Cuba is leading a bid by a number of countries to strip the Human Rights Council of its power to investigate and condemn violations, a move some activists warn could jeopardize the whole UN’s credibility.
The 47 member states of the new UN watchdog, set up last year to replace its largely-discredited predecessor, are quietly negotiating a package of measures which will define its role.
At stake is the fate of “special procedures” - independent investigators appointed to report on countries where abuses are suspected. The former Secretary-General Kofi Annan described these rapporteurs as the “crown jewels” of the UN human rights machinery.
“Our fear is that some governments are trying to sell the crown jewels, trying to undermine the independence of special procedures,” Irene Khan, secretary-general of Amnesty International, told reporters in Geneva.
“There are huge stakes here for human rights, not only for survivors of abuses but the credibility of the Council and the larger credibility of the United Nations,” she said.
Its 13 special rapporteurs on countries, retained for now from the former UN Commission on Human Rights, include experts probing suspected abuses in Belarus, Cuba, Sudan and North Korea.
But countries singled out for this attention, and their allies such as China, say such finger-pointing is selective and politically motivated. They want to abolish the rapporteurs.
Cuba - which has never allowed a visit by the special rapporteur on Cuba, Christine Chanet - is leading the charge to dismantle country investigators.
Cuba and its allies argue that countries should submit their own reports on their domestic records and that there is no need for intrusive rapporteurs.
Cuban Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque warned last week against turning the Council “into an Inquisition tribunal”.
“The perpetuation of country-specific mandates, imposed by force and blackmail, would maintain the spiralling confrontation that did away with the authority and credibility of the defunct Commission on Human Rights,” he said in a speech.
The European Union (EU) says that it is fighting to preserve the special procedures, as well as the forum’s ability to adopt resolutions condemning countries for the worst violations.
“Special procedures are independent and efficient. That is why they are under attack,” said Reed Brody, counsel at the New York-based group Human Rights Watch.
He said UN human rights’ probes had been successful, pointing to Chile in the late 1970s and the former Yugoslavia, in the early 1990s.
The Council will make a decision on the issue by mid-June.