The Human Rights Council - 5 Years On

By Ramcharan, Bertrand | The World Today, October 2011 | Go to article overview

The Human Rights Council - 5 Years On


Ramcharan, Bertrand, The World Today


The United Nations (UN) has a mission to help maintain international peace and security on the foundations of universal respect for human rights and of equitable economic and social progress for all peoples. The United Nations is a political body and the nature, composition and quality of governance of its membership has influenced its performance in all three areas ever since its establishment in 1945.

iN THE HUMAN RIGHTS SPHERE, THE COMMISSION ON Human Rights, an organ expressly provided for in Article 68 of the Charter and its successor the Human Rights Council, have throughout been buffeted by harsh political winds. When the Commission decided in 1947, with the concurrence of the great powers, that it lacked competence to deal with the thousands of petitions flowing in to it, the then Assistant Secretary-General in charge of human rights, Henri Laugier of France, described its decision as disgraceful.

Notwithstanding its essentially political nature, the Commission helped draft numerous human rights declarations and conventions (including the Universal Declaration, the two International Covenants, and many other such instruments), arranged for landmark global studies to analyse human rights problems, undertook from 1967 onwards an open debate on human rights violations in any part of the world, and established a system of human rights investigators and analysts collectively known as the special procedures whose work represented a veritable annual world report on human rights.

In 2006 the Human Rights Council took over from the Human Rights Commission as an organ reporting directly to the UN General Assembly. Whereas the former Commission met once a year and occasionally in special sessions, the Council meets in three regular sessions annually and in special sessions when a third of its membership requests this (eighteen special sessions held thus far). The basic aim in establishing the Council was that it should provide stronger protection of human rights globally. Has the Council succeeded in the aim of providing stronger protection worldwide? There are different views on this.

Setting new human rights standards is foundation work for the global protection of human rights. Here the Council has been quite successful, continuing the work of its predecessor in preparing several instruments that have been formally adopted by the General Assembly. The record here is one of continuity.

Analysing human rights problems and arranging for factfinding into gross violations of human rights have historically been of great utility. The Council has taken forward the work of the special procedures of its predecessor and has even established new thematic procedures. However, the wind has been blowing against the designation of country investigators; this is contested terrain inside the Council. The resilience and imagination of special procedures mandate holders accounts more for the value rendered by the system of special procedures than the receptivity of members of the Council. The record, here also, is one of continuity.

The processing of petitions alleging gross violations of human rights has been a vexed and vexing issue for the human rights movement ever since the establishment of the UN. A confidential procedure was only established in 1970 and the first country 'situations' of alleged gross violations reached the Commission in 1975. The Council has carried forward a 'Complaints Procedure', based on the procedure operated by its predecessor. Several situations reached the Commission for its attention each year and some eighty country situations were subjected to in-depth scrutiny in the Commission between 1975 and 2005. The procedure was not without its imperfections, but it added value. Nowadays, because of the political dynamics, few situations reach the Council and there has so far not been one situation retained by the Council for in-depth examination. Seasoned watchers consider the Complaints Procedure an abject failure in comparison to what was obtained under the Commission. …

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