UN Reform and Human Rights


Welcoming remarks by Dean Elena Kagan.
Panel on persistent challenges to global governance moderated by Professor Joanne Scott.

Last Saturday, the Harvard Human Rights Journal presented a conference entitled “UN Reform and Human Rights”. The conference brought together leading scholars and practitioners in the field of international human rights law and experts on the United Nations (UN) to evaluate the current status of the United Nations as well as to address future directions for its various organs, such as the Commission on Human Rights and the Security Council.

The conference featured many high-profile speakers, including Mark Malloch Brown, Chef de Cabinet to the UN Secretary General; Stephen Lewis, UN Special Envoy to HIV/AIDS in Africa, and Ambassador Shirin Tahir-Kheli, Senior Advisor on UN Reform to the US Secretary of State. HLS Professors Ryan Goodman, Joanne Scott and Jack Goldsmith moderated the panels.

At the September 2005 UN World Summit, the head of governments and states mandated the UN General Assembly to establish a new Human Rights Council, reform the Security Council, and carry out ECOSOC and management reforms. Sixty years after the creation of the UN, the international community reassessed the successes and failures of the institution to propose structural and substantive reforms.

The conference panel on Fixing the International Human Rights Machinery discussed the recent draft resolution by the General Assembly to create a new UN Human Rights Council to strengthen the UN Human Rights machinery. The draft resolution proposes a Council to address all human rights situations, more frequent meeting schedules in order to allow it to react more effectively to both chronic and urgent situations, and a mechanism for periodical reviews of the countries’ human rights records. The panelists stressed that governments must show the political will to swiftly approve the draft resolution. They also emphasised that the ability of the UN to protect human rights will depend on governments’ commitment to make the council a strong and effective body.

Kenneth Roth, Executive Director of Human Rights Watch, was not pleased with the dropping of an earlier proposal that members of the Human Rights Council be elected by a two-thirds majority of General Assembly member states in favor of an election by an absolute majority of member states. This view was later supported by Mark Malloch Brown, Chef de Cabinet to the UN Secretary General, who said that “he would have preferred the membership to require a two-third majority vote, rather than an absolute majority vote, which makes it much easier to get on the Council; however, it will be a Council that is much better than what came before.” Ambassador Shirin Tahir-Kheli, Senior Advisor on UN Reform to the US Secretary of State, noted that “NGOs have been important institutions in the protection of human rights endeavors, and NGO participation has been rightly preserved as key strengths of the proposed Council.”

The panel on Making the World Secure: The Security Council and the Peace Building Commission discussed the feasibility of realigning the composition and working of the Security Council. Professor Claude Bruderlein, Lecturer at HLS in 2004, asserted that “in this generation of younger professionals, either the Security Council will be seriously reformed or completely abolished.” Professor Ruth Wedgwood of John Hopkins University rejected the idea that conflicts only occur in affluent oil economies and argued that conflicts also happen in economies which are barely sustainable, as in Timor. The political complexity of the composition of the Security Council is enormous. It is hard to see how the debate over seats at the Council can be kept away from the purely political test of power and influence. The grievances of aspirants such as Japan, Germany, India and Brazil have heightened, and their energy is highly concentrated on the composition of the Security Council to the detriment of other equally important issues like Human Rights. The panel agreed that an effective Security Council would need a stronger leader who may strategize, prioritize and lead.

Professor Joanne Scott of HLS moderated the panel on Global Governance. The panelists agreed that there is no consensus on scope of global governance, and financial resources at the disposal of the UN are inadequate. Later, one of the conference participants pointed out that the annual budget of Harvard University is $2.8 billion, whereas the annual budget of UN to manage the entire world is $1.4 billion.

The debate over updates for the sixty year old body highlighted the gap between 21st century challenges, i.e., extreme poverty, terrorism, weapons of mass destruction and international responses that are clearly mismatched with the scale and urgency of the problems. The conference suggested that, in order to be meaningful, any proposal to update the UN must contribute to a new international consensus by combining member states into a unified front against each of today’s urgent problems. In identifying human rights issues, we must look beyond the most visible violations and also address concerns such as starvation, domestic violence, and denial of reproductive rights as well as place a greater emphasis on health issues such as HIV/AIDS.

The conference was meticulously organized by Alina Zagaytova, 2L, and Tanya Goldman, 3L, under the guidance of Dr. Mindy Roseman, Academic Director of the HLS Human Rights Program. One might say that the panelists lived up to the welcoming remarks of Dean Elena Kagan: “All of us are looking forward to lively, informative and engaging conference.”

The conference will be followed by the Harvard Human Rights Journal with a section on “UN Reform & Human Rights.” Conference participants showed a strong determination to press forward. As aptly stated by Mark Malloch Brown, “Looking towards the future, reform is the beginning, not the end of the process.”

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