|Kofi Annan speaks Monday to the opening meeting of the U.N. Human Rights Council. The meeting in Geneva will last until June 30.|
This week, in Geneva, Switzerland, the United Nations Human Rights Council met for the first time. The new council is the result of a U.N. decision last September to replace the Commission on Human Rights. That larger group was considered ineffective. Critics said it was too easy to gain membership for nations with poor human rights records.
In March of this year, a General Assembly resolution created the Human Rights Council. And in May, the General Assembly elected the members. Sixty-three nations were candidates for the forty-seven seats on the council.
To be elected, they needed a majority vote from the General Assembly. All the candidate nations promised to work toward the aim of the new council. That is, to improve and protect human rights in their own lands and others around the world.
Some candidate nations that are criticized on human rights did not receive enough votes, such as Iran and Venezuela. But others did. These include China, Cuba, Pakistan, Russia and Saudi Arabia.
Critics express worry that these members could harm the work of the new council. But others note changes that they say will make the council more effective than the commission it replaced.
For example, the commission met once a year for six weeks. The new group will meet for ten weeks throughout the year. And the rules for the new council make it easier to call special meetings to deal with crises.
Another change is that the council will have the power to examine the human rights records of all one hundred ninety-one U.N. members.
Former commission members that did not seek election to the new group included Congo, Ethiopia, Libya, Sudan and Vietnam.
Another nation that did not try to join the Human Rights Council is the United States. It will take part as an observer this year. Ambassador John Bolton explained the reasons in March in a statement to the General Assembly.
He said the United States was not sure the council will be any better than the commission. He expressed support for the aims of the council, but also regret at the lack of support for some proposals.
One would have required council members to be elected by a two-thirds majority. Another listed conditions designed to keep human rights violators off the council.
A State Department spokesman said in April that the United States will cooperate with members to make the council as strong and effective as possible. He also said the United States might seek election to the council next year.
At the first meeting this week, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said: “This council represents a great new chance for the United Nations, and for humanity, to renew the struggle for human rights." He made an appeal not to let that chance be lost.
IN THE NEWS in VOA Special English was written by Nancy Steinbach. I’m Steve Ember.