UNITED NATIONS, New York: The United Nations Human Rights Council will begin a three-week session in Geneva on Monday amid expressions of frustration from rights advocates at its early performance and alarm over proposals that might weaken it further.
"So far it's been enormously disappointing, and the opponents of human rights enforcement are running circles around the proponents," said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch.
The council was created in an overwhelming vote — 170 to 4 — of the General Assembly a year ago to replace the Human Rights Commission, which had been widely discredited for allowing participation by countries like Sudan, Libya and Zimbabwe, which used membership to prevent scrutiny of their own human rights records.
The commission was long a major embarrassment to the United Nations. The former secretary general, Kofi Annan, who first proposed its replacement in 2005, said that it had "cast a shadow on the reputation of the United Nations system as a whole."
When the 47 members of the new council were elected last March, tighter entry requirements succeeded in keeping the most notorious rights abusers off the panel, and there was some hope of less politicized behavior.
But countries from Africa and the Organization of the Islamic Conference have dashed those hopes by voting as a bloc to stymie Western efforts to focus serious attention on situations like the killings, rapes and pillage in the Darfur region of Sudan, which the United Nations has declared the world's worst humanitarian crisis.
Most notably, as happened with the commission, the council has focused the panel's condemnation almost exclusively on Israel.
The council has already passed eight resolutions against Israel, and the Islamic group is planning four more in the current session. No other country has been cited for human rights violations.
The United States voted against creation of the council last year, saying it would not be a sufficient improvement over the commission. In the past week, it decided for the second straight year not to seek membership on the panel, and R. Nicholas Burns, under secretary of state for political affairs, linked that decision to the council's stance on Israel.
"It spent the entire year slamming Israel," Burns told the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Tuesday. He noted that the council had held formal hearings against Israel "but not against Burma and not against Zimbabwe and not against North Korea and not against Iran."
Annan's successor, Ban Ki Moon, told a human rights gathering in December that he was "worried by its disproportionate focus on violations by Israel." The council, he said, "has clearly not justified all the hopes that so many of us placed on it."
The new session is the fourth this year, and an immediate issue attracting attention as a measure of the council's purposefulness is what it will do about an assessment mission to Darfur that was barred from entering Sudan last month. The options are to publish a factual report, to publish a report with recommendations or to take no action.
"What they do with the Sudan mission will be a bellwether for the future of the council," said Peter Splinter, the Amnesty International representative in Geneva. He indicated he was not optimistic.
"Sudan took the floor last week and said they rejected the mission entirely, and they are going to have the backing of the Organization of the Islamic Conference," Splinter said. "If the council ducks the situation in Darfur, that's not going to speak highly to its credibility."
The Islamic group is expected to point out that Israel barred entry of an assessment mission to the Gaza Strip in December and that the mission's leader, Desmond Tutu, the former South African archbishop and anti-apartheid campaigner, decided not to make a formal recommendation.
"It was a mistake for that mission not to write a report, but if you allow governments to prevent a report by simply not admitting a mission, then you're giving them a way of silencing the council," Roth said.
In another potential blow to the council's effectiveness, a proposal is circulating that would do away with many of the council's 41 rapporteurs — experts who produce sometimes graphic reports of abuses in individual countries. The proposal specifically exempts the mission that monitors the Palestinian territories.
Hillel Neuer, executive director of UN Watch, an organization based in Geneva that follows UN human rights activities, said, "The situation is grim, and one example is that the one aspect that has always been thought of as a bright spot — the experts — may be eliminated."
Despite the disappointment with the council's early performance, Splinter said that it was premature to give up on the panel because it was still setting up its rules and procedures. It is supposed to resolve these institutional matters by mid-June.
"It's going through its adolescence, and it's awfully painful, but we have to get past it and see what we have in the end," he said.