The United Nations Human Rights Council International Law Essay

The core of the United Nations (UN) 2006 policy reform was the establishment of a new human rights body. The United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC or Council) was created by UN General Assembly Resolution 60/251 of 3 April 2006. It came into existence to replace the much discredited UN Commission of Human Rights (UNCHR or Commission) and “to preserve and build on its achievements and to redress its shortcomings" [1] . The establishment of the UNHRC was met with enthusiasm, from both Non Governmental Organizations (NGOs) and the majority of state delegations. However, it is unclear if the creation of the UNHRC is a real step forward in the protection and promotion of human rights. The following research paper will attempt to answer this question by adopting a two way approach. Firstly, the main institutional reforms that the UNHRC is introducing to the UN human rights machinery will be addressed and analyzed to identify whether it provides for better results. Secondly, some of the work carried out by the UNHRC will be taken into account in order to evaluate the practical performance of the institution. Finally, a statement based on the findings of the above analyses will be presented.

Institutional reforms

Status of UNHRC

The UNHRC was created as a subsidiary of the General Assembly [2] , as opposed to the Commission, which was a subsidiary of the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC). Protection of human rights is thus de facto promoted to one of the pillars of the UN, together with peace, security and development, stressing the realization that the four are fundamentally interdependent. This acknowledgement of the importance of human rights is in itself a step ahead, since all UN members that supported resolution (170 out of 192 votes [3] ) will have difficulties ignoring the new institution. The increased authority of the main UN human rights body will give it more weigh in promotion and protection of human rights worldwide. Moreover, the working aspects of the Commission, such as the Special Procedures and NGO participation will be retained [4] .

However, there were some problems. The United States and Israel were among the important actors that voted no to the resolution (even though they promised cooperate with the UNHRC [5] ), thus expressing their doubts about the new body. Furthermore, the US announced that, for the first time in sixty years, it would not seek a seat on the human rights body [6] .

Composition

It was decided that the UNHRC will be an intergovernmental body with forty seven members, six less than the Commission. The allocation of seats responds to equitable geographic distribution criteria. Members are elected for three years by an absolute majority of the General Assembly (96 out of 192 votes) through secret balloting [7] . The process of electing members is significantly improved since there threshold is significantly higher compare to that of the Commission (26 out of 52 votes from ECOSOC). Even though this does not guarantee that only states with respectable human records will be elected, the chance is better when more states are involved in the voting. Moreover, the secret ballot allows states to vote honestly and without fear they might offend trading partners or allies. The option for evicting violators from the Council is also introduced – it requires two thirds majority of the General Assembly [8] .

With the new number and allocation of seats, however, there is one potential problem – the African and Asian group have an absolute majority [9] , provided they decide to work together and manipulate the agenda and resolution adoption. Since the bulk of oppressive governments are located in Asia and Africa, this majority might be utilized to prevent the adoption of some resolutions. Another possible issue is the fact that it remains much more difficult to oust a violator than to elect one [10] .

Membership criteria

New membership criteria is also adopted. Very briefly it can be summarized as: “members elected to the Council shall uphold the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights" [11] . Even though is rather vague, considering the fact that the Commission did not have this feature at all, it can be considered as a significant improvement, combined with the new election procedure.

However, criticism has already has been expressed over the ambiguity of the criteria. Another potential issue is the fact that after two terms states are not eligible anymore, so there might be a deficit of well-suited candidates after countries with respectable human rights records have already served their permissible two terms.

Universal Periodic review

Another new mechanism, created to amend the alleged selectivity of the Commission is the Universal Periodic Review (UPR). Under the Universal periodical review states will be reviewed for their human rights obligations and commitments “in a manner which ensures universality of coverage and equal treatment with respect to all States" [12] . Under the UPR all member states will be reviewed, including the members of the UNHRC, which will be evaluated during their term in office. The procedure by which each state is evaluated will not be looked at in detail. However, one important factor should be mentioned: independent human rights experts and groups, as well as NGOs are allowed to contribute to the process [13] .

The adoption of UPR can be seen as a significant improvement, since it guarantees that no state will escape scrutiny, no matter if it is a member of the Council or not. Moreover, the participation of independent experts and groups brings about the impartiality of the review. However, there is one aspect of the UPR which is not elaborated well enough – the fact that the same time is dedicated to both notorious violators and countries with good human rights record is inequitable.

Frequency of meetings

Major amendment is also the extension of meeting sessions from one, for the Commission, to at least three for the Council, and from six to no less than ten weeks respectively. In addition, special sessions can be held by the Council provided one third of its members supports the proposition [14] . This is clearly a positive development, since the Council will have more time on its hands to address human rights violations, and if necessary to respond timely in the event of a crisis.

In general, the institutional reforms that UNHRC introduces in the field of human rights, although containing some potential flaws can be considered a significant step ahead from the practices of the Commission. However, the practical work carried out by the Council is even more important in determining its success.

Performance of the UNHRC

This section does not deny the valuable work carried out by the Council; more, it tries to identify if it managed to amend the flawed practices of the UNCHR. Even though the creation of the new body was met with great expectations, it has shown some disturbing practices such as selectivity, questionable human rights record of members and failure to address gross human rights violation.

Membership of the Council, as outlined in the resolution establishing the body, should be characterized by high standards in human rights records. However, the current membership of the council involves some well known violators such as Pakistan, China and Saudi Arabia to name a few [15] . Furthermore, a research carried out by the Geneva based NGO UN Watch found out that only seven out of the fourteen candidates (running for fourteen seats) for the period 2007 – 2010 only four are well qualified, while the others are either questionable or not qualified. From the twenty candidates for the period 2008 - 2011 (fifteen to be elected) twelve are qualified according to UN Watch. And from the twenty candidates (eighteen to be elected) for the period 2009 – 2012 only seven are considered qualified [16] . The conclusion is that event though membership criteria and improved voting have been introduced, violators of human rights still manage to find a seat in the Council.

Another problem that seems to persist is selectivity. The UNHRC has condemned some violators while omitting to even mention others. The most striking example is Israel – subject of 27 out of 33 or 80% of all condemnatory resolutions [17] . Neither mentioned any Palestinian militant groups. The disproportionate focus on Israel was condemned by many states including the US and the EU countries. In contrast to the focus on Israel, some pressing issues were completely disregarded. One such instance is the failure of the Council to address the brutal handling of Iranian protestors in Teheran [18] . Other violators such as Sudan and Sri Lanka have been commended on their progress in human rights protection, even though Sudan refused to grant visas of an UNHRC fact finding mission sent to investigate the Darfur crisis [19] . These are only a few instances in which the Council did not react, other examples are China’s censorship, US practices in the Guantanamo Bay and Abu Gharib prisons and other.

Despite some of the valuable work of the Council, it is showing a concerning trend of taking the same biased and politicized decisions as its predecessor. Unless there is enough political will for change, the UNHRC might follow the steps of the Commission.

Conclusion

The creation of the UN Human Rights Council is undoubtedly an improvement in UN human rights policy, especially in institutional terms. The UNHRC has more authority, better membership criteria and fairer and more representative election procedure. The Council has a brand new mechanism of evaluating human rights records of all UN members and is allocated more meeting time. However, its work has not been as controversy-free. It has shown the same trend towards disregarding some issue while focusing excessively on others and harboring violators among its members. Institutional changes are a good start, but definitely not enough when there is no political will to use the new mechanisms.