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UN commission serves out its time

Whether a commission or council, human rights will be debated in Geneva Keystone

The meeting of the United Nations Human Rights Commission resumes on Monday with the task of assuring a smooth transition to a new council.

This content was published on March 19, 2006 - 20:01

After the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution to create the new council last Wednesday, all that remains is for the commission to tie up the current loose ends.

The 62nd and final Human Rights Commission session no longer has the legitimacy to intervene on other issues that were once in its domain, according to Louise Arbour, the High Commissioner.

Ahead of the meeting, the Canadian said that all of the commission's pending decisions would be transferred to the new council.

"There will be no void, but inevitably a delay with some issues," she added.

The body was often criticised for being open to sabotage by member states.

But as the only commission named in the UN charter adopted in 1945 in San Francisco, it has nonetheless succeeded in drawing up the fundamentals for the international system of protecting victims from state-sanctioned persecution.

Declaration of Human Rights

A prime example is the Universal Declaration of Human rights, a treaty adopted in 1948 in Paris.

Afterwards, the commission pursued its role despite political upheaval, including the Cold War and decolonisation.

According to Adrien-Claude Zoller, president of the non-governmental organisation Geneva for Human Rights, the beginning of the end for the commission dates back to the 1993 UN human rights summit in Vienna.

"During that conference states that were hostile to these rights realised that they could form majorities," he said.

That was the reason why the Vienna summit almost ended with a backward slide on human rights.

This kind of threat of going in reverse was also in mind when the constitution of the new council was adopted last week.

Continual struggle

As Swiss Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey stressed recently, the defence of human rights is a continual struggle.

Switzerland made great efforts from the 1980s onwards. As a non-member of the UN at the time, Switzerland joined forces with Costa Rica to propose its first resolution within the commission framework, a text relating to the prevention of torture dating from 1979.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Switzerland's involvement within the commission was reinforced, with the result that several Swiss were named special rapporteurs or independent investigators, said Jean-Daniel Vigny from Switzerland's mission to the international organisations in Geneva.

After its entry in the General Assembly in 2002 - accepted by 54.6 per cent of Swiss voters - Switzerland has managed to use this know-how to its advantage by helping to put the creation of the Human Rights Council on the UN's agenda.

swissinfo, Frédéric Burnand, Geneva

Key facts

The 62nd and final session of the UN Human Rights Commission resumes on Monday to hand over the reins to its successor, the Human Rights Council
On May 9, the General Assembly is due to elect the 47 member states of the council. Switzerland is counting on being a candidate.
The new council is due to open its first session in Geneva on June 19.
The new body will meet at least three times a year and can hold emergency sessions in case of crisis.

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In brief

The UN Human Rights Commission was created in 1946.

It wrote the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which was adopted on December 10, 1948.

In 1966, the General Assembly adopted two treaties completing the 1948 declaration – the international covenant on civil and political rights, and the international covenant on economic, social and cultural rights.

From 1967, the commission attacked violations of human rights on the spot by developing mechanisms and procedures for investigations.

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