United Nations Human Rights Council

United Nations Human Rights Council

In this article, we shall discuss the United Nations Human Rights Council. First, we will look at the History of the Human Rights Council, particularly with regards to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights. Second, we will examine the formation of the Human Rights Council, with particular attention to arguments for the new organ. Third, we will analyze the mandate and actions of the Human Rights Council, and compare it tot he mandate and actions of the Commission on Human Rights. Fourth and finally, we will discuss Human Rights Council actions that have helped promote human rights, as well as criticisms that still exist.

History of the United Nations Human Rights Council

The UN Human Rights Council arose from the now dissolved Commission on Human Rights. The Commission on Human Rights was formed in 1946. However, there were many criticisms of the CHR. Specifically, the Commission on Human Rights became very politicized, with many of the members having had horrible human rights records. Furthermore, there was little progress on various human rights issue (Mertus, 2009). It is for these reasons that many called for a new Human Rights organ within the United Nations. And through the United Nations, at the World Summit in 2005, the UN states through the UNGA committed to the creation of the Human Rights Council (Weiss, Forsythe, Coate, & Pease, 2014). And in was in 2006, the United Nations General Assembly did in fact create a new organ from the CHR, which now is the Human Rights Council.

Mandate of the United Nations Human Rights Council

The hopes of the Human Rights Council (and the way that it was structured) was quite different than the final product. Today, there are 47 states in the Human Rights Council, which does not vary much from the structure of the Commission on Human Rights, which was comprised of 53 states. In terms of seat distribution, “[t]he seats in the Council are distributed among the UN’s regional groups as follows: 13 for Africa, 13 for Asia, 6 for Eastern Europe, 8 for Latin America and the Caribbean, and 7 for Western Europe and others” (Mertus, 2009: 42). Furthermore, “[m]embers are approved by a simple majority vote for election, based on regional affiliation…” (Mertus, 2009:42), which differed from the proposed structure, which would have required a 2/3rds vote of support from the UNGA. In addition, some were also calling for stringent human rights standards for states who were vying for these positions. However, in the new Human Rights Council, this specific language was not included. As Mertus (2009) explains, 

“The resolution that created the Council established no hard criteria for membership other than quotas for each of the regional groups in the UN and a requirement that council members be elected by the simple majority of the General Assembly…The resolution simply instructed UN member states that “when electing members of the council, Member States shall take into account the contribution of candidates to the promotion and protection of human rights.” Under this language, no state, no matter how poor its human rights record, is barred from membership. Even states under Security Council sanctions for human rights abuses are not excluded. Candidates are also asked to submit “voluntary pledges and commitments” on their qualifications for the council based on their past and future adherence to and observance of human rights standards” (42).

And regarding Human Rights Council meetings, “[t]he Council is headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland, and meets for three or more sessions per year for a total of 10 weeks or more, including a high-level session. It can hold special sessions at the request of any Council member with the support of one-third of the Council membership. By contrast, the Commission on Human Rights met in Geneva once a year for approximately six weeks, and since 1990 special sessions were held on request” (Blanchfield, 2013: 6).

One of the other important activities with regards to the mandate of the Human Rights Council has to do with the ability of individuals to bring complaints against state human rights violators to the HRC. In 1967, The Commission on Human Rights was given the mandate “to examine gross violations of human rights that come to its attention…and in 1970 to establish a Commission procedure for the consideration of complaints of gross and systematic violations of human rights (ECOSOC resolution 1503)” (Mertus, 2009: 53). The two capabilities from these developments were the “1235 procedure” and the “1503 procedure”. The 1235 procedure could examine cases where there were numerous human rights violations being committed by a state. The 1235 allows for states to learn more about what rights violations are taking place. However, during their investigations, non-governmnt actors were not allowed to submit information under the 1235 procedure. It was for this reason that the Commission of Human Rights established 1503 procedure, which would allow non-state actors to submit information and complaints to the CHR. The 1503 procedure is “[t]he oldest human rights complaint mechanism in the United Nations system” (Mertus, 2009: 54), and “[o]verall, an average of 50,000 complaints were received annually[,]” although the vast majority were not heard (Mertus, 2009).

Despite the criticisms of the process (which includes the time it takes to act on these complaints, as well as the fact that most complaints are not heard (Mertus, 2009), nevertheless, the 1503 Procedure is still a crucial part of the Human Rights Council, as it allows individuals and NGOs to file complaints against states.

United Nations Human Rights Council Periodic Review

One of the developments from the Commission on Human Rights to the Human Rights Council is the introduction of the Universal Periodic Review. During the Commission on Human Rights, states would get investigated under the 1235. However, there were concerns that not all states were being held accountable, and that there was bias in the way that the 1235 investigations were used. So, under this approach, “The Universal Periodic Review (UPR) is a unique process which involves a periodic review of the human rights records of all 193 UN Member States. The UPR is a significant innovation of the Human Rights Council which is based on equal treatment for all countries. It provides an opportunity for all States to declare what actions they have taken to improve the human rights situations in their countries and to overcome challenges to the enjoyment of human rights. The UPR also includes a sharing of best human rights practices around the globe. Currently, no other mechanism of this kind exists.”

