UNITED NATIONS -- Officials of the United Nations have decided that they must act within weeks to produce an alternative to its widely discredited Human Rights Commission to maintain hope of redeeming the United Nations' credibility this year.
The commission, which is based in Geneva, has been a persistent embarrassment to the United Nations because participation has been open to countries such as Cuba, Sudan and Zimbabwe, current members who are themselves accused of gross rights abuses. Libya held the panel's chairmanship in 2003.
"The reason highly abusive governments flock to the commission is to prevent condemnation of themselves and their kind, and most of the time they succeed," said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. "If you're a thug, you want to be on the committee that tries to condemn thugs."
Mark Malloch Brown, chief of staff to Secretary-General Kofi Annan, said that with two other crucial steps toward reform in place - a new Peacebuilding Commission to help countries emerging from war and a biennial budget under an arrangement laying the groundwork for major management change by June - the rights commission had taken center stage.
"For the great global public, the performance or nonperformance of the Human Rights Commission has become the litmus test of U.N. renewal," he said. "We can't overestimate getting a clear win on this in January."
Annan begins his last year in office with a mandate to bring fundamental and lasting change to the beleaguered institution, which has struggled through a period of scandal and mismanagement. Negotiators have been struggling for months over the terms of a new Human Rights Council, which Annan proposed in the spring to replace the commission. A hoped-for agreement in December did not materialize. Negotiators resume talks Jan. 11 and must settle on a resolution for the new council soon after to have it in place by March, when the commission reconvenes in Geneva.
"The commission should hold that meeting with the understanding that it is going to be its last meeting," said Ricardo Arias, the ambassador of Panama, who is one of the leaders of the group drawing up the Human Rights Council.
The current commission has 53 members serving staggered three-year terms and elected from closed slates put forward by regional groups. It meets each year in Geneva for six weeks.
The proposed council would exist year-round, be free to act when rights violations are discovered, conduct periodic reviews of every country's human rights performance and meet more frequently throughout the year.
In dispute are the council's size, the procedures for citing individual countries, how often the panel would meet, a possible two-term limit for membership and whether members would be chosen based on agreed criteria of human rights performance or by a two-thirds vote of the General Assembly as a way of weeding out notorious rights violators.
The proposal envisions votes on each candidate for membership rather than on regional slates. As with most of the changes being proposed at the United Nations, the rights council has drawn suspicion from the poorer and less-developed nations of the 191-member General Assembly. They say they fear that the new council may be yet another way for wealthier and more powerful nations to intrude on their affairs.
Abdallah Baali, the ambassador of Algeria, said the main concern of objecting nations was "whether or not this council will impose both its measures and its views on a member state, or will it seek their cooperation in order to improve their human rights records." That said, he added that Algeria supports the proposed council.
Diplomats at the United Nations singled out Egypt and Pakistan as countries that were leading the resistance to the proposed council.
In introducing his recommendation for a new council last March, Annan described the flaws in the current commission and the consequences for the United Nations of not reforming it. The commission had been undermined, he contended, by allowing participation of countries whose purpose was "not to strengthen human rights but to protect themselves against criticism or to criticize others."
"As a result," Annan said, "a credibility deficit has developed, which casts a shadow on the reputation of the United Nations system as a whole."
Roth, of Human Rights Watch, was blunt. "If the governments of the world cannot get together on human rights at the U.N., then it is a shameful act for the entire organization," he said.
Peggy Hicks, the global advocacy director of Human Rights Watch, said that having rights abusers on the panel had a broadly debilitating effect on its work. "In the case of Sudan, the Sudanese government's presence on the commission meant that African states and others watered down language that human rights groups around the world thought appropriate to address crimes against humanity," she said.
She said Zimbabwe's presence on the commission was an important factor in the panel's decision not to act this year against the government of Robert G. Mugabe despite widespread accusations of abuse of Zimbabwe's citizens.
"In general," Hicks said, "what the presence of abusive countries on the commission means is that much of its energy is taken up with the blocking actions and delaying tactics that end up weakening action on human rights abuses worldwide. Yes, they delay action on their own internal situations, but they have a vested interest in seeing that the overall ability is as weak as possible."