Header image for news printout

Sixty-first Session of the Commission on Human Rights Geneva – 14 March 2005 Statement by Ambassador Mike Smith Chairperson of the Sixtieth Session of the Commission on Human Rights

14 March 2005

Mr. Chairman,

It is a pleasure and an honour to address the 61st Session of the Commission on Human Rights in this opening session. Allow me to congratulate you on your election and say how delighted I am that the Commission has chosen by acclamation to elect you as my successor. Australia and Indonesia are close neighbours and friends and to hand the Commission over to you is like passing this great responsibility on to another member of the family. You bring to the role great experience and the qualities of energy, creativity, calm assurance and graciousness that will enable you to guide this Commission to a successful conclusion 6 weeks from now. You know that you will have my total support throughout.

I would like also to acknowledge the High Commissioner, Mme Louise Arbour, who has, in a short nine months in the position, energized her Office and demonstrated a fine sense of where the High Commissioner position can intervene in debate on current issues, with maximum impact. I wish her well as she helps guide us all through this 61st session of the Commission.

Mr. Chairman,

Each Commission has its special character, its particular tensions, its unexpected challenges and CHR60 was no different. Looking back however, I think that most delegations would agree it was a little easier and a little less confrontational than recent Commission sessions. In my view the fact that we were able to complete the agenda without reducing speaking times and without clustering items, played a significant role in that. Nothing frustrates delegates more than suddenly having to cut the speech they had prepared, or even re-write it completely because it now has to deal with 3 or 4 items. I was enormously gratified by the support that all delegations – members and observers, gave to the measures that the Bureau put in place to keep the conference on schedule.

All in all the Commission adopted 120 resolutions, Chair’s statements and decisions; it heard some 2000 interventions; and we saw over 600 side events organized around the 6 weeks of meetings here at the Palais. The latter statistic underlines again how important the Commission has become as a space where the whole human rights community can meet, exchange views, lobby on issues of particular concern and build global support for particular initiatives in the field. As I said in my closing statement, it is this that, at the end of the day, may be the most important role of the Commission on Human Rights, not the adoption of resolutions, all too often duplicative of previous resolutions adopted here or at the General Assembly.

I should report that the Expanded Bureau met 7 times between the conclusion of last year’s session and 17 January this year when the new Bureau was elected. A major item of business for the Bureau was the appointment of Special Procedures – for a combination of reasons, including the large number of new mandates created at CHR60, there were 17 vacancies to be filled in 2004. This provided an opportunity not only to introduce some new faces into the ranks of the Special Procedures but to balance better the representation of regions. This was a demanding exercise as there were many excellent candidates nominated and inevitably difficult choices had to be made. In the end however, I am confident that the new appointees are people of great integrity and principle and will serve the Commission well to the best of their ability.

The Expanded Bureau met with the Bureau of ECOSOC by video conference and had an exchange of views on the Commission’s work and on how that played into that organ’s deliberations in New York. As Chair I also participated in an interactive dialogue at ECOSOC, along with the other Chairs of the functional commissions, and also addressed the Third Committee on CHR60’s outcomes.

Mr. Chairman,

As I have already noted, the Commission is perennially under time pressure and as a result, reform of its working methods is almost always on its agenda, officially or unofficially. With a growing number of special procedures to be heard in interactive dialogues, a steady increase in observers who wish to make their views known and new and important human rights issues to be addressed, we need constantly to look at options for ensuring that the Commission does have sufficient time to deal with the full range of issues it should.

Last year I suggested that sooner or later we would need to consider reducing the agenda from 21 items to perhaps 14 or 15 by merging similar items. That would at least give us breathing space and mean that delegations would have a little longer to make their interventions. If the Commission decides this year to authorise some sort of intersessional work on reform, I hope that streamlining the agenda will be one of the reforms canvassed.

Of course Mr. Chairman, this is the year of reform in the United Nations. The Secretary-General’s High Level Panel has produced a report with a host of recommendations that will be considered by a summit of world leaders in September this year. Several of these recommendations relate to the treatment of human rights in the UN system, including the operation of this Commission. I am particularly pleased that this distinguished panel chose to emphasise the importance of integrating human rights throughout the work of the United Nations and of drawing the High Commissioner more frequently into the debates and discussions of the Security Council, particularly where peace-keeping mandates are under contemplation. This is all part of operationalising human rights and improving the implementation of the standards and declarations that we adopt here in the Commission.

Another recommendation made by the Panel is that the membership of the Commission be universalized. I know that this is a controversial proposal but in line with my comments earlier, I think it is worthy of support simply because it would underline how this body has evolved into the premier multilateral forum for debating human rights issues. After all virtually the entire UN family comes to the Commission anyway – why draw an artificial distinction between the 53 members and the other 140 odd member states of the United Nations? Importantly if introduced this step would underline the duplication of the Commission’s work with that of the Third Committee of the General Assembly, opening the way for the latter to be abolished in the interests of streamlining the work of the UN. I hope that delegations here in Geneva with experience of the way the Commission actually works, will feed their views and impressions into the New York process, if necessary via their capitals.

Mr. Chairman,

The greatest challenge that this Commission faces is how to maximize its impact in improving the quality of people’s enjoyment of human rights. Adopting resolutions and drafting new standards, no matter how elegantly phrased, do not automatically do that. Appointing Special Rapporteurs and Independent Experts helps, but again without resources and support on the ground, the impact of the Special Mechanisms is limited.

In my view what we need to do is provide the tools, the know-how and the moral support at the country level so that universal human rights standards can be promoted there in ways that are appropriate to the culture and social circumstance of each country. We need to support the work of national human rights institutions, of independent judiciaries and of reformers within Government bureaucracies who understand that recognizing people’s individual rights and of making government accountable for decisions that affect people’s daily lives, are fundamental to improving their quality of life. Importantly they also build productive communities and more prosperous countries. And we need to do this not only through the 6 weeks of this Commission, nor indeed only in this forum in Geneva. We should be doing it as Governments, as NGOs, and as experts, in every relevant UN forum. And we should encourage other institutions in the field, such as the treaty bodies, to do the same.

That takes me back to the recommendations of the High Level Panel Report and of previous UN reform initiatives. The only way in the long term that human rights goals will be steadily advanced on a broad front is if human rights considerations are part of the work of every UN body. I therefore strongly endorse the message of Action II launched by the High Commissioner and the Heads of UNDP and UNICEF in New York last year, which would see human rights integrated into the day to day work of UN country teams.

I trust that over the next 6 weeks all delegations will bear this in mind and try to produce outcomes that have a practical and real impact outside Geneva.

It has been a pleasure serving as the Chair of this great forum and I thank you all for giving me that privilege.