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Human Rights Council

Photo Credit: UN Photo/Jean-Marc Ferré
The United Nations Human Rights Commission has been at the center of UN Reform debates. The US and others did all they could to discredit the Commission. It was criticized for being bureaucratic, excessively political and ineffectual. The Commission came under most fire for allowing membership of states with bad human rights records, such as Zimbabwe, Sudan and Saudi Arabia, who used the organization as a shield against scrutiny and condemnation.

In its December 2004 report on UN reform, the High Level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change recommended the Commission adopt universal membership and prepare an annual report on the state of human rights worldwide. Kofi Annan's report of March 2005 "In Larger Freedom" went much further by calling for the Commission's abolition and the establishment of a smaller Human Rights Council which would meet year-round and have its membership restricted to countries that will "abide by the highest human rights standards."

Following lengthy negotiations and several draft resolutions, the General Assembly overwhelmingly voted in favor of creating a new Council. The Council remains large at 47 members, distributed by region, with states elected by an absolute majority of the General Assembly. The resolution calls upon states to take into account a candidates human rights record. Although the new resolution did not go as far as some member states and human rights organizations hoped, the majority supported its adoption. The US was one of only four member states that voted against the adoption of the text.

Human rights organizations welcomed reform of the Human Rights Commission and supported the creation of the new Council. However, the same organizations are concerned about whether the new Council will retain active NGO participation and independent special rapporteurs as the Human Rights Commission. Some observers believe that by taking the UN human rights body out of ECOSOC and making it a subsidiary of the General Assembly, social and economic rights will suffer. This page reports on the creation of the Human Rights Council and subsequent developments.


Key Documents | Documents | Articles | Links and Resources


Key Documents

Joint NGO Statement to the Eighth Session of the Human Rights Council (May 20, 2008)

Twelve non-governmental organizations comment on the third report of the UN Special Representative on Human Rights and Transnational Corporations. The groups appreciate the emphasis on "state duty to protect human rights," but urge the Special Representative to broaden his mandate to include corporate abuse. The organizations further advise him to utilize the experiences of victims of business related human rights abuses in finding solutions. (Human Rights Watch)

Building the New Human Rights Council – Outcome and Analysis of the Institution - Building Year (August 2007)

This document analyzes the main differences between the Commission on Human Rights and its successor, the Human Rights Council, which the General Assembly created in 2006. Many NGOs criticized the Commission for failing to take action against human rights violations and several governments condemned the Commission for focusing on poor countries while protecting the richer ones. This article claims that the largest difference between the two bodies is that the Council will review all UN members' human rights record. (Friedrich Ebert Foundation)

Excerpt from Kofi Annan's Report on UN Reform: In Larger Freedom (March 21, 2005)

One of the many reform proposals that Secretary General Kofi Annan makes in this report involves replacing the UN Commission on Human Rights with a smaller, permanent Human Rights Council, which contradicts the High Level Panel's universal membership recommendation. Annan envisages that the General Assembly will directly elect the new body's members by a two-thirds majority, and has left it up to the Member States to decide if such a Council should become a principal UN organ or a subsidiary body of the General Assembly.

Excerpts from the Report of the High Level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change (December 2, 2004)

The report of the High Level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change makes a number of recommendations relating to reform of the Human Rights Commission. It suggests Member States appoint "prominent and experienced human rights figures" to head their delegations and proposes the establishment of an "advisory council" of independent experts to support the Commission's work. The Panel also advocates for universal membership of the Commission.


The Shift from the Human Rights Commission to the Human Rights Council. A Butterfly or a Caterpillar in Lipstick? (June 19, 2006)

This Center for UN Reform Education publication analyzes the strengths and weaknesses of the Human Rights Council, which convenes for the first time on June 19, 2006. Critics including US Ambassador to the UN John Bolton have decried the newly constituted body as a "slightly improved copy" of the Human Rights Commission. Despite these criticisms, the Council aims to strengthen the more valuable aspects of its predecessor's work by bringing human rights issues closer to the discourse on international peace and security.

General Assembly Draft Resolution A/60/L.48 - establishing the Human Rights Council (March 15, 2006)

The General Assembly resolution for establishing the Human Rights Council describes a body not dissimilar to the previous Commission. Membership remains large (47 members) with election by an absolute majority of the General Assembly. Membership will be based upon regional rotation and open to all member states, however a candidates contribution to human rights will be taken into account. Elected members are subject to periodic review.


