Global Policy Studies & International Security

The U.N. Human Rights Council: Politicized or Political?

We are approaching the 5-year anniversary of the creation of the Human Rights Council, a new human rights body within the U.N. intended to correct the shortcomings of its predecessor, the Commission on Human Rights.  This week, an open-ended working group will hold its first session in Geneva to review the work of the Human Rights Council. The second session is in January 2011 and the group will issue a report on its progress in June 2011.

In his March 2005 report “In Larger Freedom,” Secretary-General Kofi Annan asked U.N. member states to replace the Commission on Human Rights with a smaller Human Rights Council.  He said the Commission on Human Rights had been undermined by human rights abusers who sought membership to protect themselves from criticism, and as a result “a credibility deficit has developed, which casts a shadow on the reputation of the United Nations systems as a whole.”

The Commission on Human Rights was criticized for sheltering human rights abusers and for politicizing human rights issues.  Elected members voted on human rights issues based on national interest and voting blocs, rather than on the inherent merits of addressing those situations.  The creation of the Human Rights Council was intended to correct these problems and to restore credibility to the U.N.

Unfortunately, the Human Rights Council has done no better than its predecessor in this respect.  Former Czech president Vaclav Havel complains that “principle has given way to expediency. Governments have…(put) political considerations ahead of human rights. Latin America … allowed Cuba to bid to renew its membership. Asian countries have unconditionally endorsed the five candidates running for their region’s five seats — among them, China and Saudi Arabia.”

However, is it reasonable to expect that an intergovernmental body such as the Human Rights Council can overcome the politicization of human rights issues?   Rather than criticize the council for being politicized, perhaps we should acknowledge that it is inherently political.  The council is a body of sovereign states that represent their national interests.  Members will cast their votes according to own agendas.  Rather than blaming the Council for politicization, countries like the United States should use diplomacy to navigate the political environment.   The United States, for example, could push its allies on the council to take action on dire human rights situations.   Engaging in heightened diplomacy is the best way for the United States to push through action in an atmosphere of political bargaining.

Texas Christian University professor Eric Cox argues that the Council is actually a good reflection of what U.N. member states want in a human rights body.  Many states in the G-77 are afraid of being singled out for human rights abuses, and thus prefer to have a council that is not overly interventionist in human rights situations.  These countries got their way in 2006 when the Commission on Human Rights was opened up for reform.  Paul Gordon Lauren, a U.K. law professor and member of the U.N. Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights, argues that Western countries “shot themselves in the foot” by opening up the Commission for reform because this allowed countries that were hostile to human rights intervention to ensure the new council would remain weak and ineffective.  Western and Latin American countries also lost seats in the new council, while African and Asian members gained a voting majority and therefore agenda-setting power. The voting blocs of the Organization of the Islamic Conference and the Non-Aligned Movement now dominate council politics.

As the General Assembly embarks on its 5-year evaluation of the Human Rights Council, there are several pragmatic recommendations it could make to improve its effectiveness.  Despite the unavoidable constraints of having a political Human Rights Council, these reforms are a feasible way to improve the council operationally.

Some have suggested that the Third Committee of the General Assembly should become the dominant body on country-specific human rights issues.  It is composed of all member states, and it managed to sanction Belarus, Burma, Iran and North Korea for human rights violations when the council did not.  Unfortunately, the Third Committee cannot substitute for the work that a year-round body like the council can accomplish.  Furthermore, the Third Committee is subject to the same political bloc voting as the council.

Human Rights Watch’s recent report “Curing the Selectivity Syndrome: The 2011 Review of the  Human Rights Council” offers many practical suggestions for reform in advance of the 5-year review.  They suggest improvements that could reduce selectivity, make the Universal Periodic Review more effective, improve special procedures, promote transparency and address membership issues.

To avoid selectivity, the council could divide topics for discussion into regional segments to make sure all regions are treated equally.  Under the Universal Periodic Review,   governments should be required to report on the implementation of their commitments after two years.  To improve special procedures, Human Rights Watch recommends that the council create a group of standby experts who are ready to undertake tasks on short notice.  To be more transparent, the council could develop a yearly calendar for resolutions and when they will be negotiated and provide funding for small and developing nations to participate.  Finally, to address membership issues, the council should not allow regions to put forward a pre-determined slate of candidates for election (offering the same number of candidates for election as there are seats).  These and other recommendations are small steps that could make noticeable improvements in the effectiveness and credibility of the council.

Former U.N. Deputy Secretary-General Louise Frechette has commented that “To a certain extent we have sought institutional fixes to problems that are more fundamental and more political … The world is composed of countries that have very different views on human rights.  I think there’s not enough attention paid to building political consensus, and too much on the machinery.” The aforementioned institutional reforms will not be enough to fix what is inherently a political problem.  The future effectiveness of the Human Rights Council depends upon the ability of its members to build political consensus and to garner the will to meaningfully address international human rights issues, even when it conflicts with their political interests.

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