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FORUM-ASIA Commentary on the Conclusion of the Human Rights Council’s Negotiations

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The UN Human Rights Council (HRC) concluded its year long negotiations on institution-building issues with the adoption of a consensus document on key issues on 20 June 2007. Asian human rights defenders now need to take advantage of the opportunities offered by these reforms, and help to ensure that the HRC becomes more effective and responsive than its predecessor.
Finally, the one-year long process of the negotiations of UN Human Rights Council (HRC) on institution-building issues came to an end with the adoption of a consensus document on key issues on 20 June 2007. FORUM-ASIA welcomes the outcome of this process and recognizes it as an important achievement by the Council. However, FORUM-ASIA also believes that it is also imperative for Asian human rights defenders to understand the historical context of the ongoing struggle for a more effective international human rights mechanism.

We would like reiterate the point made in the joint statement issued by several international NGOs, including FORUM-ASIA: “What has been achieved as important as it is, is the minimum necessary for the Human Rights Council to have a credible basis to become an effective mechanism for the promotion and protection of human rights. This Council will eventually be judged by its contribution to human rights promotion and protection, not by what has been achieved on paper at this time.”

Looking closely at the outcome on six key issues (i.e., Universal Period Review (UPR) Mechanism, Special Procedures, Human Rights Council Advisory Committee (HRCAC), Complaint Procedure, Agenda and Framework for the Program of Work and Method of Work of the HRC), FORUM-ASIA sees new opportunities created and at the same time, is concerned about some setbacks and challenges in terms of participation of human rights defenders from Asia.

As for the UPR, it is no doubt a new innovative form of addressing all country-specific human rights situations but under the current modalities, we are not sure about its effectiveness and efficiency given the fact that NGO participation is very much restricted.

In the resolution, there are several provisions which allow NGOs to participate in the UPR process at all stages – preparatory, review and implementation. However, non-direct participation of NGOs in an interactive dialogue during the Working Group itself has diminished the effectiveness of NGOs’ contributions.

At the minimum, NGOs should be given a chance to give comments on the summary of States’ reports and other summaries prepared by the Office of High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). Furthermore, there should be a more detailed set guidelines regarding submission of information from NGOs including non-ECOSOC status NGOs and effective consultation at the national level between government and NGOs during the preparatory process.

All member states of the Council shall be reviewed during their term of membership. It is expected, consequently that from Asia, the governments of Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, China, Japan and South Korea will be reviewed in 2008.

Special procedures were another major concern for Asia due to the fact that currently there is no regional human rights protection mechanism in Asia. Special procedures, along with treaty-monitoring bodies, remain the only international human rights protection mechanisms available for human rights victims and defenders in Asia. Throughout the negotiation process up to May this year, many Asian NGOs had actively participated in the global petitioning campaign to strengthen special procedures.

As expected, all thematic special procedures will continue to function normally (their individual mandates will be reviewed regularly) and all three Asian country mandates namely Burma (Myanmar), North Korea and Cambodia have been kept in the list despite rumours and efforts by many governments to remove all country-specific mandates during the negotiation process (Controversially, the mandates for Cuba and Belarus were not continued). This is an encouraging sign for human rights victims and defenders in those countries and in Asia.

However, FORUM-ASIA remains deeply concerned about the “Code of Conduct for Mandate Holders of the Special Procedures” which can be used by some governments to weaken or restrict rather than strengthen and improve their independence and effectiveness.

As Kofi Annan, former Secretary General of UN, stated on Human Rights Day in 2006 “The Special Procedures are the crown jewel of the system. They, together with the High Commissioner and her staff, provide the independent expertise and judgment which is essential to effective human rights protection. They must not be politicized, or subjected to governmental control.”

The first year cycle has ended and the second year cycle is to start officially with its 6th session from 10 to 28 September 2007. Asian NGOs struggle to turn the challenges into opportunities continues as the HRC moves into the next stage of institution-building. The main agenda for the September session will follow-up on institutional building issues such as detailed modalities of the UPR and review of special procedures mandates.