United Nations Human Rights Council – Need, Issues, Solutions

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The US is currently having tense relations with the UN bodies; the most recent among them is the UN Human Rights Council after it passed a resolution that condemned discriminatory and violent policing and ordered a report on systemic racism against people of African descent. The Council failed to hold the US accountable for its police’s blatant violation of human rights by not calling for an investigation on Floyd’s death and other similar cases. The US has already left the Council in 2018 after accusing it of its various deficiencies. The lack of strong democratic representation has led to a better representation of authoritarian governments, which have the worst human rights records, to change the narrative of the global human rights norms. Currently, the forum is used by countries like Pakistan as a political tool with no consideration of human rights. Reforms and cooperation, rather than walking out of forums, are necessary steps to address issues like human rights.

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What is UNHRC?

  • The UN Human Rights Council is an intergovernmental body within the UN responsible for strengthening the promotion and protection of human rights around the globe and for addressing the situation of human rights violations and make recommendations on them.
  • The Council is involved in the discussion of all thematic human rights issues and situations that requires its attention throughout the year.

How did UNHRC come to be?

  • In 2006, UNHRC replaced the former UN Commission on Human Rights (UNCHR), the top intergovernmental policymaking body for human rights issues.
  • The UNCHR was set up in 1946 as a subsidiary of the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) with the initial mandate to establish international human rights standards and develop an international bill of rights.
  • The UNCHR played a critical role in developing a comprehensive body of human rights treaties and declarations, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
  • Later, its work was evolved to look into specific human rights violations and complaints, as well as broader human rights issues.
  • The organisation developed a system of special procedures to monitor, analyse and report on country-specific human rights violations and thematic cross-cutting human rights abuses like racial discrimination, religious intolerance and denial of freedom of expression.
  • In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the human rights body lost its credibility following the increased human rights violation by some commission members.

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What is the role of UNHRC?

  • The UNHRC is responsible for universal protection of all human rights and fundamental freedom for all.
  • Its objective is to prevent and oppose human rights violation, including systemic violation and make recommendations regarding these violations.
  • It also aims to promote and coordinate the mainstreaming of human rights within the UN system.
  • As it is a subsidiary of the UN General Assembly, it reports directly to the Assembly’s 193 member states.
  • The organisation is a political body whose decisions are not legally binding. However, in rare instances, the Council’s actions, perspectives and priorities have a political influence on countries’ human rights approach.
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When are the HRC meetings held?

  • The Council holds no fewer than 3 regular sessions a year, for a total of at least 10 weeks.
  • The meetings are held for four weeks in March, for three weeks in June and another three weeks in September.
  • These sessions are conducted in the UN Office in Geneva, Switzerland.

How are UNHRC members selected?

  • The UNHRC has 47 members apportioned by geographic region as follows:
  1. 13 members from African states
  2. 13 members from Asian states
  3. 6 members from Eastern European states
  4. 8 members from Latin American and Caribbean states
  5. 7 members from Western European states and other states
  • Members are elected for a tenure of 3 years and may not hold a Council seat for more than 2 consecutive terms.
  • If a Council member commits “gross and systemic violation of human”, the UNGA may suspend the membership with a two-thirds vote of members present.
  • All UN members are eligible to run for a seat in the UNHRC.
  • The countries are nominated by their regional groups and elected by the UNGA through a secret ballot with an absolute majority.
  • The UNGA takes into account the candidate States’ contribution to the promotion and protection of human rights and their voluntary pledges and commitments in this regard.
  • Also, the HRC has a Bureau of one President and 4 Vice-Presidents, who represent the five regional groups. They serve for one year according to the Council’s annual cycle.
  • The most recent election was held in October 2019 and the next election is scheduled for late 2020.
  • As of January 2020, 117 of 193 UN member countries have served as Council members.

What is the Universal Periodic Review?

