Reforming Human Rights: Challenges Facing New Human Rights Council

Harvard International Review, Winter 2008 | Go to article overview

Reforming Human Rights: Challenges Facing New Human Rights Council


BLAISE GODET is the current head of the Permanent Mission of Switzerland to the United Nations Office in Geneva. He served as vice president of the UN Human Rights Council from its inception in 2006 to the summer of 2007.

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The United Nations has several bodies that address the issue of human rights either directly or indirectly. What is the role of the Human Rights Council within this bureaucratic structure?

It is vital that UN bodies deal one way or another with human rights, since this is an issue that affects practically every activity undertaken by the UN. You cannot, for instance, devise development projects without taking into account human rights. In this context, Switzerland has consistently supported efforts to "mainstream" human rights within the UN system and always tries to ensure that UN agencies apply a human rights-based approach to their activities.

Human Rights Council (HRC) is the main UN body dealing with human rights, and it does so exclusively. The Council is responsible for the promotion and the protection of human rights. It is the body that addresses situations of violations (including gross and systematic ones) of human rights. The HRC also has the responsibility to promote the mainstreaming of human rights within the UN system. It is composed of 47 governments that meet regularly throughout the year to discuss the state of human rights and has the unique ability to convene for special sessions whenever one-third of the membership deems it necessary.

The now-defunct Human Rights Commission was criticized for selecting states with poor human rights records as members. How does the newly formed Human Rights Council propose to overcome this criticism?

In order to overcome the criticisms concerning membership, the resolution establishing the Human Rights Commission foresees several mechanisms that will contribute to a better selection of members who uphold the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights. First, members must fully cooperate with the Council and be reviewed under the Universal Periodic Review and candidates have to make pledges and voluntary commitments in advance of the elections, a completely new feature of the HRC. These pledges and voluntary commitments shall be assessed by UN Member States when electing the members of the HRC. In order to be elected, states need 97 votes of the General Assembly, as opposed to a mere majority of the Member States present. Lastly, members of the HRC can also be suspended by the General Assembly if they commit gross and systematic violations of human rights.

How does the election of such countries as China, Pakistan, and Cuba conform to the requirement of upholding "the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights"?

Each of these countries made voluntary pledges before it was elected, and each will be reviewed under the Universal Periodic Review in the coming years. This will be an opportunity for the Council to assess each state's human rights situation and whether it has upheld the commitments made. Quite frankly, it is a good thing that the Council is composed of countries whose obligations toward the implementation of human rights varies. It is through cooperation within the Council that countries can be helped to advance in the execution of their obligations. Moreover, none of the countries sitting currently on the Council have a perfect human rights record, including my own country.

What is the impact of the US' refusal to seek a spot on the Council?

In our opinion, US membership in the Council would have been greatly beneficial. The power and the influence of the United States would be a valuable asset to counterbalance the influence of powerful regional groups such as the Organisation of the Islamic Council (OIC). Having said that, the US delegation has been engaged as an observer and is actively participating in the work of the Council. …

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