Update on Human Rights Council | Samuel Moyn | August 04, 2016


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Update on Human Rights Council

Edited from 2014 Supplement to Louis Henkin et al. Human Rights, 2nd ed. (2009)

... the Human Rights Commission was criticized for electing member states with poor human rights records and for rigid bloc voting practices.  As its successor, the Human Rights Council has faced many of the same criticisms.  The Council has also faced criticism for what some have called an excessive focus on Israel.

Several states and commentators have criticized the Council’s election process.  They claim that “the process of elections by regional group does not allow for competition among member states running for Council seats,” because regional groups tend to nominate only enough states to fill vacancies, with the result that there is no competition among members of the same region.  Luisa Blanchfield, Cong. Research Serv., RL 33608, The United Nations Human Rights Council: Issues for Congress 17 (2011).  Commentators further claim that powerful states, including those with problematic human rights records, are rarely denied seats on the Council.  Lula Ahrens, UN Human Rights Council Faces the Same Criticism as its Predecessor, Radio Netherlands Worldwide, May 21, 2010.  On the other hand, while the Council was criticized for electing notorious human rights abuser Libya in 2010, it was praised for recommending the suspension of Libya one year later in response to the violent repression of dissidents in that country.  Some Backbone at the UN, L.A. Times (Feb. 26, 2011); Cong. Research Serv., supra at 1.  (For a discussion of the crisis in Libya, see Supplement to p.568 of the Casebook, infra.)

Criticisms of bloc voting by Council members have continued as well, with concern focusing on how the practice shields states with poor human rights records from scrutiny.  See Cong. Research Serv., supra at 17; Lauren Vriens, Troubles Plague UN Human Rights Council, Council on Foreign Relations, May 13, 2009.  There is some evidence, however, that the Council may be moving away from bloc voting.  In 2011, for example, the Council voted to appoint a Special Rapporteur to investigate human rights in Iran.  The Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) typically opposes country-specific mandates on principle, but only three of the eighteen OIC member states voted against the appointment.  Patrick Goodenough, Islamic Solidarity Disappears as U.N. Human Rights Council Appoints Investigator for Iran, CNSNews.com, Mar. 25, 2011. 

Governments (especially the United States) and commentators have also criticized the Council for its excessive focus on Israel.  Cong. Research Serv., supra at 17; see also Vriens, supra; Patrick Goodenough, U.N. Human Rights Council Retaining its Bias Against Israel, CNSNews.com, June 17, 2011.  Israel itself has expressed the same complaint:  “The Council’s . . . mandates and ‘fact finding’ missions predetermine Israel’s culpability.  The Human Rights Council has, in fact, passed more resolutions against Israel than all other countries—combined.”  Israel at the United Nations, Permanent Mission of Isr. to the UN.

Notwithstanding these criticisms, commentators recognize that the Council has made some genuine improvements over its predecessor, the Human Rights Commission.  For example, “the most egregious human rights abusers [did not run for] or were defeated in Council elections because of [its] new membership criteria and process.” Cong. Research Serv., supra at 17.  As discussed above, the Council may be moving away from rigid bloc voting.  Furthermore, some see the Universal Periodic Review procedure (as discussed in Supplement to p.439 of the Casebook, infra) as improving the Council’s ability to address human rights concerns.  In addition, the “recent adoption of resolutions and special procedures addressing the human rights situations in Cote d’Ivoire, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Iran, Libya, Myanmar (Burma), and Sudan [are] examples of [the Council’s] ongoing improvement.”  Cong. Research Serv., supra at 18.

… During the Bush administration the United States did not seek a seat on the Human Rights Council.  The Obama administration ran for and was elected to the Council in 2009.  The United States has since played a leading role in several important human rights initiatives, including:

  • the establishment of a special rapporteur on the human rights situation in Iran (discussed in the Supplement to p.438 of the Casebook, supra);
  • a special session on Cote d’Ivoire and the creation of a Commission of Inquiry to investigate human rights abuses in that country;
  • a special session on the human rights situation in Syria at which the Council condemned the use of violence against peaceful protestors by Syrian authorities;
  • a special session on Libya that led to the eventual suspension of Libya’s Council membership (discussed in the Supplement to p.438 of the Casebook, supra);
  • the renewal of the mandate of the independent expert on human rights in the Sudan;
  • a resolution addressing violence and discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity (discussed in the Supplement to p.1211 of the Casebook, infra);
  • the establishment of a working group on discrimination against women; and
  • the creation of a special rapporteur to address freedom of assembly and association.

See Cong. Research Serv., supra at 12–13.  According to a recent report by the Executive Director of Amnesty International USA and the former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for international organizations, the Human Rights Council has “demonstrate[d] a newfound credibility as a human rights watchdog” due “in significant part to vigorous, determined efforts by the United States” after it rejoined the body in 2009.  The report further asserts that “[t]he story of how the United States and others turned around the Human Rights Council . . . offers a case study on effective tactics for achieving U.S. policy goals through multilateral diplomacy and advancing human rights norms at the United Nations.”  Suzanne Nossel, Advancing Human Rights in the UN System, Council on Foreign Relations Working Paper at 1 (May 2012).

The United States’ renewed diplomacy on the Council has not prevented the government from criticizing the Council’s shortcomings, including bloc voting, membership of states with poor human rights records, insufficient leadership from countries with positive human rights records, and excessive criticism of Israel.  See Cong. Research Serv., supra at 17–18. 

The General Assembly resolution that established the Human Rights Council in 2006 called for a review of its work and functioning after five years.  In 2009, the Council created an open-ended working group to address these issues. … Some states, NGOs, and commentators have questioned the effectiveness of the five-year review.  The United States, for example, “felt the review did not sufficiently address the Council’s weaknesses, particularly its focus on Israel and lack of mechanisms for ensuring credible membership.”  Cong. Research Serv., supra at Summary.  A coalition of NGOs agreed, characterizing as “deplorable” the failure “to address the weaknesses in the work and functioning of the Council and the categorical refusal to even consider options that would improve the Council’s performance.”  Human Rights Watch, Review of the Human Rights Council: A Deplorable Lack of Progress, Feb. 9, 2011.

On October 2, 2015, Human Rights Watch and other groups issued a “Joint NGO Statement” at the close of the latest meeting of the Council, which began, “As we close this session, civil society shares a sense of disappointment about the Council's overall failure to effectively fulfil its mandate to address situations of human rights violations, and hold States to account for these violations.” It decried “a growing tendency of giving a clearly outsized role to those States responsible for human rights violations in holding the pen on resolutions. They often do so not with the intention of actually addressing the situation, but with the aim of shielding their own acts and omissions from international scrutiny. Sadly, they are often supported by their allies for the sake of political expediency. This practice undermines the mandate of the Human Rights Council.”


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August 04, 2016

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Samuel Moyn

Harvard Law School

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