Commission on Human Rights

Commission on Human Rights

In this article, we shall discuss the history of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights (which today is the Human Rights Council). We shall examine why the Commission on Human Rights was formed, criticisms of the commission, and functions of the new Human Rights Council. We have also provided a link to the post-Commission on Human Rights, namely the United Nations Human Rights Council.

History of the Commission on Human Rights

The Commission on Human Rights was created in 1946, and was meant to be a key human rights organ within the United Nations. The idea behind the UN Commission on Human Rights was to advance ideas of human rights within the UN. Specifically, the Commission wanted to implement changes of state behavior by hearing cases of human rights abuses. Namely the Commission on Human Rights was tasked to examine state human rights (Mertus, 2009). In fact, the founders believed that this would be one of the key institutions for the United Nations, and for those looking for justice regarding issues of human rights (Lauren, 2007). However, it took some time before the Commission on Human Rights developed an expansive mandate on issues of human rights.

This occurred in the late 1960s to 1970. While the initial complaints were focused on South African and their apartheid system, as well as Israel and the occupation of Palestine beginning in 1967, the states in the United Nations decided that Commission on Human Rights would be able to hear a host of human rights violations, and then respond publicly to state violations. However, there are many criticisms regarding the actions (or inactions) of the Commission on Human Rights.

The idea behind the actions of the Commission on Human Rights were that after a state would petition a human rights violation, the Commission on Human Rights “could lead, after screening, to quiet diplomacy and even the publication of a “blacklist” of states with a pattern of gross violations of human rights” (Weiss, Forsythe, Coate, & Pease, 2014: 210).

Criticisms of the Commission on Human Rights

There were a number of criticisms with regards to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights. Many have argued that the Commission on Human Rights was very political, and thus affected the credibility of the organ. For example, one could see the biases of states when looking at what complaints were being made at the Commission on Human Rights. This was quite evident during the Cold War, where the United States brought a lot of attention to human rights abuses in Cuba, all the while putting little pressure or attention to human rights violations in allied countries such as El Salvador or Guatemala (Abram, 1991, in Weiss, Forsythe, Coate, & Pease, 2014: 210-211). However, the United States was far from the only state to highlight human rights violations based on political interests. The Soviet Union also did this during the Cold War (Weiss, Forsythe, Coate, & Pease, 2014).

One of the most glaring examples of the issues with the Commission on Human Rights came in 2002, where Libya under Muammar Gaddafi was nominated to head the Commission on Human Rights. As Weiss, Forsythe, Coate, & Pease (2014) explain,  “Given Libya’s poor record on many civil and political rights, the African caucus obviously placed more emphasis on equitable geographical representation and friendly relations than on performance in these human rights matters. Since, according to the UN tradition, it was “Africa’s turn” to hold the presidency of the commission. Libya was duly elected over the protests of the United States and other Western governments” (211). In fact, Libya was not only voted as the Chair of the Commission on Human Rights, but they went to great lengths of this position. As Buhrer (2003) explains that “[o]nce in the commission, Libya spared no effort to obtain its highest post. After preparing the ground by investing 4 billion dollars in Africa, the government assumed the cost of organizing and transporting delegations from all over the continent to the foreign ministers’ meeting in Durban in July 2002. It was there that the African Union was born, replacing the Organisation of African Unity, and that Libya, rather than Algeria, was chosen as the continent’s sole candidate to chair the commission in 2003, when it was Africa’s turn to hold the post” (4).

Moreover, along with the selection of Libya to hold the presidency of the Commission on Human Rights, “[a]dding fuel to the fire, other prominently repressive governments like Cuba and Saudi Arabia were also elected to the commission by their regional caucuses. The CHR was never made up of “a club of the clean” who acted consistently on principal and without regard to strategic calculation, but it had often become a mechanism to protect abusers and to promote sovereignty, rather than human rights. These developments gave the UN a bad name in the field of human rights” (Weiss, Forsythe, Coate, & Pease, 2014: 211).

