Human Rights Council
The UN Human Rights Council was created by Resolution 60/251 of the UN General Assembly on March 15, 2006. It began its work on June 19, 2006. The Council replaced the discredited UN Commission on Human Rights. (Read more about why the Commission needed reform and the process that led to the creation of the Council.)
To become a member, a country must receive the votes of at least 96 of the 191 states of the UN General Assembly (an absolute majority). In electing Council members, the resolution provides that General Assembly members “shall take into account the candidates’ contribution to the promotion and protection of human rights and their voluntary pledges and commitments made thereto.” An additional consideration should be whether the given candidate country can meet the obligations of Council membership, which include (a) “to uphold the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights” and (b) to “fully cooperate with the Council.”
The Council has 47 seats, divided among the UN’s five regional groups as follows: 13 from the African Group, 13 from the Asian Group, 6 from the Eastern European Group, 8 from the Latin American and Caribbean Group (GRULAC), and 7 from the Western European and Others Group (WEOG). (View a list of the current Council members, by regional grouping and with information relevant to their human rights records.)
The resolution creating the Council gave it the following main responsibilities:
to promote universal respect for the protection of all human rights and fundamental freedoms for all, without distinction of any kind and in a fair and equal manner;
to address situations of violations of human rights, including gross and systematic violations;
to promote effective coordinaton and mainstreaming of human rights within the United Nations system;
to promote human rights education and learning, advisory services, technical assistance, and capacity building;
to serve as a forum for dialogue on thematic issues on all human rights;
to make recommendations to the UN General Assembly for the further development of international law in the field of human rights
to promote the full implementation by UN member states of their human rights obligations and commitments;
to undertake a univeral periodic review of every UN member state’s fulfillment of its human rights obligations and commitments; and
to contribute, through dialogue and cooperation, toward the prevention of human rights violations and respond promptly to human rights emergencies.
The resolution requires that the Council’s work “shall be guided by the principles of universality, impartiality, objectivity and non-selectivity, constructive international dialogue and cooperation with a view to enhance the promotion and protection of all human rights. . . .”
The Council is mandated to meet for at least three regular sessions, totaling at least ten weeks, per year. It also can convene in special session when necessary, upon the request of one-third of its members.
The first Council session of its first year took place from June 19 to 30, 2006. Two special sessions, both on Israel, followed, on July 5-6 and August 11. (Read our Report Card on the first session and our more extensive report, Reform or Regression, on the first session and the two special sessions.)
The Council’s second session met from September 18 to October 6, 2006. A third special session, again on Israel, was held on November 15. (Read our Report Card on the second regular and third special sessions.)
The Council’s second session resumed on November 27-28, 2006 Its third session followed immediately, meeting from November 29 to December 8. A fourth special session, on Darfur, was held on December 12. The Council’s fourth session met from March 12 to 30, 2007. (Read our May 2007 report, Dawn of a New Era?, evaluating the Council’s performance in its first four regular sessions and the four special sessions.)
Our reports of the subsequent sessions can be found at unwatch.org.
The Human Rights Council was touted as a major improvement over its predecessor, the Commission on Human Rights, which had been discredited by its poor membership and performance. In recent years, the Commission included some of the world’s worst human rights violators, and was known for its obsessive and unbalanced condemnation of one country—Israel. (Read more about the Commission’s anti-Israel bias.) Even UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan recognized, in 2005, that the Commission’s “credibility deficit” was “cast[ing] a shadow on the reputation of the United Nations system as a whole.”
The election requirement was an attempt to improve the membership, which previously only required nomination by a county’s regional group. However, although some abuser states chose not to run and several who did run were not elected, the first Council included nine countries ranked Not Free by the Freedom House survey of political rights and civil liberties. Four of these nine, moreover, were among Freedom House’s “Worst of the Worst” regimes. These four — China, Cuba, Russia, and Saudi Arabia — also are among five countries that UN Watch identified, before the May 9, 2006 election, as particular threats to the Council’s legitimacy. (Read our pre-election report.) Sadly, all four received well over the 96-vote threshold that was supposed to prevent violators from winning membership. (Read our evaluation of the human rights records of all 47 Council members.)
In an attempt to improve performance, the resolution creating the Council requires it to base its work on “the principles of universality, impartiality, objectivity, and non-selectivity.” It is supposed to promote and protect human rights “without distinction of any kind and in a fair and equal manner.”
The Council’s first few years have gone from bad to worse, showing even more selectivity and politicization than that which marred the Commission. The 47-nation body has condemned Israel in 80% of its country censures, in 20 of 25 resolutions. The other 5 texts criticized North Korea once, and Myanmar four times. The Council has ignored the UN’s other 189 countries, including the world’s worst abusers. While Darfur was addressed several times, these resolutions were non-condemnatory, often praising Sudan for “cooperation.”
In June 2007, dominated by repressive regimes, the Council eliminated its monitors of abuses in Belarus and Cuba. Then it sacked its expert team on Darfur. Next it cut its expert on violations in Congo (DRC). Liberia was next. Slated for elimination in March 2009 is the expert on Sudan.
In 2008, the Islamic-controlled council overturned the mandate on freedom of expression, so that now the expert investigator is required to report individuals who use “abuse” this freedom, i.e., those who dare say something deemed offensive to Islamic sensitivities.
The universal periodic review (UPR) mechanism, designed to review all 192 UN members states over four years, was supposed to “ensure universality of coverage and equal treatment of all Member States.” Many defenders of the Council have invoked the UPR as its saving grace. In practice, while the concept has merit and the institution has potential, thus far UPR has proven a largely toothless exercise, with repressive regimes praising one another. Most democratic states, moreover, have failed to pose meaningful challenges during the peer review process.
See our Reports section for the latest in-depth analysis of the Council.