Without reform of human rights body, UN credibility at stake, Annan says

Kofi Annan

7 April 2005 – Speaking on the eleventh anniversary of the start of the Rwanda genocide and addressing the very human rights body he wants to replace, Secretary-General Kofi Annan today warned Member States that without reform of the United Nations human rights machinery, the credibility of the world body itself is at stake.

“Unless we re-make our human rights machinery, we may be unable to renew public confidence in the United Nations itself,” he told the 53-member UN Human Rights Commission in Geneva, urging support for his proposal to replace it with a leaner, more authoritative and more empowered body elected by a two-thirds vote of the General Assembly.

“The era of declaration is now giving way, as it should, to an era of implementation,” he added, of what he called the past 60 years of articulating, codifying and enshrining rights.

“Today we have reached another moment when we must prove our commitment,” he said, recalling “our collective failure to protect hundreds of thousands of defenceless people” in the Rwanda massacres and the resolve “to act more decisively to ensure that such a denial of our common humanity is never allowed to happen again.”

And yet, in the Darfur region of western Sudan, where Government, militia and rebel forces are mired in a conflict that has killed tens of thousands and uprooted more than 2 million, there is “appalling suffering,” with an African Union force on the ground that is too small to provide security, and with virtually no progress towards a political settlement, he said.

“For all of us, as individuals and as an institution, this situation is a test. For thousands of men, women and children, our response is already too late,” Mr. Annan said.

“We have reached a point at which the Commission’s declining credibility has cast a shadow on the reputation of the United Nations system as a whole, and where piecemeal reforms will not be enough,” he added of his proposal to establish a Human Rights Council on a par with the Security Council and the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC).

“Creating a full-fledged council for human rights offers conceptual and architectural clarity. But what is most important is for the new body to be able to carry out the tasks required of it,” he declared, stressing that it should be able to meet when necessary rather than for only six weeks each year as at present, with the explicit task of evaluating fulfilment by all states of all their human rights obligations.

“This would give concrete expression to the principle that human rights are universal and indivisible,” he said of his proposals, which also include strengthening the bodies that oversee the implementation of human rights treaties, and empowering and funding the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to expand its conflict prevention and crisis response machinery with a proper “early warning” capability.

“As central as human rights are in our work, the United Nations allocates just two per cent of its regular budget to that programme. We need to scale up to meet the growing challenges that confront us,” the Secretary-General declared. “My basic premise is that the main intergovernmental body concerned with human rights should have a status, authority and capability commensurate with the importance of its work.”

He said the new Council must be a society of the committed that is more accountable and more representative, hence the need for members to be elected by a two-thirds majority of the General Assembly, with those elected having a solid record of commitment to the highest human rights standards.

Although such a council would not overcome all the tensions that accompany the handling of human rights, it would allow for a more comprehensive and objective approach, ultimately producing more effective assistance and protections, which is “the yardstick by which we should be measured,” he added.

“Human rights are the core of the United Nations’ identity,” he concluded, urging quick agreement on the principle of establishing the new body. “Men and women everywhere expect us to uphold universal ideals. They need us to be their ally and protector. They want to believe we can help unmask bigotry and defend the rights of the weak and the voiceless.

“For too long now, we have indulged this view of our own capabilities. But the gap between what we seem to promise, and what we actually deliver, has grown. The answer is not to draw back from an ambitious human rights agenda, but to make the improvements that will enable our machinery to live up to the world’s expectations.

“Our constituents will not understand or accept any excuses if we fail to act. So let us show them that we understand what is at stake.”

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