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15 March 2006

High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour called the establishment of the United Nations Human Rights Council today “a historic opportunity to improve the protection and promotion of fundamental freedoms of people around the world”.

“The decision of the General Assembly to create the Council is momentous”, the High Commissioner said. “It responds to the hope that the global community could come together and create a strong institution at the heart of the international human rights system”.

Mrs. Arbour said the Council was more than a “new and improved” Commission on Human Rights, the body it is replacing. She recalled that in addition to retaining some of the best elements of the Commission, such as the system of independent investigators and the broad participation of civil society, the new body boasted some significant features, including that candidates for membership would have to make commitments on human rights; elected members would be first in line for scrutiny under a universal periodic review of their human rights records; and members that committed gross and systematic violations of human rights could be suspended. Members would also commit to cooperate with the Council and its various mechanisms.

The way members of the Council are to be elected also represented a major improvement over the Commission, the High Commissioner continued. Election to the Council would require an absolute majority of UN member States: of the 191 members, at least 96 must support a state's membership by secret ballot. This threshold was much higher than the 28 or fewer votes that could get a country membership in the Commission, and would allow countries to block the election of egregious rights violators.
But the High Commissioner also cautioned against complacency.

“Adoption of the text is extremely important, but it is only the beginning”, she said. “Fulfilling the promise of the Council will require a change of culture as much as institutional transformation. Countries must demonstrate the political will to put the defense of human rights above narrow interests. Human rights are neither a weapon nor a shield. They are the birthright of all people everywhere. If we lose sight of this fundamental fact, all the work to create the council and reaffirm the central role of human rights will have been wasted”.