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A new era in the promotion and protection of human rights?

01 June 2006

Joint written statement at the First Session of the Human Rights Council, June 2006

From the experience and perspective of the churches, it has long been clear that
peace, development and human rights are inseparably inter-connected foundations
for the promotion of the God-given human dignity of every individual, and
for the well-being of the communities in which we all live. The recognition of
human rights as one of the main pillars of the United Nations - alongside security
and development - accords well with this experience and perspective. The
co-sponsors of this statement therefore welcome the establishment of the Human
Rights Council as an organ within the UN system with the status and authority
to reflect this priority.

The Commission on Human Rights, though now almost universally vilified, made
contributions to the struggle for human rights, the significance of which is now
too easily forgotten or understated. The Commission's formulation of the Universal
Declaration of Human Rights - and of many other foundational instruments of
international human rights law - was a true landmark in the development not
only of international law, but also of the very nature of human societies and politics.
The idea that legal tools and systems could be created to hold governments
accountable for the basic preconditions for human dignity was - and remains -
an inspired and courageous innovation in national and global governance.

The Commission ultimately proved itself (despite recent impressions to the contrary)
to be creative and adaptable in responding to the voices of victims of human
rights violations. Although always hobbled by the prevailing international political
environment, the Commission exceeded the vision and expectations of its
founders by creating a system of "special procedures" to monitor, report and make
recommendations on specific human rights issues and situations. Moreover, the
Commission and its subsidiary bodies established practices with regard to the
participation of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that now provide models
of best practice in UN-civil society relations.

Of course, what the Commission was able to achieve in terms of practical implementation
of the standards it had worked to create was, by common consensus,
too little and often too late. An increased focus on effective implementation of
these standards is not only desirable, but essential. On paper, the Human Rights
Council may have some additional potential in this regard. Whether it realizes
this potential will be judged by the extent to which it actually increases the
chances for life in dignity and in sustainable communities for people suffering
discrimination, deprivation, oppression and violence.

The system of special procedures established by the Commission on Human
Rights has become a key vehicle for promoting the implementation of international
human rights standards. General Assembly resolution 60/251, operational paragraph
6, appropriately identifies "a system of special procedures" as the first aspect
of the acquis inherited from the Commission on Human Rights to be maintained
by the Council. The co-sponsors of this statement wish to underline their support
for a strong, independent and adequately resourced system of special procedures.
The special procedures brought the work of the Commission on Human Rights
closest to the grassroots, and - together with NGOs participating in the Commission's
sessions - brought the grassroots most directly into the deliberations of the
Commission. However, the Commission failed adequately to respect its own special
procedures, and did not provide either sufficient resources for the mandates or
sufficient time for the proper consideration of their reports and recommendations.
Those shortcomings must be addressed by the Council in its review of the system
of special procedures it has inherited. Steps had been taken by the Commission
towards improved consideration of the reports of special procedures, through the
vehicle of "interactive dialogue". This approach should be further enhanced by the
Council, including by providing for NGO inputs in such dialogues.

We hope that during its first session the Council will extend for at least one year
all of the mandates inherited from the Commission, in order to avoid "protection
gaps" and procedural lapses during the review period. It will also be important
for the Council to consider and act upon the pending reports of the Commission's
five intergovernmental working groups, and to adopt the draft international convention
on enforced disappearances and also the draft declaration on the rights of
Indigenous Peoples. This would bring to a successful conclusion the pending
standard-setting initiatives of the Commission, and give an early and clear sign
of the Council's commitment to the effective advancement of human rights around
the world.

The introduction of a "universal periodic review" process promises to eliminate
any valid complaints of "selectivity", and therefore it is a welcome innovation.
On the one hand, it is important for the credibility and efficacy of this process
that it be more than a superficial token of a review. On the other hand, the process
must not overwhelm the Council's time and capacity. Accordingly, modalities
should be established whereby as much as possible of the preparation for and follow-
up of reviews pursuant to this process be undertaken by a subsidiary body or
bodies, ideally composed of independent experts. The direct role of the Human
Rights Council should be focused on the adoption of recommendations prepared
for the Council's consideration by such subsidiary body/ies. Clearly, relevant recommendations/
observations by special procedures and treaty bodies should provide
part of the basis for such reviews. Provision should also be made for NGOs
to contribute to the review process. In addition, the implementation of voluntary
pledges and commitments made by countries in the context of elections to the
Human Rights Council could provide a useful basis for review, regardless of
whether the country concerned was elected.

The practice of making voluntary pledges and commitments was universally
adopted by candidate countries during the first election to the Human Rights
Council. We welcome the establishment of this precedent, which bodes well for
the culture of the new body and the accountability of its members. We hope that
it will continue to be universally followed in all future elections to the Council.
The election process itself has created a new dynamic of accountability, through
the separate and individual election of each member of the Council. We are more
optimistic, in the light of these developments, about the emergence of a new and
more positive culture in this new body.

We commit ourselves to working with the new Human Rights Council as a key
international instrument for the promotion of justice and human dignity. We
expect that the Human Rights Council will reciprocate this commitment, and
offer a truly open space for NGOs and for the voices of the victims of human
rights violations, the poorest and the most vulnerable. The Commission had established
important precedents through its practices with regard to NGO participation.
These practices - and the formal arrangements on which they are based
- set a baseline that we hope that the Human Rights Council will surpass.

In conclusion, we pray that the first session of the Human Rights Council will
indeed usher in a new era in the promotion and protection of human rights, which
builds on the achievements of the past and addresses past failings. We pray that
the driving force in the Human Rights Council will be people, not politics - and
its chief and genuine objective respect for the inherent human dignity of all.

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