  • The Universal Periodic Review (UPR) involves the examination of all UN member states’ fulfilment of human rights obligations and commitments.
  • The review is an intergovernmental process that enables an interactive dialogue between the country that is under review and the UPR working group, which consists of the Council members under the chairmanship of the Council president.
  • Observer states and other stakeholders like the non-governmental organisations may also attend the meetings and present information.
  • The significance of the UPR are as follows:
  1. It provides a forum to bring in the attention to human rights situations in specific countries, which may not have had international attention.
  2. It deals with any cases of non-cooperation with the review.
  3. Some countries have reportedly made commitments based on the outcome of the UPR process.
  4. Its recommendations are used by many NGOs and human rights groups as a political and diplomatic tool for enhancing human rights.

Which is the Permanent Agenda Item of UNHRC?

  • Israel is the only country that is a part of the Council’s permanent agenda.
  • This is the result of the Council’s adoption of a resolution that aims to address the HRC’s working methods.
  • In the resolution, the Council members included the “human rights situation in Palestine and other occupied Arab territories” as a permanent part of the Council’s agenda.
  • This is opposed by many states and Council observers as it focused only on human rights violation by Israel and not the violations by other countries.
  • It covers only one specific regional item without consideration to the range and scope of allegations of human rights violations across the globe.
  • The efforts to address this issue remains unsuccessful.
  • In 2018, Trump Administration cited Israel’s removal from the Council’s permanent agenda as one of the conditions for the US rejoining the UNHRC.

What are the issues plaguing UNHRC?

Bias:

  • One of the foremost of the issues is an excessive and disproportionate emphasis on Israel’s role in human rights violations.
  • Though the Jewish country commits human rights abuses in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, it is unfair as it received more scrutiny than even countries with authoritarian regimes.
  • It received more attention than North Korea and Yemen.
  • This is not just more than each of such countries – but also more than all of them combined.
  • The disproportionate scrutiny undermines the Council’s credibility and diverts resources from other areas that are desperately in need of its assistance.

Usage

  • Some states like China, Pakistan, Cuba and Russia use this forum to justify state-sponsored human rights violations and discrimination by arguing for the need to protect “the family” and the “religion”.
  • There are even instances of countries like China using the organisation to keep an eye on dissidents.
  • In 2013, the UN Human Rights Office was found to be secretly handing over names of Chinese activists to Beijing as they were planning to attend sessions of the human rights council.
  • This has put the families of these activists at risk as they were arrested and tortured by Chinese agents.
  • This is one of the many instances of China using international forums to its advantage.

Members:

  • One of the most often cited criticisms of the Council is the composition of Council membership, which includes countries that are widely perceived as human rights abusers.
  • While the Council suspended Libya’s membership because of serious human rights violation within the country, it failed to address violations by Saudi Arabia, which follows the most notorious of the Sharia laws and indiscriminately bombs Yemen.
  • Just this year, China was appointed to a seat on a Consultative group of the UNHRC, which it would hold until March 2021.
  • The appointment places Beijing on an influential panel that oversees candidate recommendations for the UN human rights experts on the issues of freedom of speech and religion, water and sanitation, housing, food, health, poverty and conditions in countries like Cambodia, Iran, Myanmar and North Korea.
  • This occurred regardless of China’s deliberate violation of the rights of its minority communities and lack of freedom of expression for its people.

Election process:

  • Many view the lack of competitiveness in Council elections as the main reasons behind the high influence of countries indulging in human rights violations.
  • In some elections, countries have run unopposed after regional groups nominated the exact number of countries required to fill Council vacancies.
  • For instance, in 2018, the election of members from all five regional groups went unopposed. In 2019, the election of members from two regional groups ran unopposed
  • This flawed mechanism limits the number of choices and guarantees the election of nominated members regardless of their human rights records.
  • These countries would be free to deflect the attention from their own human rights violation by questioning the records of others through this mechanism.
  • Yet, supporters argue that the Council’s selection process is an improvement over the Commission.
  • They contend that these countries were pressured to not to run or were defeated in Council elections because of the improved membership criteria and process. Libya’s membership suspension in March 2011 is a case in point.
  • The other criticism of the election process in the Council is the lack of transparency in the closed ballot elections in the UNGA.
  • This makes it easier for countries with dubious human rights records to be elected to the Council.
  • Many have called for open ballots in Council elections to make countries publicly accountable for their votes.
  • Some also suggested lowering of the two-thirds votes threshold to make it easier to remove a Council member.

