Monday, October 30, 2006

Reflections on Ambassador Steiner's presentation

Several colleagues have remarked favourably on the frankness of Ambassador Michael Steiner's input during the human rights session this morning. Such relatively undiplomatic openness has been something of a feature of Ambassador Steiner's career, as a BBC report from 2002 indicates.

In his presentation this morning, Ambassador Steiner focussed on the current challenges being faced in the process of building the institutions and formulating the working methods of the new UN Human Rights Council. Though the Human Rights Council was established to replace - and to improve upon - the Commission on Human Rights (which had been widely condemned as 'discredited' due to the 'politicization' and 'selectivity' of its proceedings), concerns are currently rising that the new body may turn out to be worse than its predecessor. (See for example the assessment by Human Rights Watch of the most recent session of the Human Rights Council that concluded on 6 October 2006, and the slightly more circumspect position of Amnesty International.)

Ambassador Steiner remarked upon the fact that the decision to replace the Commission was taken before a framework was established to ensure that its replacement would in fact be an improvement. Not a very auspicious beginning, perhaps. He highlighted the fundamental shift of voting power represented by the new regional allocation of seats in the 47-member Human Rights Council (13 each for the African and Asian groups, 8 for the Group of Latin American and Caribbean states, 7 for the 'Western European and Others Group', and 6 for the Eastern European group), and the challenge represented by increasing regional bloc solidarity on the part of the African Group in particular.

I think that, while Ambassador Steiner is pointing with his characteristic frankness to a real emerging crisis in international governance with regard to human rights, this crisis is a long-overdue reality check on just how universal 'universal human rights' actually are. The new realities in the Human Rights Council no longer permit this issue to swept under the carpet, and force us to confront it. As Ambassador Steiner observed, a genuine values-based exchange is what is required now, in order to identify where we stand with regard to the acceptance of universal human rights, and how to move forward from that position.

Comments are welcome.

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