UN Human Rights Council: One Year’s Record, Lights and Shadows

The United Nations Human Rights Council has just finished at the end of June 2007 its first year as the new human rights framework. The Council replaced the UN Commission on Human Rights, which was a subsidiary body of the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC). When the UN Charter was being drafted in the early months of 1945, no one expected that human rights would come to play such a large role in the UN’s work. The Nazi death camps had not yet been opened nor the A-Bomb dropped on Hiroshima – the two crimes against which human rights efforts will always be judged.

The UN Charter signed at San Francisco was structured around three key bodies: the General Assembly, the Security Council, and the Economic and Social Council. Every activity, largely carryovers from the League of Nations days, which did not have an obvious place elsewhere, was put as a subsidiary body of ECOSOC: women, statistics, narcotics, population, human rights etc. Each resolution passed in a subsidiary body had to be presented and potentially debated in ECOSOC before being sent on to a committee of the General Assembly. This procedure allowed governments which had failed to prevent a resolution in the Commission on Human Rights to gather support to bloc the resolution in ECOSOC or to delay it by sending it back for further study in the Commission on Human Rights. The need to have a resolution debated in ECOSOC could delay a Commission on Human Rights resolution for six months – a fatal delay in some cases of pressing matters.

By resolution A/60/251 of the General Assembly, the Human Rights Council was created: in the UN it is on a par with the now unused Trusteeship Council. Thus resolutions move directly from the Human Rights Council to the General Assembly. Governments have also learned how to bloc human rights resolutions in the General Assembly, but, at least, the new procedure has cut out one step whose function was, in practice, to slow things down.

The Council’s membership was cut from 53 in the Commission to 47 in the Council. Each state serves for a three-year term, renewable once. Although regional blocs are not designated in the UN Charter, their use has developed in UN practice, each bloc making its own choice of candidates. In the case of the Council, the 47 are distributed as follows among the regional groups: African states, 13; Asian states (which includes the Arab countries), 13; Eastern European states, 6; Latin American and Caribbean states, 8; Western European and other states (other means, USA, Canada, New Zealand, Australia and depending on the case, Israel), 7.

All other UN member states can attend the Council sessions but not vote on resolutions. They can, however, be co-sponsors of a resolution presented by Council members. There are two non-member states which attend as observers – Palestine and the Vatican (Holy See), both of which play active roles. In addition to states, there are UN Specialized Agencies or programs such as the ILO, UNESCO and the Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees which play active roles on certain issues, giving information and discussing with government representatives.

The representatives of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have been very active in the UN human rights bodies. NGO representatives can be grouped for analysis into three categories: single issue or single country (Kashmir, Burma, Nepal, Central America, Palestine, indigenous peoples); country specific but with a range of countries (Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch etc); broad issue NGOs (women, children, religious liberty, torture). Some NGO representatives cooperate together to push a set of issues. The most effective at cooperation have been the women’s NGOs who have worked hard to raise the profile of issues concerning women. There was also a good deal of cooperation to get certain types of violation to center stage such as torture or arbitrary detention. Those representatives working on the violations in a single country try to get other NGOs interested. Thus NGOs will often sign a common petition or make joint statements. However, government representatives quickly find who is taking the lead against them and work hard to undermine the NGO representative. The NGO representatives organize informal briefings in other UN meeting rooms where they inform or update other NGOs as to what has been going on. Government representatives are welcome to attend the briefings but few do.

In practice, but not in theory, there is only a limited amount of energy and attention available. Once this energy is used up, everything else is done on automatic pilot. Resolutions are passed unchanged from one year to the next, and one can sense by the amount of private conversations going on in the room if a topic has energy behind it or not. Some years the amount of energy available will be used up in totally futile discussions. For three years running, speeches and counter-speeches of India and Pakistan on Kashmir used up all the energy with no proposition or better understanding coming out. Other years, the US attack on Cuba’s human rights record and the multiform Cuban defense used up all the energy, again with little modification of the situation on the ground.

This year, the Human Rights Council’s available energy was used on the Israel-Lebanon war and to a lesser extent Israeli actions against the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. The second focus of energy was Darfur, Sudan. In both cases, the Council did a good job within the limits of the tools they have. Obviously, the Middle East and Sudanese issues cannot be solved by the Human Rights Council alone.

There has been some criticism from people that other, serious human rights issues are not addressed. But such criticisms do not come from those who have long followed the Commission on Human Rights. There have always been selections on which states are addressed. As one of the NGO leaders working on Burma, we "won" on Burma because governments needed to call attention to human rights violations in one Asian country, and China, the other country on which some of us were working, had too many friends or clients. But China was too busy defending itself to give time and resources to defending Burma. Thus a Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Burma was named. There has never been a resolution on China passed in the Commission.

Basically, the issues on which the Commission and now the Council work are real issues. They are not, however, all the issues that merit attention. The weakness of the Council should provoke greater cooperation among NGOs. The UN is a reflection of the world in which we live. Its ideals provide guidelines and its institutions a framework for action. The government representatives, the UN secretariat and the NGO representatives represent a cross section of humanity, neither all good nor all evil. The victories for human rights are small, but they are real.

Rene Wadlow is the Editor of www.transnational-persdpectives.org and an NGO representative to the United Nations, Geneva.