NEAL CONAN, host:
The United Nations is scheduled to vote tomorrow on the makeup of a new human rights council. It will be responsible to protect and promote human rights around the world.
The United States has no chance of a seat at the table. The Bush administration decided to sit out the first election saying it wanted a stronger organization. Some human rights groups criticize that decision saying the U.S. will miss out on the opportunity to shape the new council during its first year.
The new human rights council replaces the former Commission on Human Rights. That body was criticized for including countries like Sudan and Zimbabwe, some of the world's worst human rights violators, as members.
New rules and restrictions for membership are meant to keep offenders off the council and give the U.N. better enforcement mechanisms. Gay McDougall advised the U.N. in testimony last year leading to the new human rights council. She's a U.N. independent expert on minority rights and past executive director of Global Rights, which is a human rights organization.
She's with us now by phone from New York. And thanks very much for being with us today.
Ms. GAY MCDOUGALL (Human Rights Advocate): Well, thank you.
CONAN: The U.N. eventually had to scrap the Commission on Human Rights. What makes this new human rights council better and different?
Ms. MCDOUGALL: Well, the expectation is that first of all it should have a membership of states that have promised to uphold the standards of human rights; that have had to pass a higher threshold for obtaining membership. Now a majority of states in the general assembly have to vote in favor of each and every member of the council. Before the membership was based on sort of a closed regional slate of country candidates. That left no room for evaluating the records of the members or of substituting other nominees.
So first of all, you know, the hope is that we'll have new countries that are on it because they believe in human rights and because they've pledged to have good records themselves.
It will be open to a vote - by a serious vote - by a larger number of the world's countries. And we hope that, you know, that's going to create a new ethos, a new political culture, if you will, on the council that will make it more effective than the commission was.
CONAN: It sounds like a lot will depend on who gets elected tomorrow and what choices are made come June when the new members will go ahead and meet for the first time.
Ms. MCDOUGALL: That's absolutely right. The council will have 47 seats on it, and that's a few less than the commission. But there's 65 countries running for those 47 states. And as I said, there's now been posted on various Web sites, compilations of records of their voting patterns in the past; their accession to the sort of core human rights treaties; a whole, you know, list of ways to evaluate whether or not they are good governments that are good citizens of the world, in terms of their human rights records.
CONAN: At this point, even the Bush administration, which as we mentioned earlier, has been critical of this new body, is, though, offering political and financial support. Do you think the controversy's dying away a little bit?
Ms. MCDOUGALL: Well, I hope the controversy is dying away. But I think that many of us in the human rights world are disappointed that the United States voted against the council and is, indeed, not putting itself up for election.
CONAN: Well, I guess there is the possibility, and we have to consider it, that the new human rights council could suffer the same fate as the old one.
Ms. MCDOUGALL: You know, of course it could. But everything depends on the 47 member states that take their seats in June when the council is inaugurated and their commitment to, you know, integrity of the process. They are now going to have the ability to rethink many of the procedures, to rethink the agenda in many ways, and to address whatever deficiencies existed in council.
And there were definitely deficiencies. But I just want to point out that there were also great successes for the human rights community of great significance over the past, you know, three or four decades with the commission.
So we're all hoping that they're not going to throw out the baby with the bath water and that important aspects of how the commission operated are going to be saved into this new council.
CONAN: Gay McDougall, thanks very much for being with us today.
Ms. MCDOUGALL: Thank you.
CONAN: Gay McDougall, a U.N. independent expert on minority rights and past executive director of Global Rights, a human rights organization. She joined us by phone from New York City.
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