Ineffectiveness of UPR:

  • The Universal Periodic Review (UPR) is criticised for taking the submissions and statements of governments perceived to a human rights abusers at face value rather than being questioned by other governments.
  • Some also argue the current procedure enables countries with the worst human rights records to criticise other countries that have generally positive human rights records.
  • There are also concerns regarding the countries’ rejection of UPR recommendations and non-participation in the UPR process.

The increasing influence of authoritarian governments:

  • There are growing concerns regarding the influence of authoritarian countries that do not fully subscribe to international human rights norms and mechanisms.
  • These countries use the forum to garner support to new interpretations of these norms with a higher emphasis on “non-interference” and sovereignty of the state.
  • These interpretations challenge the idea of human rights as universal and indivisible, suggesting instead that they are context-dependent and that some rights are subordinate to others.
  • China is especially playing a proactive role in attempting to shape global human rights norms and institutions.
  • Resolutions by such member states are often supported by like-minded governments, making the overall purpose of UNHRC flawed.

US’ vacuum:

  • In 2018, the US withdrew from the UNHRC, citing “chronic bias” against Israel and inclusion of human rights abusers for scrutinising other countries.
  • This left the Council without any strong representation for democratic values and human rights.
  • It subsequently allowed China and other such countries to use these opportunities to increase their influence in the UN body.
  • It should also be noted that US President Trump is not a credible leader on human rights.
  • He has become infamous for his response to the refugee crisis, immigration and systemic racism within the US.
  • Yet, his presidency cannot be the only one to be blamed as the country is subject to the issue of racism and protectionism for hundreds of years.
  • The issue of human rights violations by the US is not only an internal matter as it spans across the borders.
  • It is currently being investigated by the International Criminal Court over the allegations of war crimes in Afghanistan.
  • The US’ role in the Yemen war should also not be ignored as its arms sales to Saudi Arabia destroyed the fifth poorest country, Yemen. Yemen is currently faced with the destruction of vital infrastructures like hospitals and deaths and the displacement of thousands of people.
  • Furthermore, for a country advocating for human rights in other countries, it is astounding that the US has never signed UN’s core Convention on the Rights of the Child and Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women treaties.
  • No country or international organisation could question these issues in and outside the US despite it being a democratic country. This situation is no different from the Council’s inability to question countries like China for their human rights violations.

What can be the way forward?

Notwithstanding its flaws, the UNHRC continues to play a critical role in maintaining the international rules-based order. Necessary reforms must be put forth so that it remains significant in the future.

Strengthening UNHRC:

  • All reform initiatives must be weighed against the mandate of the Council, including
  1. 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
  2. Address situations of human rights violations
  3. Promoting effective coordination and the mainstreaming of human rights within the UN system
  • Measures to strengthen the UNHRC’s efficiency should not be separated from efforts to enhance its effectiveness.
  • This requires an approach that focuses on the primary beneficiaries of the Council’s work – rights-holders and victims/survivors of human rights violations.
  • To increase the credibility, the discussions on “strengthening” and “reforming” of the Council should include all key stakeholders at international, regional and national levels.
  • The “reform” here should not include those that would create injustice to civil society – especially national or regional-level NGOs or human rights defenders. It should also not limit their effective participation in the Council.

Credibility:

  • Council’s response to the needs and demands of rights holders at the national and local levels play a critical role in its credibility.
  • The UNHRC’s credibility is currently dented by its election procedures and Council members’ gross and systematic human rights violations during their terms.
  • It should be noted that no state has a perfect human rights record. These states should be encouraged to address their shortcomings through Council participation.
  • To address the issue of human rights abusers becoming Council members, competitive elections can be made prerequisite so that UNGA members can apply the membership criteria when casting their ballot.
  • States should refrain from casting votes in favour of candidates who do not meet the membership criteria.
  • Deeper scrutiny should be ensured for
  1. Candidate countries
  2. Council members’ human rights records throughout their terms
  • Candidates must be selected based on their contribution towards the promotion and protection of human rights and their voluntary pledges thereto.
  • They must also be easily accessible to national-level civil society.
  • A mechanism should also be put in place to recommend necessary actions or reforms the Council Members need to take in order to avoid suspension because of gross human rights violation during the term. The Council member should be immediately suspended if the specified reforms are not undertaken within the said timeframe.

Visibility:

  • For the UNHRC to increase the relevance of rights-holders, it is vital to work towards becoming more visible at the national level, with the consultation of national-level stakeholders.
  • It is also crucial to improve communication among all stakeholders at all levels for better coordination within the UN human rights body.
  • Effective communication involves sharing of key outcomes and messages in a timely and reliable manner to contribute towards implementation and follow-up of Council outputs.
  • “UPR screening” (live viewing of the webcast, accompanied by tweeting and media commentary) is one of the effective ways to bring the Council closer to the ground.
  • UPR screening has been organised by the Office of the UN High Commissioner of Human Rights (OHCHR), national human rights institutions, civil societies and other stakeholders.
  • The Council’s presence in social media should be improved to enhance its visibility.

Accessibility:

  • The effectiveness of the UNHRC can be improved by enhancing accessibility to a broad range of actors, including victims, rights-holders, civil society and human rights defenders.
  • Improved accessibility would enhance the Council’s ability to engage based on timely information on the situation on the ground, including in relation to practical challenges, progress and opportunities.
  • Practical challenges in accessing the UNHRC and its mechanism include lack of awareness, financial barriers and reprisals
  • The financial barriers can be addressed by ensuring the facilitation of remote participation.
  • Council should be made a safe forum for civil society engagement by adopting a zero-tolerance policy on reprisals, harassment and intimidation against persons, groups and organisations cooperating or seeking cooperation with the Council and its mechanisms.
  • In this context, the following steps can be undertaken:
  1. Maintain database on cases of alleged intimidation and reprisals, consulting with victims and regularly updating the Council on action taken and the status of such cases during each session
  2. Create a standard procedure for dealing with unresolved cases of reprisals, with clear timelines and reporting to the Council
  3. Council should take necessary actions to address the issue of persistent violators, particularly where these are Council members.
  • In order to promote greater participation of civil society organisations, they must be provided with funding and technical assistance.
  • States and OHCHR should spread awareness on human rights, the Council’s mandate, value and actions at the national level.
  • Guidelines should be provided to all civil society organisations regarding the engagement with the Council. This would enable them to make their interventions and advocacy at the Council more impactful.

Technical assistance:

  • OHCHR should identify concrete criteria for the provision of technical assistance for the strengthening of human rights.
  • Focal points like Resident Coordinators could be designated for technical assistance from the UN system as a whole, providing support to states to implement Council resolutions and recommendations.
  • The countries should report back on the tangible impacts of technical assistance.

Response to human rights violations

  • Irish Principles, a list of criteria that could be used to identify situations of human rights violation that warrant the attention of the Council, can be adopted for a quick and unbiased response to cases of human rights violations.
  • Regular inter-sessional or pre-sessional briefing by the High Commissioner could contribute to the application of the Irish Principle.
  • The existing mechanisms should be made use of by the Council to address situations as they develop instead of waiting for the situation to escalate.
  • The response mechanism of the UNHRC should be tailored according to particular situations, rather than applying a one-size-fits-all model.
  • The response to violations should be as concrete as possible to enable monitoring of the situation. This can be ensured by setting benchmarks and clear timelines.

Conclusion

With the growing intolerance and increasing political differences among nations, the UNHRC forum is used not to address the issue of human rights as a whole but to just politically attack enemy countries for their human rights violations. This too is of no significance as none of the member countries is held accountable, making the organisation more redundant each day. Yet, necessary reforms through consensus can bring changes that would ensure rights for the whole of humanity.

Practice question for mains

Bring out the reasons behind the deterioration of the UN Human Rights Council’s importance in international politics. How can the issue be addressed? (250 words)

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