The U.N. Human Rights Council was created in 2006 by the U.N. General Assembly. It is “responsible for promoting universal respect for the protection of all human rights and fundamental freedoms for all, without distinction of any kind and in a fair and equal manner.” To that end, it is also responsible for addressing “situations of violations of human rights, including gross and systematic violations” and making “recommendations on them.” The Council is guided by “the principles of universality, impartiality, objectivity and non-selectivity, constructive international dialogue and cooperation, with a view to enhancing the promotion and protection of all human rights, civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights, including the right to development.”
To fulfill its mission, the Council has adopted at least four procedures or mechanisms.
One set of procedures is known as “Special Procedures,” which include special rapporteurs, special representatives, independent experts and working groups that monitor, examine, advise and publicly report on thematic issues or human rights situations in specific countries. One example is the Special Rapporteur on the Independence of Judges and Lawyers that was discussed in a prior post.
Another is a Complaint Procedure, which allow individuals and organizations to bring human rights violations to the attention of the Council.
Yet another is the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) mechanism which serves to assess the human rights situations in all 193 U.N. members. (The UPR process will be reviewed in a subsequent post about the Council’s UPR of the U.S.)
The Council also has established an Advisory Committee, which serves as the Council’s “think tank” providing it with expertise and advice on thematic human rights issues. In February 2012 this Committee adopted recommendations to the Council regarding (1) the rights of peasants, (2) the right to food, (3) human rights and international solidarity, (4) the right of peoples to peace, (5) terrorist hostage-taking, (6) promotion of human rights and fundamental freedoms through traditional values of humankind, and (7) enhancement of international cooperation in the field of human rights.
In May 2011, pursuant to the General Assembly resolution establishing the Council, a special working group reported on its review of the Council’s first five years. The report made modest proposed changes to the Council’s procedures and mechanisms. The U.S. expressed its disappointment in the report, with the U.S. stating the report resulted from “a process designed to be a race to the bottom.” According to the U.S., there needed to be “greater scrutiny of the human rights record of countries that offer themselves for election to the Council” and enhancement of the Council’s ability to take on country situations in a variety of formats, not limited to resolutions. Moreover, said the U.S., the Council’s most egregious flaw was its criticism of only one country, Israel.
The Council, whose office and meetings are in Geneva, Switzerland, has 47 member states that are chosen from U.N. member states for three-year terms by the U.N. General Assembly. (From 2006 through 2008 the U.S. in the George W. Bush Administration did not participate in the Council’s activities. Since then, however, the Obama Administration has done so, and the U.S. was elected to the Council in 2009 for a term ending at the end of 2012.)
The Council replaced the U.N. Commission on Human Rights that was established by the U.N. Economic and Social Council in 1946. The Commission’s first major task, under the Chairmanship of Eleanor Roosevelt, was the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that was adopted by the U.N. General Assembly in 1948. During its first 20 years the Commission focused on establishing international human rights standards in various multilateral treaties. The Commission eventually had similar responsibilities and functions as the Council, but became subject to severe criticism for being too friendly with regimes that were violators of human rights.