Co-Chairs' Text on the Human Rights Council (December 19, 2005)

In the lead-up to a UN holiday recess, the co-chairs of the Human Rights Council (HRC) negotiations released this document, further narrowing the options for the composition and functionality of the HRC.

Joint Letter on the UN Human Rights Council (November 1, 2005)

Over 40 major NGO leaders sent a joint letter to General Assembly (GA) President Jan Eliasson. The letter describes the NGOs' recommendations for the new Human Rights Council, which the GA is working to establish following the September 2005 Millennium+5 Summit. The NGOs voice strong support for a permanent Human Rights Council, and urge the GA to protect NGO access to the new body.

Commission on Human Rights Holds Informal Meeting on Secretary-General's Reform Proposals (June 20, 2005)

A discussion on the establishment of a UN Human Rights Council revealed discord between delegations. While all participants agreed that the current Commission on Human Rights has become "politicized and selective," they differed on the prospective body's size, its membership composition, and where it would stand in the UN structure. NGOs attending the meeting expressed "distress" about dismantling the Commission and hastily establishing a Human Rights Council. (UN Press Release)

Plan of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (May 2005)

The Plan presents gaps in the performance of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), such as a lack of capacity, commitment, and knowledge. It proposes five "action points" – including closer partnerships with civil society and greater interaction with other UN bodies – to address the shortcomings and it presses for increased resources.



Kofi Annan: Despite Flaws, UN Human Rights Council Can Bring Progress (December 8, 2011)

While some criticisms of the UN Human Rights Council are “valid,” former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan states in this article that the world benefits from a “global approach” to human rights. Annan argues that regional bloc voting practices are no longer sustainable and more collective and deliberate forms of action are necessary to address human rights violations. Annan points to recent blocks on membership bids from Syria, Iran, and Libya as slow but steady progress on human rights. (Christian Science Monitor)

UN Human Rights Council: Weak Stance on Business Standards (June 16, 2011)

On June 16, 2011, the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) endorsed John Ruggie’s “Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights,” a set of standards outlining the connection between business and human rights. This Human Rights Watch statement argues that Ruggie’s principles do not adequately scrutinize global business practices and asserts that the UNHRC missed a crucial opportunity to protect human rights. As the number of business-related human rights violations increases, the UNHRC must advocate for a set of global “rules” that require corporations to abide to human right protections.  (Human Rights Watch)

UN: Limited Choice Mars Rights Body Election (May 20, 2011)

Following the recent UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) elections where ten out of fifteen countries ran unopposed, Human Rights Watch (HRW) argues that the lack of competition undermines the legitimacy of the UNHRC. Without competitive elections, states can become members without having their human rights records challenge, undermining the expectation that UNHRC members “uphold the highest standards of human rights.”  This is particularly problematic because the UNHRC is already criticized for having members with poor human rights records. (Human Rights Watch)


UN Human Rights Council Faces Same Criticism as its Predecessor (May 21, 2010)

 Libya’s election as a member of the UN Human Rights Council has raised concerns about the Council as an effective alternative to its predecessor, the Human Rights Commission. Some political analysts are opposed to the very practice of extending Council membership to states with poor human rights records, arguing that this leads to a “If you don’t criticize me, I won’t criticize you” atmosphere. On the other hand, a more selective membership criterion would only result in an unrepresentative body with a few states sitting in judgment of others. While the transformation from the Commission to the Council has thus far failed to deliver, there is optimism that the Universal Period Review process could increase accountability of the big powers through public and participatory reviews.


Governments Urged to Improve Quality of UN Human Rights Council (August 19, 2009)

Rights advocacy groups are accusing the Human Rights Council of letting rights-abusing countries join as members. The groups claim that governments elect new member states based on how they can benefit their own political and economic interests, instead of observing their human rights records. The groups have called for a public announcement by members of the UN that they will end the bloc system and in the future only vote for candidates that "promote and protect human rights." (cnsnews)

In Reversal, US to Engage With Human Rights Council (April 2, 2009)

The US has announced it will stand as a candidate in the May 2009 election to the UN Human Rights Council (HRC). Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch applaud the decision, hoping that the US will make the body more efficient and credible. The US government says the decision is part of its "new era of engagement," breaking with the policy of the Bush administration. However, given that states must take into account the human rights record of candidates in the election, a US victory is not asssumed. (TerraViva)

European Parliament Resolution on the Development of the UN Human Rights Council (January 14, 2009)

In this resolution, the European Parliament (EP) criticizes the members of the UN Human Rights Council for limiting the amount of Special Procedures and their independence, which reduces the Council's possibilities to respond to human rights violations. The EP is also concerned that NGO participation does not sufficiently influence the Council's decisions. The EP suggests that the EU should make "effective use" of its development aid and political support to third countries to get support for EU initiatives in the Council.


