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Rights under fire?

Human rights are the UN’s guiding principles – through them, the organisation defines objectives and rules that are of universal application. We have a responsibility to do what we can to ensure that human rights violations are not covered up. This article by Minister of Foreign Affairs Jonas Gahr Støre was printed in Dagbladet (Oslo).

20/09/2007 :: Making states responsible for violations has always been controversial. The task is not made any easier by the fact that some UN member states are responsible for serious breaches of human rights, and can impede and block active UN policymaking in this area. This makes it even more important that we become involved, and Norway is therefore seeking membership of the UN Human Rights Council for the period 2009–2012.

The UN Human Rights Commission was criticised as ineffective for many years. Its critics claimed that the Commission lacked the ability to spotlight and follow up on breaches of human rights. Several of the Commission’s member countries had themselves been responsible for gross human rights violations, and had no interest in helping the Commission to become an active watchdog. The criticism extended beyond the Commission; because the protection of human rights lies at the core of the UN’s mandate, it brought the credibility of the entire organisation into question.

Following a drawn-out negotiation, the UN General Assembly last year decided to replace the Commission with a new body, the Human Rights Council. The Council’s structure was finally approved this summer, and the effort to rebuild confidence in the UN in the human rights field now begins in earnest. This is a demanding task.

The main problem today is not a lack of rules, but rather that many countries do not allow their citizens to enjoy the rights granted to them under international instruments. There is a large gap between entitlement and practice. The effort to strengthen human rights must continue, through monitoring, dialogue, international cooperation and clear criticism of human rights violations when necessary.

Last year’s crisis in the Middle East led to the convening of three special sessions of the Human Rights Council. Two of these resulted in the appointment of delegations, which respectively examined conditions in the Palestinian Territory and the human rights situation in Lebanon. The Council discussed extrajudicial executions, religious intolerance, blasphemy, freedom of expression, racism, torture, arbitrary detention and conditions at Guantanamo Bay. The Council also decided to send a high-level delegation to assess the human rights situation in Darfur.

The difficult negotiation process that preceded the adoption of the mandate for the Darfur delegation was characterised by paralysis of action and political disagreement. However, it also revealed that regimes that fear international attention and criticism recognise the importance of the Council. The negotiation process showed us that the Council’s criticism stings, and accordingly that it can be effective.

The Human Rights Council operates in a demanding political landscape. There are clear dividing lines between the proponents of human rights and the countries that reject criticism as “interference with internal concerns”. Western countries have traditionally focused on political and civil rights. For many developing countries, cultural, economic and social rights – not least the right to development – are higher up on the agenda. Another area of increasing importance is the debate about the relationship between religious and ethical beliefs and freedom of expression. These sensitive issues are characterised by strongly conflicting points of view that cannot be resolved merely by reorganising the UN’s human rights body.

The Human Rights Council’s first year of operation has been characterised by a lack of agreement on the way forward. Political differences continue to allow some regimes to escape scrutiny and criticism. It is regrettable that the majority of the Council’s members have viewed the reform process as an opportunity to weaken the UN’s ability to conduct independent monitoring of states’ human rights obligations. The Council has fewer Western and Latin American members than the Commission had, and countries from these regions are now in the minority. In order to secure support for “our” views, we need to seek backing from Asian and African countries.

This represents a political challenge that tests our faith in the UN and multilateral solutions. However, we also have to ask: Is Norway’s involvement conditional upon belonging to a majority? What position do we take in a UN body that reflects today’s world, and not the world as it was in 1946?

I believe that the answers are obvious if we believe that Norway’s efforts can secure real results. Supporting the UN in the area of human rights is both a humanitarian obligation and in Norway’s own interests. We have important contributions to make. As a committed and credible defender of human rights, Norway can help to reconcile differences. The Human Rights Council is still finding its final form, but I believe that we need to work to secure results even now, during its start-up phase.

We will seek to strengthen international cooperation in the human rights field. Our policies will focus on dialogue and engagement, because we have learned that these secure the best results. At the same time, we cannot compromise in relation to universal rights. These are not only Western rights, they belong to everyone. Clear messages need to be sent to oppressive regimes that are unwilling to cooperate and make improvements. We will work to ensure that the UN Human Rights Council becomes an arena where such regimes are held accountable.

Jonas Gahr Støre, September 1 2007.

[Translated from Norwegian]

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