Friday, 24 November 2017

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UN Human Rights Council Celebrates 10-year Anniversary

Annan Ban

15.03.2016 – On 15 March 2006, the UN Human Rights Council was inaugurated by the UN General Assembly.

The Council was created in replacement of the UN Commission on Human Rights, hoping to offset the Commission’s limitations and take steps forward in protecting human rights worldwide.

With the Council celebrating ten years in existence, we refelect upon whether the Human Rights Council has fulfilled its ambitions. 

History of the Council

The United Nations Human Rights Council was preceded by the UN Commission on Human Rights which was established in 1946 as a mechanism and forum for the promotion and protection of human rights. However, by the time the Human Rights Council was created under the leadership of former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan in 2006, the Commission had become highly discredited and politicized.

Annan declared that the body “[had] been increasingly undermined by its declining credibility and professionalism." 

The Commission had been an arena for political confrontation among states, hence there was an urgent need for impartiality to restore the UN’s legitimacy.

The Human Rights Council was thus created by the UN General Assembly on 15 March 2006. Annan stated that its members, directly elected by the General Assembly, “should undertake [their position] to abide by the highest human rights standards.”

Differences between the Commission and the Council

The Human Rights Council differs significantly from the Human Rights Commission with regard to its status, its composition, the initiation of special sessions and the assessment of human rights compliance. The Council is a subsidiary body of the UN General Assembly, as opposed to the Commission which was a subsidiary organ of the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC). As far as its composition is concerned, the principle of election of Council members by a majority of the General Assembly and the practice of “pledges” by States can also be considered as improvements.

The most marked change is the simplified initiation of special sessions to address human rights violations and emergencies. Whereas special sessions of the Commission had to be initiated by a majority of States, only one third of the Council Member States (at least 16) is needed to convene a special Council session. As a result, seventeen special sessions have been held since 2006, as opposed to the five special sessions held by the Commission during its entirety. These sessions were mostly about the human rights situation in specific countries such as North Korea, Syria, Libya, Iraq, etc.

Finally, the Universal Periodic Review has been a great success. This mechanism periodically examines the human rights performance of all 193 UN Member States.

Manfred Nowak

During his lecture in Brussels last week, Manfred Nowak discussed the tenth anniversary of the Human Rights Council. As a former member of the Austrian delegation to the Human Rights Commission, he is well-placed to critically assess the functioning of the Council. Nowak acknowledged that initially the new body did not work as well as the Commission.

However, the improvements brought about by the Council would become more evident over the years. According to Nowak, the special sessions are a major progress since they give the possibility to react very quickly to human rights emergencies, as is the Universal Periodic Review. Nowak concluded that the Human Rights Council represents a significant step in the right direction when it comes to the promotion and protection of human rights.

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UNRIC Related Links 

·  Human Rights 

·  Human Rights Council

Photo Credit: UN Photo/Paulo Filgueiras

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