UN rights body scraps Cuba, Belarus experts under new rules

(GENEVA) - The United Nations Human Rights Council on Tuesday agreed on a new set of rules after a fraught night of wrangling, with the European Union welcoming the deal despite the abolition of independent rights experts monitoring Cuba and Belarus.

"It was literally five past 12 that we saved the Human Rights Council. The package is certainly not ideal, but we have a basis we can work with," said ambassador Michael Steiner of Germany, representing the European Union presidency.

However this view was not shared by the European Parliament's observer at the talks, who slammed the removal of the two experts as "perverse", and warned that the new rules could compromise the council's ability to debate future human rights crises.

"Enforced disappearances and summary executions of opposition is happening in Belarus, whilst there is ongoing detentions of journalists and human rights activists in Cuba, so the loss of special investigators sends a perverse and worrying signal about the credibility of the council," said Richard Howitt, a British Labour member of the European Parliament.

Negotiations had gone down to the midnight (2200 GMT) deadline set by the UN General Assembly. Eleventh hour disputes included conflicts over the rights monitors and a demand by China for an increase in the threshold for passing a country-specific resolution to a two-thirds majority.

Despite being opposed to the dropping of the rights monitors, one diplomat said they were an acceptable "price to pay" for Western countries anxious to see the council's survival.

The experts or "rapporteurs" on human rights, who probe allegations of abuse in particular countries or examine areas of concerns such as torture, are regarded as the eyes and ears of the United Nations' system of human rights protection.

As part of the compromise proposed by council president Luis Alfonso de Alba, the 47 members agreed that current rights monitors "could continue serving, provided they have not exceeded the six's years term limit," according to the text.

Under that rule, 10 country rights monitors had their mandates renewed. Only monitors for Belarus and Cuba were not renewed, as they have served over six years.

China only gave up insisting on a two-thirds majority for resolutions criticising any one specific country very late in the day, in exchange for tougher language on how country resolutions are brought to the council, diplomats said.

"Proposers of a country resolution have the responsibility to secure the broadest possible support for their initiative (preferably 15 members), before action is taken," read the new rules.

Diplomats said the political price of failure would be too high just one year ahead of the Beijing Olympic Games, where China is seeking to project a positive image to the rest of the world.

The European Parliament observer said this 15-member level made it highly unlikely for human rights abuses to be debated in the council, given its current membership.

"Everyone today concerned about the UN's apparent powerlessness in Darfur, Chechnya or Burma, should doubt whether the pre-condition for 15 countries to support a debate, will allow these and other human rights crises ever to be addressed," Richard Howitt said.

The current special rapporteur for Belarus, whose post will be abolished under the new rules, said the deal sent a "wrong and worrying" signal to the authoritarian former Soviet republic and other regimes that do not respect human rights.

"This is a wrong and worrying message that will discourage all those who have an interest in promoting human rights," Adrian Severin told AFP in an interview.