Africa must taking a leading roleCAPE TOWN As the UN negotiations over a proposed new Human Rights Council resume on Jan. 11, the Africa Group of UN member states has an opportunity to play a leading role in a way that would greatly benefit our continent. Africa, which has suffered so much from human rights abuses, has the most to gain from a new standing body that meets regularly throughout the year and could respond quickly and effectively to rights violations.
A Human Rights Council should be led by countries with good human rights records, that can fairly scrutinize complaints against other countries. Kofi Annan's proposal that members of the council be elected by a two-thirds vote of members of the General Assembly, together with a requirement that regional groups nominate more countries than their number of allotted seats, would ensure competitive elections likely to sift out inappropriate candidates. The new council should get a clean start by electing an entirely new membership.
We should not fear a council that can cast a strong light on serious human rights abuses, wherever and whenever they occur. The numerous resolutions adopted by the current Commission on Human Rights concerning the former apartheid regime in my country helped mobilize world opinion against apartheid and speed our transition to a more just regime.
A new universal peer review mechanism to improve the human rights capacities of all countries, coupled with strengthened mechanisms to address directly rights violations in individual countries, will provide a graduated array of tools for the new Council. Four African countries have referred their own human rights situations to the new International Criminal Court, and a fifth has been sent there by the UN Security Council. A stronger Human Rights Council would allow for rights violations to be addressed before the sad stage of international criminal prosecution must be reached.
In creating a new council, the UN negotiators should preserve the best of the existing UN human rights machinery: the independence of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the special investigators and rapporteurs established by the present Commission on Human Rights, and broad participation by non-governmental organizations.
A strong and effective Human Rights Council is in the interests of all, and especially of Africa. African countries should take a leading role in pressing for a strong council.
(Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984.)