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Despite its shortfalls, the UN Human Rights Council remains a critical element in the international community’s ability to protect and promote human rights.

Withdrawals and overhauls in the Human Rights Council

27 July, 2018

Alexa Reith – Research Assistant

On 19 June 2018, the US announced it would be withdrawing from the United Nations Human Rights Council (HRC). After being hinted at for many months by US delegates, the withdrawal was not unexpected, but did spotlight several uncomfortable realities relevant to the HRC. It also triggered a number of broader debates about human rights and the forums designed to ensure their promotion and protection.

Whilst such effects are largely chaotic and challenging, they can also be a positive catalyst. In this regard, the US’ departure offers a unique opportunity for the international community to fix – rather than simply discredit – something that is malfunctioning.

What is the Human Rights Council and why did the US withdraw?

By way of background, the HRC is the UN’ primary human rights body and is responsible for the promotion and protection of all human rights and fundamental freedoms across the globe.

Established in 2006, the HRC comprises of 47 member states which are periodically elected from the UN’s General Assembly. With such a broad mandate, the HRC’s work varies from investigations and fact finding to education and capacity building. Central functions that facilitate such work include the council’s thematic mandates (initiatives that deal with general human rights issues) and state mandates (investigations that examine and report on contemporaneous human rights situations). The HRC also undertakes universal periodic reviews of human rights situations in all UN member states.

Currently, there are 44 thematic mandates and 11 state mandates occurring within the HRC. The HRC is also completing its third cycle of universal periodic reviews, with 14 states (including Zambia, Ukraine, Sri Lanka and Pakistan) currently under assessment.

Whilst modelled with a view to remedying the problems that plagued its predecessor – the UN Commission on Human Rights – the HRC is far from perfect and has attracted numerous criticisms since its inception.

Political bias and inconsistency – particularly in terms of its disproportionate focus and permanent agenda item regarding Israel – are the most common sources of such criticisms. Importantly, such issues stand at odds with the HRC’s objectives to eliminate the double standards and politicisation of human rights. They also cause the HRC’s attention and resources to be narrowly focused and at times diverted from other equally important human rights situations.

Another central criticism of the HRC relates to membership. Contextually, the HRC’s mandate espouses that its members are to uphold the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights. However, with the ongoing election of states with questionable human rights records and approaches to the council, reality indicates the criterion is an aspirational principle rather than a strict threshold. Moreover, it fosters an opportunity for such states to negatively influence the HRC’s agenda and advance specific issues that undermine fundamental human rights the UN aims to protect.

Such issues were central to the US’ departure from the HRC – with the US delegation emotively describing them as unconscionable and chronic. Whilst it is apparent that such issues are live problems for the HRC, it remains debatable whether they justify the US’ decision. Furthermore, it is questionable if abandonment rather than engagement is in fact the best means to reform the HRC but also protect human rights.

Looking ahead

Positively, there are feasible means to strengthen and enhance the HRC’s credibility.

For instance, many of the woes associated with the council’s membership could be mitigated during the preliminary election stages. Currently, many of the questionable elections have occurred as a consequence of electoral nominations reflecting a ‘clean slate’ (wherein the number of candidates is equal to the number of vacant seats). Such an approach is problematic, as it causes nominees to be elected by default rather than by choice. It also perpetuates a practice wherein something being better than nothing can amount to election onto the world’s leading human rights body.

However, ballots that involve ‘contested slates’ (when the number of candidates exceeds the number of vacant seats) have seen instances of states that respect human rights and comply with UN monitoring systems win seats when in competition with states that violate such standards. As such, there is evidence that more rigorous contestation of seats can help alter the pattern of unsuitable members taking seats in the council. Moreover, there is strong merit in encouraging regional groups to nominate not only better but a sufficient number of states to permit genuine choice.

Strengthening the HRC’s soft selection criterion and removing the secret ballot election process could also enhance the quality of the HRC’s membership. In this regard, whilst establishment of a strict criterion is far-fetched, increased transparency during the nomination process and of the human rights status of elected states thereafter, would directly increase the council’s legitimacy.

Enhancing the calibre of the HRC’s membership would also assist in mitigating the council’s bias and disproportionate focus upon certain states and/or human rights situations. In this regard, diversification and improved membership quality is likely to challenge the adoption of resolutions and/or initiatives that undermine the HRC’s mandate. It is also a means that is likely to dilute the key motivators – including the deflection of attention from other situations – that cause states to support imbalanced initiatives.

Encouragingly, attention and dialogue regarding how such issues can be resolved have increased over the past twelve months. However, as highlighted by the US’ departure, much more work is still required.

To this end, the revitalisation of the HRC will not be a simple or easy task. Moreover, given the delicate issues that the HRC manages, the actualities of such a process will be difficult and obstacle ridden. For instance, as an intergovernmental body the HRC is susceptible to politics in both practice and reform. As such, careful consideration of reform initiatives is also required – with failure to do so only likely to exacerbate the HRC’s current issues and further undermine its important work.

Moving forward, the sharpened awareness and dialogue that is occurring in terms of the HRC’s shortfalls can equate to meaningful developments in their resolution. It can also set a positive precedent to fix – rather than simply abandon and/or discredit – things that are broken. In this regard, the HRC has positively contributed to human rights discourses since its inception. The council, despite its shortfalls, also remains a critical element in the international community’s ability to protect and promote human rights. As such, whilst the revitalisation of the HRC will be a difficult task, it is not something that can or should be avoided.

Image: a 2009 protest against China’s admission to the HRC (source: Students for a Free Tibet)

About Alexa Reith

Alexa Reith will shortly complete her Master of Laws with Flinders University, which has focused upon International Law and International Relations. Alexa obtained her undergraduate degrees in Law and International Relations from Griffith University and worked as an Australian Qualified Solicitor prior to commencing her postgraduate studies. Alexa’s research interests include dispute resolution and security studies, particularly in terms of nuclear ethics and nuclear policy and decision making.