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The final session

By Howard Glenn - posted Friday, 31 March 2006

On March 27, 2006, at 5.30pm Geneva time (2.30am Australian EST), the United Nations Commission on Human Rights closed its historic final session. After a fraction over 60 years in operation, the closure of the CHR was to a packed assembly hall at the Palais des Nations, and with mixed feelings from the government and non-government delegates present.

Just over two weeks days ago, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution to create a new body, a Human Rights Council, which is supposed to enhance the importance of human rights in the international community, and overcome some of the problems that have made the CHR lose credibility in recent years. So the CHR needed to wind up, but maybe thought many, not quite this fast.

The mixed feelings involved recognition that the CHR needed to go; that it could have been given a better ending than a rushed procedural session not dealing with outstanding work; pride at its achievements; relief that we would not be going through the same again as in recent years; hopes that a new replacement body would be better; and fears that it would not.


In a brief 2 1/2 hour session, the chairperson of the commission, representatives of the different “blocs” and one representative of non-government organisations (NGOs) looked at some of the achievements of the CHR in its 60-year life. Most of the speeches were listened to politely, and frankly were indicative of some of the problems of the CHR.

With Morocco speaking for the African groups, Saudi Arabia for the Asian group and Azerbaijan for Eastern Europe, talk of the universality of human rights sounded a bit empty. They each agreed that the CHR had in recent years suffered from selectivity, double standards and politicisation, and then went on to demonstrate what these terms meant.

But then the Brazilian Ambassador speaking for Latin America and the Caribbean, and the Dutch for the West, outlined a vision for a stronger body starting to deal with substantive issues of human rights abuses right from its commencement, and with the West committing itself never to vote in a country to the new Human Rights Council that engaged in gross and systematic human rights abuses.

It fell to the sole NGO speaker - much to my pride an old friend and fellow Australian Chris Sidoti - to speak of the continued neglect by governments of the world of the human rights of many, and while refusing to speak for all NGOs, read a statement endorsed by 265, including Rights Australia - which outlined our hopes for the new Human Rights Council, to sustained applause.

To be fair, the new body will have a solid base to build on: the CHR is not given enough credit for its past work.

Fresh from the horrors of the World War II, the fledgling United Nations resolved to seek to define the standards of personal liberty and the inherent dignity of the human person. In 1946 it established a Commission on Human Rights, as a body subordinate to the Economic and Social Council. Australia was one of 17 countries that formed the first commission and started the process of developing the human rights standards which are so widely accepted today.


After negotiating and leading out with the revolutionary Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the General Assembly in 1948, the Commission on Human Rights has been the body responsible for creating:

  • the international covenant on civil and political rights;
  • the international covenant on economic social and cultural rights;
  • the convention on the elimination of all forms of racial discrimination;
  • the convention on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women;
  • the convention on the rights of the child;
  • the convention against torture; and
  • a host of other contributions to international law.

So much of the language of human rights, the laws of countries throughout the world, and the protection of individuals from the excesses of states, have their origin in these documents, including Australia’s race, sex and privacy laws.

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About the Author

Howard Glenn leads lobby group Rights Australia Inc, was previously founder and national director of Australians for Just Refugee Programs, and brought the widest range of organisations and individuals together to challenge poor treatment of asylum seekers and refugees.

Formerly CEO of the National Australia Day Council, he was responsible for modernising national celebrations and the Australian of the Year Awards, and involving communities across Australia in debates on reconciliation, republic and national identity.

Howard was an adviser to the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs in the Hawke-Keating Governments, and had key involvement with Indigenous education policy, the response to the deaths in custody Royal Commission and the establishment of the reconciliation process. Outside government he has extensive community sector involvement, currently on human rights, HIV-AIDS, drug and alcohol issues. When not at a computer, Howard is a middle distance runner and a surf lifesaver.

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