United Nations Human Rights Council: A History

By the end of the twentieth century, the need for an international system to protect basic human rights had become clear to the United Nations. Freedom of expression, in particular, and the rights of women, children, and minorities were becoming part of everyday public discourse.

This was the time when the idea began to flourish that the protection of human life, property, and dignity was not the sole responsibility of any one country or society, but the overall moral responsibility of the United Nations. The UN Commission on Human Rights, established in 1946, had lost its moral credibility, but it seemed as if it did not have the capacity to bring about real change. Thanks to playing into the hands of regional and global powers, the institution had lost the trust of almost all countries.

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Many important human rights issues in relatively small countries were often the target of this incompetence. When Cuba introduced a resolution against war crimes at Guantanamo Bay, United States, thanks to successful US diplomacy few countries came forward to support Cuba, and Cuba eventually had to withdraw the resolution due to non-cooperation. Kenneth Rath of Human Rights Watch acknowledges this bitter truth in these words:

“Governments that violate human rights expect other governments of their tribe to hold them accountable. An example of this is that every year when China lobbies to thwart a resolution against its unrepresentative government, it receives the sympathy of a number of countries in the commission whose governments themselves are in the public interest. Not a spokesman.”

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The main reason for the dissolution of the Human Rights Commission was that it had become a defender of the interests of different regions rather than the protection of human rights. It was thought to be the culmination of liberal politics in the Western world and the communist ideology of some Eastern countries. Capitalist countries would hold the Soviet Union and other communist countries responsible for all human rights violations, while the Soviet Union would hold capitalist countries responsible for the same crime. In 1993, the European Union adopted a common foreign policy that seemed to be a deliberate attempt to prevent member states from going against the EU’s position. Highlighting the decline of the commission, Rath says:

In Geneva, a system was put in place where mafia principles were applied, where silence on human rights violations was considered in the public interest.”Where one criminal ignored the other’s crimes with the belief that in turn, he would be reckless.”

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UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan set up a new council in 2002 in the wake of these apparent failures of the Human Rights Commission. The purpose of this council was to find a better solution after examining the various proposed reforms. The present Charter is based on the recommendations of the report presented by this panel. The report acknowledged that the commission had lost its credibility and failed to protect human rights. Following the report, Kofi Annan acknowledged that the commission’s failure had tarnished the image of the United Nations. It was unanimously decided that the Commission was not fulfilling its purpose and that a new body was needed to protect human rights. The Human Rights Council was established on March 15, 2006, under UN Resolution 60/251, which is a subsidiary body of the UNGeneral Assembly under Article 22.

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The Human Rights Council has 47 members. The term of membership is fixed at three years, no country can be a member of the Council more than twice in a row. All UN member states are divided into five blocs by region. Council members are elected on the basis of proportional representation of these blocks. The Human Rights Council consists of: thirteen countries from Africa and the Asia Pacific, six from Eastern Europe, eight from Latin America, and seven from Western European states. Pakistan has been a member of the Council five times since its inception and our current membership expires in 2023.

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The Council has jurisdiction to investigate allegations of human rights violations against various countries and to advise the General Assembly on a number of other miscellaneous matters. Furthermore, it is the council’s responsibility to work for freedom of expression and to ensure that there is no discrimination against anyone on the basis of religion, caste, creed, or race. Fighting for women’s rights is also one of the council’s core responsibilities. If any member state is found to be violating human rights, the General Assembly can terminate its membership with a two-thirds majority. At the time of the Council’s establishment, a resolution was passed that member states would review the history of human rights protection of these countries before electing new members and ensure that international human rights law is not implemented. None of the perpetrators could become members of the Council. 

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The question that is often debated in academic circles is whether the current council is performing its responsibilities better than the previous commission or whether the change is limited to a name change. A comparative analysis shows that there has been some improvement, but unfortunately, some very important changes have not yet been implemented. Above all, the council’s decisions still do not have the status of formal international law. Demanding a two-thirds majority in the election process was a matter of urgency, but it has yet to materialize.

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One clear improvement, however, is that Resolution 60/251 decided that the performance of all UN member states would be reviewed every five years. Equal application of the law to all countries has significantly reduced allegations of bias and regionalism. Naturally, people have high hopes for an institution that has been set up with the promise of improvement by eliminating a failed institution. However, the Human Rights Council failed to live up to many of these expectations. For the Human Rights Council to be truly effective, it must be made a permanent part of the United Nations and all its resolutions must be legalized.

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This write-up has been contributed by Malik Fahad who is a freelance journalist, columnist, blogger, and veterinarian. He can be reached at @Malik_Fahad333 on Twitter. 

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