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On the 15th of March 2006, the UN General Assembly voted overwhelmingly, 170 for and 4 against, to replace the discredited Human Rights Commission (the commission) with the Human Rights Council (the council).

Is the present initiative really nouvelle in its approach to human rights?

The more things change the more they remain the same. It seems to me, the council has changed much in terms of the form and procedure of the UN approach to human rights. In doing this, the council is dealing with the disease of the ineffectiveness of the commission and not the structural problem that led to its demise, the democratic deficit at international organisations.

The old Commission’s system of independent “special rapporteurs”, special procedures and access for human rights NGOs will be retained. However, the special procedures will be subject to review within one year, so member states must be vigilant to ensure they are maintained. But is this good enough to ensure that intervention in human rights cases is not grounded in political and geostrategic reasons?

The present initiative is no doubt innovative and a reflection of efforts to remedy the dire human rights situation around the world. But in so-far-as its approach is still statist in nature, realism will always override international obligation. Approaches to human rights abuses should be engendered in a holistic manner, encompassing issues around government legitimacy, representation and accountability, not leaving out poverty. Against this backdrop, civil society seems the best available route to bridge the gap between rhetoric and practice.