Human Rights Monitor Series – Human Rights Council, 8th Session Overview (June 2-18, 2008)

The International Service for Human Rights argues that many countries in the Human Rights Council undermine the independence and integrity of the Council by lining up to "commend their allies." Further, the member countries are hindering the participation of human rights NGOs and do not engage in real dialogue.

Open Search Urged for UN Rights Job (June 10, 2008)

An online advocacy group posted an advertisement in the Economist seeking candidates for the position of UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. The group used the advert to highlight the secrecy surrounding the appointment, one of the highest-profile jobs at the UN. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon circulated a letter to UN officials in March 2008, claiming the selection would be an open process, with input from governments and outside organizations. Some UN diplomats, however, are finding it "extremely hard" to discover who is on the selection panel, let alone who is being interviewed for the position. (New York Times)

The Establishment of the Human Rights Council (April 2008)

The UN Human Rights Council, established in March 2006, will investigate the human rights record of all member states every four years through the Universal Periodic Review (UPR). This inter-state mechanism only allows country representatives to question each other. Several NGOs feel that this prevents them from participating actively in the review process. UN officials disagree with this criticism, arguing that NGOs can contribute to the process by providing recommendations as part of country's delegations. (Center for UN Reform Education)

HRC Establishes New Subsidiary Body (January 11, 2008)

On December 13, 2007 the UN Human Rights Council established the "Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples." This subsidiary body replaces the Working Group on Indigenous Peoples and is determined to continue in its footsteps. This report says the new mechanism will give Indigenous Peoples the unprecendented opportunity "to work with states, UN agencies and bodies to address human rights violations." The body will assist the HRC with thematic expertise mainly provided by five independent experts. (International Indian Treaty Council)


UN Rights Chief Urges Council to Begin Country Scrutiny (September 13, 2007)

Since the UN Human Rights Council took over from its predecessor in 2006, little has happened. Many human rights groups complain that the Council is wasting time debating procedural issues, rather than uncovering cases of human rights abuse. An Amnesty International spokesperson suspects some members of the council of obstructing the work because their home countries would be charged with human rights violations. (Associated Press)

US "Moral Authority" on Human Rights Rests on Big Stick (May 4, 2007)

Charging that the Human Rights Council lacks credibility, the US refuses to bid for a seat on the UN body. But observers attribute the decision to Washington's fears of an almost certain defeat in the vote, as many countries regard the US as "self-righteous." In light of constant US efforts to deflect international scrutiny of its own human rights record, the Bush administration has "no legitimate right to sit in judgment over the transgressions of others." (Inter Press Service)

UN Rights Body Shackled by Slick Diplomacy (March 30, 2007)

In this interview with swissinfo, legal expert Andrew Clapham says that since the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) consists of governments, issues on the agenda "will always be politicized." For this reason, Clapham emphasizes the need for the HRC to retain its Special Rapporteurs – a procedure inherited from its predecessor, the Commission on Human Rights. Using such measures, the Council can monitor the human rights situation in different countries with more independence.
A group of countries, led by Cuba, seeks to put an end to the Special Procedures that enable the UN Human Rights Council to conduct independent investigations into alleged rights abuses. NGOs warn that a move to restrain expert UN monitors – and allow governments to "submit their own reports" – could undermine the HRC's credibility. The coalition denounces the HRC's country-specific mandates as "politically-motivated finger-pointing," hinting at the broader criticism that the Council targets "notorious" violators but not powerful countries such as the US. (Reuters)

US Will Not Seek Seat on Rights Body (March 6, 2007)

This Associated Press article reports on the decision by the Bush administration not to put forth the US as a candidate for a seat on the UN Human Rights Council (HRC). Washington claims that its decision is based on the Council's alleged "anti-Israel" bias. However, many members of the US Congress oppose the administration's decision as they see an integral role for the US at the HRC.

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