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Troubles Plague UN Human Rights Council

Author: Lauren Vriens
Updated: May 13, 2009
This publication is now archived.

Introduction

Despite a high-profile effort to reform the world's top human rights panel, the new UN Human Rights Council continues to face the same criticisms that plagued its predecessor, the Commission on Human Rights. Experts say bloc voting, loose membership standards, and bias against Israel are keeping the two-year-old council from living up to expectations as a responsible watchdog over global human rights norms. It is earning a failing grade from a broad range of groups, including human rights advocates, international law experts, and democracy activists. Experts say the council's condemnation of the human rights situations in Darfur, Myanmar, and the Democratic Republic of Congo are steps in the right direction, and there is also a broad expectation that a new U.S. administration in Washington could change the contentious relationship between the council and the United States, which is not a member. But in a year during which the world body marked the sixtieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, many see the new rights council as a stain on the UN's reputation.

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The Creation of the Human Rights Council

The Human Rights Council emerged from a reform process initiated by then-Secretary-General Kofi Annan in March 2006 to monitor violations of human rights and encourage their protection. The council is the successor of the Commission on Human Rights, which had become widely discredited for allowing states with questionable human rights records to gain membership and avoid scrutiny. By an almost unanimous vote--the United States, Israel, Palau, and the Marshall Islands were the sole dissenters--the General Assembly overhauled the commission to create the council. The new council was designed to serve as an arena for members to address ongoing abuses and for nongovernmental organizations to voice concerns or to lobby states to take action. While the body has no enforcement power, it makes recommendations to the UN General Assembly and can spotlight human rights abusers.

Several structural changes were made, including:

  • Membership. While the commission had fifty-three members, the council has only forty-seven. The UN's five regional groups are each allotted a set number of seats, which differs slightly from the allotment of seats in the commission. During the negotiations to create the council, the United States argued to decrease the membership size based on the theory that smaller UN bodies are more effective, says Jeffrey Laurenti, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation. Negotiations ended with a reduction in the number of Western seats, a decrease from ten to seven. Members are elected by an absolute majority vote in the General Assembly and are limited to two consecutive terms, each lasting three years. Members in the commission were chosen by the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) to serve an unlimited number of three-year terms. Many experts say that membership standards still aren't strict, though members must now explicitly pledge to uphold human rights standards, as well as undergo periodic reviews of their performance in upholding such freedoms. Nevertheless, the council's defeat of Belarus's bid for membership in 2007 signifies the tougher membership criteria is more than window dressing, says Lawrence H. Moss, special counsel for Human Rights Watch. In addition, a two-thirds majority vote by the UN General Assembly can suspend a council member for committing "gross and systematic" human rights violations.
  • Special Procedures. Special procedures refer to mandates of special rapporteurs or working groups to monitor country-specific or thematic rights violations, such as the human rights situation in Myanmar or extrajudicial executions the world over. As a part of the transition from the old commission to the new council structure, all thematic mandates have been renewed and a few have been added, like the mandate on access to safe drinking water. Country-specific mandates are one of the most effective tools of the council, says Paula Schriefer, director of advocacy at Freedom House, a U.S.-based nonprofit research institute. However, the numbers of country-specific mandates are declining as countries increasingly call for their abolition. Allegations of bias and heavy politicization are frequent critiques, with many states saying they unfairly target developing countries.
  • Special Rapporteurs. Individuals that monitor and report on specific mandates through visits and discussions with local organizations are known as special rapporteurs. Cuba and Belarus's mandates were discontinued in 2007 amidst critiques by states that each country's special rapporteur's report was overblown and at times incorrect. The representative for the Russian Federation said the report on Belarus was written "at the behest of political demands," while the representative from Cuba called its report, "a true program for regime change." Although outvoted, representatives from the Western bloc stated ongoing human rights violations and the states' noncooperation as reasons to extend the mandates. As a result of the battle over Cuba and Belarus's mandates, a Code of Conduct (PDF) for special rapporteurs was created that emphasized the "centrality of the notions of impartiality and objectivity." While seemingly benign, the Code of Conduct further restricts the rapporteur, a position that has been historically underfunded and unpopular, says Freedom House's Schriefer.
  • Universal Periodic Review. One of the most significant breaks from the structure of the old commission is the Universal Periodic Review (UPR), experts say. All UN member states must undergo a threefold assessment of their compliance with human rights obligations. The assessment consists of a self-evaluation by the country under review, a report by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) on any applicable treaties and domestic laws, and a compilation of observations from nongovernmental organizations and concerned states. Countries with poor human rights records can easily ignore the recommendations that come out of UPR, says Schriefer, and a bigger role for experts would strengthen the process. The effectiveness of the UPR remains to be seen and reviews of big players like China and Russia will be good tests, experts say.
Criticisms of the Human Rights Council

Reforms notwithstanding, experts on human rights continue to lament the tendency of council members to vote in blocs rather than address each issue individually. During the 2007-2008 cycle, for instance, the African group was particularly prone to voting as a bloc (PDF), says a report by the Democracy Coalition Project. Other blocs include the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) and the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), which experts say tend to regard economic and security ties as more important than chastising a country for its human rights abuses. As a result, "Democracies do not always practice what they preach," says Moss of Human Rights Watch.

