GENEVA (Reuters) – The U.N. Human Rights Council, heralded as a new start in the world body's attempt to uphold fundamental freedoms, opened on Monday under pressure to show it can do better than its discredited predecessor.
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan was among government ministers and dignitaries to address the inaugural session with calls to avoid the finger-pointing and political point-scoring that hampered the work of the disbanded Human Rights Commission.
"This council represents a great new chance for the United Nations and for humanity to renew the struggle for human rights. I implore you not to let the opportunity be squandered," Annan said.
"The eyes of the world — especially the eyes of those whose human rights are denied, threatened or infringed — are turned toward this chamber and this council."
Unlike the 53-state commission, where members were nominated by regional blocs, the council's 47 members were elected by the U.N. General Assembly, a change which proponents say makes it more difficult for rights violators to win a seat.
One of the biggest criticisms of the 60-year-old commission, among whose successes was the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, was that it made it too easy for states with a poor record to use membership to protect themselves from scrutiny.
While some states whose rights records have been questioned, such as Cuba, Saudi Arabia, Russia and China won election, others failed or did not even stand.
The United States, which has faced worldwide criticism for its handling of terrorism suspects, did not seek a seat, although it has not ruled out a future candidacy. It said the changes to the old commission did not go far enough
One key change is that the human rights performance of all council members will be periodically reviewed.
"We have to seize this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make a major step forward in improving the U.N. human rights system," said Austrian Foreign Minister Ursula Plassnik, speaking for the 25-state European Union.
Annan, reminding members they had pledged to "respect human rights at home and uphold them abroad," said the council must focus equally on all threats to human rights, whether they be the brutal actions of arbitrary rulers or ignorance and hunger.
"Victims of human rights abuses … and future generations will judge us by our willingness and ability to shed the comfort of habit, to fight inertia, reject expediency and fulfill promises with action," said U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour.
Words had too often not been backed up with action, and this was "nothing short of betrayal", she said.
Much of the initial two-week session will be spent planning future work. The council will meet at least three times a year, unlike the commission, which met annually.
The council has a year to take key organizational decisions, such as how to carry out the planned peer reviews and what changes, if any, to make to the system of special investigators.
European diplomats say there will certainly be discussion of Sudan, Myanmar and North Korea, though what form it will take and whether there will be resolutions was not decided
The U.S.-led war on terrorism and suspected abuse at U.S. detention centers were also likely to feature.
Muslim states have said they will demand discussion of territories under Israeli military occupation. They also want to debate religion following the furor over the publication last year of cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed