[JURIST] The UN Human Rights Council [official website; JURIST news archive] held its inaugural session [opening ceremony statements] Monday, convening for its first session [press release] as the replacement body for the beleaguered Human Rights Commission [official website]. The Human Rights Council will begin by passing two "vital documents" that will guarantee the rights of indigenous peoples and another that will oppose enforced disappearances. The first Council meeting will, however, focus primarily on establishing new operating procedures, particularly the format of a universal periodic review to evaluate the human rights records of all countries. In his remarks [transcript, PDF; recorded video] at the opening of the meeting, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan [official profile] said:
It is hardly an exaggeration to say that the eyes of the world - especially the eyes of those whose human rights are denied, threatened or infringed - are turned towards this chamber and this Council.The Human Rights Commission had been sharply criticized for allowing countries with continued human rights violations to win seats and protect each other from inquiries. Russia and China [JURIST reports], which recently have come under US criticism for restrictive human rights practices, are among the founding members [member list; JURIST report]. Similarly, seats also went to Cuba, Saudi Arabia and Azerbaijan, all characterized by the US and international rights groups as human rights violators. Controversial bids for seats by Iran, Iraq, and Venezuela were rejected.
A great effort has been made, by Member States and by civil society worldwide, to bring us to this point.
And a new era in the human rights work of the United Nations has been proclaimed.
I trust that all members of the Council are fully aware of the hopes that have thus been raised, and are determined not to disappoint them.
They certainly should be aware, because all of them, in seeking election to this Council, have made pledges both to respect human rights at home and to uphold them abroad. Moreover, the General Assembly has required them to uphold the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights, fully cooperate with the Council, and submit themselves to the universal periodic review mechanism during their term of membership.
Their peoples - and the peoples of the world - will be watching to see whether those standards are indeed upheld.
The US chose not to seek a seat [JURIST report] in the first year of the Human Rights Council, after opposing its creation [JURIST report]. Although the UN expressed disappointment [JURIST report] at the Bush administration's decision not to seek a seat, the US has said it may run for a position next year. AP has more. The UN News Centre has additional coverage.