"Washington's hands-off approach to the Human Rights Council undermined it from the start." -- Juliette de Rivero, Advocacy Director, Human Rights Watch

One of the chief U.S. critiques of the council is its disproportionate focus on Israel. "[The council is] continuing a pattern that does nothing to advance the goal of a peaceful, negotiated, two-state solution to this conflict," said the U.S. ambassador to the UN's Geneva office, Warren W. Tichenor, in April 2008. Most of the single-country resolutions passed and four out of six special sessions called since 2006 have been to reprimand Israel for its treatment of Palestinians. The UN's special rapporteur on human rights in the Palestinian territories, Richard Falk, says Israel merits close scrutiny of its rights record, but he adds in a June 2008 interview with The Nation: "Limitations of resources, geopolitical pressures and blind spots help explain why some other situations involving serious human rights abuse are not addressed with comparable seriousness."

During the seventh session in 2008, debate over the renewal of the mandate of the special rapporteur on freedom of expression sparked further controversy. Citing inflammatory caricatures and documentaries about Islam, the Organization of the Islamic Conference proposed an amendment in which religious discrimination would not be protected by freedom of expression. Despite fears from the Western bloc that this limits free speech, the mandate passed with the amendment. The debate highlights the difficulties a universal body faces with setting universal values.

The United States and the Council

While negotiations over its reforms were ongoing, former U.S. Ambassador to the UN John R. Bolton said the council was at best, "marginally better than the old body." To show disapproval of the council, the United States made a symbolic reduction in its 2008 payment of dues to the UN to reflect the imagined share that goes to funding the council. In June 2008, in another display of opposition, the United States withdrew the observer status it had maintained in the council. The criticism that has the most traction in Washington is the council's consistently critical voice toward Israeli actions, says Laurenti from the Century Foundation. The Organization of the Islamic Conference is often the sponsor of resolutions condemning Israel; other countries in the developing world tend to go along, resulting in a substantial majority on the issue. The United States also disapproves of the membership standards of the council. Freedom House has determined that three of the Council's members--China, Cuba, and Saudi Arabia--are among the world's most repressive countries. Another five--Russia, Pakistan, Egypt, Bahrain, and Azerbaijan--are considered "Not Free."

Country-specific mandates are one of the most effective tools of the council. However, the numbers of country-specific mandates are declining as countries increasingly call for their abolition. --Paula Schriefer, Freedom House

The criticism goes both ways, however. "Washington's hands-off approach to the Human Rights Council undermined it from the start," says Juliette de Rivero, Geneva advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. Moreover, the United States has received flack for its handling of terrorist suspects in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay from Human Rights Watch and other rights advocacy groups. Under George W. Bush's presidency, the United States has refused to run for council membership.

While some experts say the United States would lend legitimacy to the council by becoming a member, others say it would have little effect. The Obama administration revived U.S. observer status at a meeting of the council in March 2009 and the UN General Assembly voted overwhelmingly in favor of full U.S. membership to the council (CSMonitor) for a three-year term in May. President Barack Obama has said the United States needs to rededicate itself to the council in the hopes of tackling problems like genocide in Darfur and human rights abuses in Zimbabwe. "Obama changes the landscape dramatically, especially if he takes swift action on Guantanamo and accountability for torture," says Laurenti.

The Decision to Replace the Human Rights Commission

The Human Rights Commission came into force sixty years ago to implement the provisions of the UN's groundbreaking Universal Declaration on Human Rights. After decades of complaints from Western nations during the Cold War, and from other states targeted by the Human Rights Commission for their behavior, the commission was scrapped by an overwhelming vote of the General Assembly. In a report from September 2005, former Secretary-General Annan said the 53-member commission had been undermined by "declining credibility and professionalism" due to a practice in which autocratic states banded together to block scrutiny of their records. China regularly defeated efforts to discuss its record. Critics noted that Libya--widely criticized for its poor human rights record--chaired the commission at one point and that, in the spring of 2004, the commission declined to take tough action against Sudan despite reports of rampant abuses in Darfur. Sudan was elected to the commission soon after that session. The United States, in particular, pushed for the overhaul of the commission.

A high-level UN human rights body first met in 1946 to establish legal norms on protecting fundamental rights and freedoms worldwide. It developed into a forum where states and NGOs could voice their concerns on the behavior of states toward rights issues. Many rights experts say the United Nations was important in establishing universal standards. Since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights passed in 1948, the UN has passed other major treaties such as the Convention against Torture and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. While the council's efforts to protect human rights can be undermined by political alliances, it has been applauded for condemning the human rights situations in Darfur, Myanmar, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. For the council to reach its potential in addressing the world's most pressing human rights violations, democratic members need to invest more political will, says Schriefer.

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