State Interests and the Creation and Functioning of the United Nations Human Rights Council

By Eric, Cox | Journal of International Law & International Relations, Summer 2010 | Go to article overview

State Interests and the Creation and Functioning of the United Nations Human Rights Council


Eric, Cox, Journal of International Law & International Relations


I.    INTRODUCTION                        87
II.   EXPLAINING STATE ENGAGEMENT WITH
      HUMAN RIGHTS INSTITUTIONS           89
III.  THE CREATION OF THE HRC             97
IV.   HUMAN RIGHTS COUNCIL OUTCOMES      106
      1. MEMBERSHIP                      107
      2. WORK PRODUCT                    110
      3. UNIVERSAL PERIODIC REVIEW       114
V.    CONCLUSION                         117

I. Introduction

In its final years, the United Nations Commission on Human Rights (CHR) came under increasingly intense criticism from multiple actors. These criticisms were rooted in diverse perspectives on the appropriate role of inter-governmental human rights institutions. Many Western states and nongovernmental organizations, as well as some bodies within the UN system, were dissatisfied for a number of reasons with the capacity of the CHR to aggressively promote state compliance with human rights norms. First, the CHR's membership commonly included states with poor human rights records; the procedure for elections even made it possible for such states to assume leadership positions. As noted by the UN's High-level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change: "standard-setting to reinforce human rights cannot be performed by States that lack a demonstrated commitment to their promotion and protection. We are concerned that in recent years States have sought membership ... not to strengthen human rights but to protect themselves against criticism. ... " (1) Second, the CHR was greatly criticized for a perceived overall inefficiency, exemplified by the low number of sessions held annually, and its inability to call emergency sessions. (2)

On the other hand, the criticisms of many non-Western states were based in perceptions that the work of the CHR was motivated by the political interests of the most powerful. These states were frequently critical of what they saw as overt attempts to politicize the work of the body, and to selectively target states with which powerful UN member states had a disagreement. In particular, many developing states believed that the use of country-specific resolutions served to undermine the standard-setting function of the CHR. (3)

It was out of this context--one of dissatisfaction that was nearly unanimous, yet driven by several fundamentally different perspectives--that a strained compromise was forged, and a new human rights institution created. On 15 March 2006, the UN General Assembly resolved to abolish the CHR, and replace it with a new Human Rights Council (HRC). (4) The 170 states that voted in favour were opposed by a bloc of four members led by the United States. (5) There were three abstentions, and 14 states were nonvoting. (6) The resolution was the result of months of negotiations among the various states that had agreed on little more than the need to reform UN human rights protection.

The structure and behaviour of the HRC is best understood in light of the diverse preferences that informed its creation. Like all human rights regimes, the HRC is an institutional compromise, a product of competition between the preferences of several blocs of states. For the purposes of parsimony, this article makes generalizations about the preferences and characteristics of groups of states; it should be recognized there is no uniformity within a particular bloc with respect to domestic political institutions, norms regarding human rights practice, or UN negotiating positions.

The argument in this article proceeds in three steps. The second section will rely on recent work in the liberal and constructivist literature to build an approach in which state preferences for the structure of human rights regimes are understood as a function of their perceived domestic and international interests.

In the third section, this approach will be used to explain the preferences exhibited by each bloc during the reform process, with respect to their support for the abolition of the CHR, and their specific preferences for the structure of the HRC. …

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