This upset many actors in the international system. For example, Sergio Vieira de Mello, who was then United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, said that  “There really is nothing more serious than the protection of human rights. Yet at times I have felt that, in the course of competitive debate, delegates were losing sight of the noble goal of protecting human rights, in the very body whose duty it is to promote them” (Buhrer, 2003: 2). The United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan said that “[d]ivisions and disputes in recent months have made your voice not stronger, but weaker; your voice in the great debates about human rights more muffled, not clearer. This must change, if you are to play the role intended for this commission, and if the cause of human rights is to be advanced in the broad and universal manner that we all desire” (Buhrer, 2003: 2). And former United Nations Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali saw selective enforcement of human rights, where “[t]he double standards that deprive the commission of any credibility. In some cases, there is concern about human rights violations, in other cases they are ignored” (Buhrer, 2003: 3).

Some, such as Jean-Claude Buhrer of Reporters Without Borders (2003) said that “The atmosphere was oppressive, there was active complicity from the commission’s Libyan chairperson,” and that this whole time, the democratic countries did little to challenge what what taking place (3). We saw this will with regards to issues such as Russia’s human rights violations in Chechnya, as well as political executions carried out by China, Iran, the United States, and Saudi Arabia (Buhrer, 2003). Moreover, the United States and their allies either voted against or abstained from voting in the affirmative on a debate on the Iraq War (Buhrer, 2003). And while a later resolution was passed, the Untied States was not interested in having the Commission on Human Rights examine any wrongdoing by them (Buhrer, 2003). Lastly, countries in the Commission on Human Rights were highly outspoken against any action on any resolution related to same-sex rights (Buhrer, 2003).

However, the Commission on Human Rights elections in 2002 were not the only points of controversy with regards to state participation and issues of human rights. For example, in 2005, members included Sudan, which was carrying out genocide against the people of Darfur (Weiss, Forsythe, Coate, & Pease, 2014).  As Weiss, Forsythe, Coate, and Pease (2014) explain, “The obvious shortcomings of the CHR figured prominently in the 2004 report from the High-Level Panel on Threats, Challenges, and Change (HLP)…The primary evidence for the travesty [of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights] was the commission’s fifty-three elected members, who in 2005 included Sudan while it was pursuing genocide in Darfur, and Zimbabwe while it was bulldozing the houses of seven hundred thousand opposition supporters and rounding up journalists and other critics” (211).

Overall, during the time of the Commission on Human Rights, states were not being held accountable for human rights violations, but rather, political alliances were usually protecting them, or political interests kept states from pressing more on human rights issues (Buhrer, 2003).

Human Rights Council

Thus, given that many in the world saw the United Nations Commission on Human Rights as a very problematic human rights organ, there were calls for the dissolving of the CHR, and the formation of a new UN human rights organ. This actually came to be with the United Nations Human Rights Council, which was formed in 2006; the UN HRC actually came out of the Commission on Human Rights. Many have viewed this as a advancement on the flaws of the Commission of Human Rights, given the various challenges and problems with the United Nations Commission on Human Rights. Follow this link to the Human Rights Council and a detailed essay on the functions of the Council.


Buhrer, J.C. (2003). UN Commission on Human Rights Loses All Credibility. Reporters Without Borders. July 2003, pages 1-15, pages 

Lauren, P.G. (2007). “To Preserve and Build On Its Achievements and to Redress Its Shortcomings”: The Journey From the Commission on Human Rights to the Human Rights Council. Human Rights Quarterly, Vol. 29, pages 307-345. Available Online: 

Mertus, J. (2009). The United Nations and Human Rights: A Guide for a new Era. New York, New York. Routledge.

Weiss, T. G., Forsythe, D. P., Coate, R. A., & Pease, K. K. (2014). The United Nations and Changing World Politics. New York, New York. Westview Press.

Leave a Reply