The objective of the universal periodic review is to ensure that there is monitoring and protection of human rights in all countries. These “The reviews are conducted by the UPR Working Group which consists of the 47 members of the Council; however any UN Member State can take part in the discussion/dialogue with the reviewed States. Each State review is assisted by groups of three States, known as “troikas”, who serve as rapporteurs. The selection of the troikas for each State is done through a drawing of lots following elections for the Council membership in the General Assembly” (OHCHR, ND). Following the periodic review, the states themselves are expected to carry out all of the reforms (OHCHR, ND).

United Nations Human Rights Council Record

The Human Rights Council has been viewed as being an upgrade from the Commission on Human Rights, but for others, the HRC still has a number of flaws. For example, despite attempts to produce significant roadblocks for human rights violators from serving on the Human Rights Council, the first 47 member state group included countries such as China, Cuba, Algeria, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia (Weiss, Forsythe, Coate, & Pease, 2014). Furthermore, many of the early discussions (and the first resolution from the Human Rights Council) was about Israel. Now this is not to say that Israel does not deserve to be criticized for its rights violations in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. But where some are critical has been the fact that other human rights violators received no similar resolution against their actions, and were not criticized in the Human Rights Council (Weiss, Forsythe, Coate, & Pease, 2014). In fact, the Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon criticized the Human Rights Council for what he saw was the “…disproportionate focus on violations by Israel” (Weiss, Forsythe, Coate, & Pease, 2014: 213). But the Human Rights Council has continued to focus on Israel, with “[s]ix of the Council’s 19 special sessions have focused on Israel, “and in mid-2007, Council members agreed to make the “human rights situation in Palestine and other occupied Arab territories” a permanent part of the Council’s agenda. No other-country specific human rights situation is part of the permanent agenda” (Blanchfield, 2013: 1). 

Criticism of the Human Rights Council continues to this day. For example, it was reported in Newsweek that “In June [of 2015], the U.N. appointed Faisal bin Hassan Trad to chair of a panel of five ambassadors, which oversees the U.N.’s Human Rights Council, according to U.N. Watch, a Geneva-based NGO that monitors U.N. activity. But the U.N. failed to disclose the information, the NGO says.” In the same article, there was an additional statement by the NGO, saying that: “It is scandalous that the U.N. chose a country that has beheaded more people this year than ISIS to be head of a key human rights panel,” said U.N. Watch executive director Hillel Neuer in a statement on Saturday. “This U.N. appointment is like making a pyromaniac into the town fire chief, and underscores the credibility deficit of a human rights council that already counts Russia, Cuba, China, Qatar and Venezuela among its elected members.” The Saudi Arabian government has some of the most egregious and continuous human rights violations in the world, as their violations include  going after journalists, gender and minority rights violations, amongst many other human rights violations (For a discussion about Saudi Arabia’s human rights violations in 2015, see the Human Rights Watch report) (also see Amnesty International’s report as it pertains to Saudi Arabia and their use of the death penalty).

But along with a Saudi Arabian government representative being the head of the Human Rights Council, others similarly criticized the 2015 election for selecting, there were also other criticisms this year stemming from those countries elected to the Human Rights Council. For example, “U.N. Watch, a Geneva-based group that monitors the U.N, said it considers only nine of the 21 countries that were candidates for election to the council as eligible, based on their human rights record. A number of the countries elected, including Burundi, Ethiopia and the United Arab Emirates, have authoritarian regimes. Human rights records of other elected countries include violence against women, human trafficking and limits on freedom of expression and assembly, U.N. Watch said in a report published ahead of the elections on Wednesday.” (Here is the UN Watch report on the election of the 2016-2018 members of the Human Rights Council). And because of the human rights abuses by many of these states, UNWatch.org has written, saying:

“We call upon member states to refrain from voting in favor of Burundi, Ecuador, Ethiopia, Kyrgyzstan, Laos, Pakistan, Togo, United Arab Emirates, and Venezuela. These candidates’ records—on respecting human rights at home and in U.N. voting—fail to meet the minimal U.N. criteria for Council membership.
We also call on Cote d’Ivoire, Kenya, and the Philippines to commit to changing their human rights and/or U.N. voting records before they can be deemed suitable.”

United Nations Human Rights Council References

Blanchfield, L. (2013). The United Nations Human Rights Council: Issues for Congress. Congressional Research Service, April 30, 2013, pages 1-22. Available Online: http://fas.org/sgp/crs/row/RL33608.pdf

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: http://faculty.maxwell.syr.edu/hpschmitz/PSC354/PSC354Readings/LaurenHumanRightsCouncil.pdf

OHCHR (ND). Basic Facts about the UPR. United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner. Available Online: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/HRBodies/UPR/Pages/BasicFacts.aspx

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