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Swiss undeterred by splits over UN rights body

Bolton is taking a hard line on membership to the new body Keystone

Switzerland remains optimistic that a proposed United Nations human rights body will be adopted despite opposition from the United States.

This content was published on February 28, 2006 - 18:32

The US has stated it will vote against the latest blueprint for the Human Rights Council unless negotiations are reopened to address what it considers serious deficiencies.

On Monday John Bolton, US ambassador to the UN, described the draft resolution unveiled last Thursday as unacceptable. He wants tougher mechanisms for keeping countries with poor human rights records off the council, which would be based in Geneva.

Bolton said the US would vote against the draft if it is put before the General Assembly this week.

But officials at the Swiss Mission to the UN in New York believe the latest resolution should be adopted in its current form.

Natalie Kohli, human rights expert at the mission, told swissinfo on Tuesday that Switzerland was not in favour of reopening negotiations, adding that all the arguments had been heard already.

"Right now the situation is rather confused and phone calls are going back and forth between the delegations. It's very unclear what's going to happen but we are convinced the text is the right way forward."

Reform

Kohli said it would be "very bad" not only for human rights reform but also for the entire UN reform programme if the council was blocked at this stage.

But she added that it would be unwise to try to proceed without the US, which is the world body's largest financial contributor.

"If the US sticks with this position, it would be very risky to put the resolution to a vote. That wouldn't be a good outcome at all. We want the US on board and we remain optimistic," she said.

The council, which would replace the Human Rights Commission, stems from a model drawn up by Swiss human rights expert Walter Kälin.

The commission has been widely criticised for allowing some of the worst offending countries to escape sanction. In recent years commission members have included Sudan, Libya and Zimbabwe.

Final resolution

Discussions on the new rights body have been continuing since early last year and the UN hopes to have a final resolution in place by March 13 when the commission is set to start its annual six-week session in Geneva.

UN General Assembly President Jan Eliasson and UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan both maintain that the current proposal is the best that can be achieved.

Speaking in Geneva on Monday, Annan reiterated that the draft was less than what he had hoped for but he urged members to adopt it.

"There are enough positive elements for us to move with it and I hope the Americans will look at it in this spirit," he said.

Eliasson's resolution would replace the current 53-member commission with a 47-member council that would be elected by an absolute majority of the 191-member General Assembly.

Rights abusers

Switzerland was among several countries that pushed for a two-thirds majority to try to keep human rights violators off the council, but faced strong opposition, especially from developing countries.

The new body would meet three times a year for a total of ten weeks, with the possibility of emergency sessions.

Peter Splinter, Amnesty International's representative to the United Nations in Geneva, insisted that the time for negotiation was over and that members needed to move with what was now on the table.

"There are many imperfections in the text but we don't think there is any possibility of getting a better one," he told swissinfo. "If we go back to the drawing board, we may end up with something worse."

But Geneva-based UN Watch, a strong critic of the commission, said the opportunity to negotiate tougher criteria for membership should be seized.

Executive director Hillel Neuer said putting in place an effective and meaningful human rights body was more important that meeting a deadline of the next two weeks.

swissinfo, Adam Beaumont in Geneva

In brief

The latest draft states that every member must "uphold the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights" and have their rights record reviewed during their three-year term. Eventually all 191 UN member states would face such scrutiny.

The proposal also contains provisions to allow members of the Human Rights Council to call special sessions to deal with human rights emergencies – and to suspend a member for "gross and systematic" rights violations.

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Key facts

The Human Rights Commission was established in Geneva in 1946 and comprises representatives from 53 countries nominated by regional groupings.
It meets every year for a six-week session to assess the global human rights situation.
UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan announced plans to replace the body in March last year.

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