Rhetorical Inaction? Compliance and the Human Rights Council of the United Nations

By Davies, Mathew | Alternatives: Global, Local, Political, October-December 2010 | Go to article overview
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Rhetorical Inaction? Compliance and the Human Rights Council of the United Nations


Davies, Mathew, Alternatives: Global, Local, Political


The Human Rights Council of the United Nations was inaugurated in 2006 to much acclaim. Promising to defuse the tensions that had overwhelmed its maligned predecessor, the Commission on Human Rights, the council is based on the belief that depoliticizing human-rights discussions would enhance the effectiveness of the United Nations in the realm of human-rights promotion. This article investigates just what type of compliance pressure the council, particularly through its Universal Periodic Review mechanism, has been able to develop over countries through comparing the genesis and workings of the council to existing accounts of how actors influence each other in international politics. It is argued that the reforms instigated by the council may have shifted the system away from the overt politicization previously experienced, but they have certainly not removed totally the role of state politics in rights promotion. As such, they represent conceptually a middle position, identified by Thomas Risse, known as "rhetorical action." Identifying this allows for an analysis of the potential success of the council, as existing accounts of this type of compliance pressure have developed "scope conditions" about what the precursors for successful compliance are. Using these conditions, the article concludes that the council's prospects may not live up to the acclaim that surrounded its creation. KEYWORDS: United Nations, Human Rights Council, Universal Periodic Review, compliance, persuasion, rhetorical action, human rights

The United Nations commitment to advancing human rights has proven perhaps the most contentious of the many goals set for the universal organization. Sitting uneasily alongside parallel commitments to international peace and security and becoming enmeshed in debates over humanitarian intervention, the quest to both protect and promote human rights has for many come to represent a poisoned chalice.

In 1948, the UN vested this interest in the United Nations Commission on Human Rights (the commission), a subsidiary body of the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC). While achieving great success, especially in the expansion of the international legal framework of human rights, the commission was ultimately replaced in 2006 with the Human Rights Council (the council). The founders of the council have sought to diffuse the rising tide of politicization that was choking the commission by instituting a system that is intended to be demonstrably fairer, more inclusive, and to work with, not against, states under review. Particularly important in this reinvigoration is the role of a specific procedural innovation that has no direct precursor within the commission, the Universal Periodic Review (the review).

Much has been written on the genesis and early workings of the council. The intention here is not to replicate such efforts but instead to build upon these empirical enquiries by introducing a conceptual argument about the notion of compliance that will enhance our understanding of how the council, through the review mechanism, is intended to work. This allows two lines of reasoning. First, it helps develop a greater understanding of the nature of the council and review in terms of how they seek to enhance compliance with UN standards; and second, it allows us to develop a base from which to probe the potential success of the review mechanism.

Much academic work has concerned itself with just what promotes successful compliance efforts, what structures are necessary, and what the particular processes involved resemble as actual political acts. Bringing these discussions to the table allows for a critical engagement with the optimism and enthusiasm that has surrounded the genesis of both the council and the review.

To unpack and present these issues, the argument proceeds as follows. First, a recap of the criticisms leveled against the commission. This is important because these criticisms form a window through which to understand why the issue of depoliticization became central to the desired council and review.

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