation as an "immense task".

"This event gives cause for much hope, but a lot remains to be done to make this council really efficient and effective," she said.

Swiss role

Calmy-Rey said Swiss diplomacy would continue to play a role in the project and saw Switzerland as "giving boosts and providing ideas".

More solidly, Calmy-Rey is preparing a document on the new institution's operating procedures, including how it should carry out its human rights reviews of all 191 UN member states and how often.

This is set to be discussed at a conference in Lausanne on August 28.

The Swiss foreign ministry has also announced other initiatives to ensure that Geneva remains the global capital for human rights.

For example, Switzerland will assume responsibility for part of the expansion of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, the budget and staff of which are doubling.

Switzerland will also provide offices for the 35 countries who do not have permanent missions in Geneva. To date, 15 countries have taken up this opportunity.

For his part, Blaise Godet, Switzerland's ambassador to the UN in Geneva, underlined that the 47 countries elected to the council on May 9 have until June 2007 to sort out all the operating procedures.

Risk

But Adrien-Claude Zoller, president of the non-governmental organisation (NGO) Geneva for Human Rights, says the negotiators have their work cut out.

"By discussing the council's entire set of operating procedures regarding human rights, the international community risks weakening them," he said.

Zoller added that those countries resisting any progress regarding civil and political rights are weighing the council down heavily and that recent informal discussions do not bode well.

One of Zoller's greatest fears is that NGOs will be marginalised in the council. "For years states have been looking to reaffirm their position at the heart of international authorities – to the detriment of civil society."

swissinfo, Frédéric Burnand in Geneva

In brief

Switzerland was elected to the Human Rights Council with a three-year mandate on May 9. The vote took place at the UN General Assembly in New York.

The mandate can only be renewed once. Switzerland must then cede its place to another country from the western group, before being able to stand for election again.

In the second session in September, Switzerland will present a universal index of human rights containing more than 1,000 documents on how to run the new body.

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Key facts

The Human Rights Council is sitting for the first time in Geneva from June 19-30.
The council will meet at least three times a year for no less than ten weeks, and can convene emergency sessions. Its predecessor, the Human Rights Commission, met for just an annual six-week session.
Much of the initial two-week session of the 47-state body will be devoted to planning future work, but its chairman, ambassador Luis Alfonso de Alba of Mexico, has set aside time for examining current rights crises around the world.

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