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New York Times Op-Ed: Principles Defeat Politics at the U.N.

By Jimmy Carter, Óscar Arias, Kim Dae Jung,

Shirin Ebadi and Desmond Tutu

This op-ed was published in the March 5, 2006, edition of The New York Times.

In the global struggle for the advancement of human rights, the United Nations has reached a defining moment. The president of the General Assembly, Jan Eliasson of Sweden, has led five months of negotiations to develop a proposal to reform the United Nations Commission on Human Rights. Although the commission has accomplished many things, including the adoption of human rights standards, treaties and fact-finding mechanisms that measure the performance of governments, it has become more of a political battleground than a meaningful force for protecting victims of human rights violations, and it must be reformed.

Last year, Secretary General Kofi Annan boldly proposed that the United Nations replace the commission with a new more elevated and effective body. His visionary proposal started a very creative process through which governments have thoroughly examined and debated the features of a new body that a large majority could embrace. Mr. Eliasson has now produced a draft resolution with many positive elements that has gained the support of the vast majority of the membership of the United Nations.

Some have asserted that the proposal is just a weak compromise. We challenge this claim.

The new council creates new expectations that members will uphold the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights, fully cooperate with the council, and undergo additional scrutiny through a peer review. Most significantly, a member that commits gross and systematic violations of human rights can be suspended from the body.

The council includes a new requirement that members be approved by a majority of the General Assembly - or 96 countries - rather than simply being appointed by their regional groups. With these new procedures and the articulation for the first time of standards for membership, we believe the new body will be led by countries with a greater commitment to human rights.

Instead of having one highly politicized meeting per year, the council will meet throughout the year so that it can address urgent human rights issues in a timely way. This will create a more regularized, constructive and professional process. The politics and double standards of the existing commission will be redressed by providing for periodic review of the human rights records of all 191 members, including the most powerful.

In addition, the proposal ensures robust participation by human rights organizations and activists in the deliberations and secures the system of special rapporteurs and other fact-finding mechanisms - the best feature of the commission.

The draft before United Nations members represents a very significant and meaningful improvement over the existing commission, and to reopen negotiations would put at risk these gains and give those who would prefer a weaker system another opportunity to do mischief. This risks reintroducing very damaging proposals, like giving politically motivated member states control and oversight of the high commissioner for human rights, now an independent office and important voice for victims; new restrictions on special rapporteurs, nongovernmental organizations and news media; elimination or new high thresholds for passing country resolutions, and so forth.

Our aim must be to build a solid foundation for protecting human rights and coming to the aid of victims within the only truly global organization of governments on the planet. Mr. Eliasson has found a way forward that can bring everyone on board. Nearly 60 years after the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, he has finally brought us to where we can begin to put principles over politics for the betterment of all.

Jimmy Carter, Óscar Arias, Kim Dae Jung, Shirin Ebadi, and Desmond Tutu are Nobel Peace Prize laureates.

In addition to the original authors sited by the New York Times, the following laureates have also endorsed this statement: Jody Williams, Amnesty International, Mairead Corrigan Maguire, American Friends Service Committee, Rt. Hon David Trimble, Bishop Carlos Filipe Ximenes Belo, Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, and John Hume.

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