The United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) is an inter-governmental organization and an organ of the United Nations; all members of the United Nations members are members of UNHRC, the council seat, however, has a membership of 47 countries and it is charged with the responsibility of promoting and protecting human rights across the world, it fundamentally addresses matters concerning human rights violations.
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United Nation Human Rights Council was established on 15 march, 2006 by the UN General Assembly primarily to replace the United Nation High Commission on Human Rights which had been ineffective in solving the human rights issues and also due to the fact that several of its membership were perceived to be human rights abusers.
The United Nations Commission for Human Rights was criticized for its effectiveness since it dwelt too much on the Israel situation at the expense of the other human rights issues. UNHCR was also criticized for its politicization and double standards in handling the Israel situation.
The membership of the council was 47 states and was geographically distributed according to regions and continents. The distribution was 13 countries from African continent, 13 countries were from Asia, and 6 came from Eastern Europe, 8 from the Latin America and the Caribbean and 7 countries were from Western Europe.
The threshold for calling sessions was placed at one third of the membership and could sit not less than three sessions per year. The status of the council was to be reviewed by the Security Council at the intervals of five years (Matas 10)
The members of the United Nation General Assembly meet to vote for those who can occupy the forty seven main seats in the council. The term of each member state in the council serves for a two-three year term.
The members who are elected to the council should uphold the highest standards in the protection of human rights. All the united Nation members are eligible for election into the council provided they receive an absolute majority of the votes and they should be nominated by their blocs or regions.
The members that presently seat in the council are Africa; Angola, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Djibouti, Gabon, Ghana, Libya, Mauritania, Mauritius, Nigeria, Uganda, Senegal and Zambia.
Asian countries in the council are; Bahrain, Bangladesh, China, Japan, Jordan, Malaysia, Maldives, Kyrgyzstan, Thailand, republic of Korea, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Pakistan. Eastern Europe: Hungary, Poland, republic of Moldova, Russian federation, Slovakia and Ukraine; the countries from Western Europe are Belgium, France, Norway, Spain, Switzerland, United Kingdom and united states.
Those from Latin America and the Caribbean are Argentina Brazil, Chile, Cuba, Ecuador, Guatemala, Mexico and Uruguay (Blanchfield 5).
The UNHRC has been relentless in condemning the state of Israel, majority of the resolutions have been targeting Israel which is a perceived violator of human rights and had became a permanent feature in each of the council’s session. Other countries that have been condemned by the UNHRC are Sudan, Iran.
The development of bloc voting has made the council a political instrument and it has attracted criticism from other states. This idea of voting along blocs has enhanced a unity of convenience between the nations of Africa and those of Middle East; they are often supported by the China, Russia and Cuba, this complicates the objectivity of the council.
Under the statutes of UNHRC, a council member can have its rights and privileges suspended by the council when it is found to have continuously violated human rights especially when it is serving its term in the membership. The process of suspension of a council member requires the endorsement of two thirds majority of the general assembly vote. The recent example is the suspension of Libya which was unanimous.
The mission of the UNHRC is to act as the main UN Avenue that states get to cooperate and dialogue on issues of human rights; it enables member states to deliver on their human rights obligations through dialogue, capacity building and technical assistance. The UNHRC also make suggestion to the general assembly when there is need for an international law in the field of human rights.
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Consequently through the universal periodic review, the UNHRC assess the review and the progress of human rights in the 192 UN member states, it can also act as an advisory committee capable of providing advice on particular topical human rights issues. The UNHRC also acts as a complaints committee through which non-governmental organizations, individuals and member states channel their complaints (Arroba 66-85).
The mandate and the structure of UNHRC
Under the resolution A/RES/60/251 that gave birth to the UNHRC, the following was deemed to be its mandate;
- The UNHRC is aimed at promoting human rights education, advisory services, technical assistance and capacity building.
- The UNHRC is also expected to serve as a forum for debate and dialogue on topical human rights issues and to facilitate the generation of international human rights law to be forwarded to the UN General Assembly.
- The UNHRC is also tasked with the responsibility of promoting full implementation of the human rights obligation of the member states and also to ensure that states adhere to human rights commitments seriously that may arise from human rights summits and conferences.
Structure of UNHRC
On the structure of the UNHRC, the council holds an organizational meeting at the inception of each year; these elections are presided over by the president and the four vice-presidents each representing a regional bloc in the council.
The president and the vice-president form what is referred as the council bureau which is charged with the responsibility of procedural and organizational issues that relate to the council. The council bureau members elect the president from among them selves.
The seat of the council is in Geneva Switzerland where the members meet three times in one year for duration of 10 weeks. The council can also hold special session when a member state makes a request, the special session should be sanctioned by a third of the members (Blanchfield 7).
On its reporting, the council submits its annual reports to the UN General Assembly, consequently the council, after every five years should review and report its work and functions to the general assembly.
Under the UNHRC the following are issues considered to fall in its premise of human rights: Adequate housing, business and human rights, children; the rights of children include violence against children.
Children trafficking and the basic rights of the child, civil and political rights, climate change, communication, cultural rights, democracy, detention, good governance and debt, disability and human rights, disappearance, discrimination, education, food, freedom of expression and opinion , freedom of religion and belief, HIV/AIDS, mercenary, indigenous groups, internal displacement, poverty and health among others. (UNHRC 1)
The UNHRC enjoys a high profile as compared to its predecessor, the UNCHR because it is an organ of the United Nations General Assembly (Terlingen 12).
The funding of UNHRC
The major contributor to the monetary account of UNHRC is the USA, the congress for example have demanded that 2% of the UN regular budget should be dedicated to UNHRC. The USA congress has however sought to limit the US funding to the council because they still doubt its effectiveness (Blanchfield 12).
UNHRC in the international relations
UNHRC has been instrumental in the structuring of international system, the United States immediately after joining, made it a signature of its piece of diplomacy. Several resolutions of the council have been favorable as well as unfavorable depending on the item of deliberation.
The USA for example celebrated the outcome of the vote on banning any form of discrimination based on sexual orientation and the sanctioning of Iran. The US have used the UNHRC firmly to push for its objectives, this however does not erase the fact that the USA especially the Obama administration have been firmly supportive of the course of the council. The USA has effectively used the council to press for hard sanctions against Libya and Iran.
Following the adoption of the universal declaration of human rights in 1948, several states have attached primacy to it. They have included it in their national constitutions, consequently the universal declaration of human rights led to the emergence of human rights institutions in the world to monitor and safeguard the upholding of the similar rights.
In the international arenas, states have reneged on their promise of upholding, promoting and protecting human rights and now they have turned to be principal breakers or violators. The greatest field of concern in the dimension of human rights is the compliance factor.
The establishment of the international criminal court was considered the best alternative fro those who violate the international human rights norms. The commitment by states to the compliance to human rights is demonstrated by its ability to; first is that it should ratify all human rights treaty, second is the fulfillment of reporting and acceding to the request by the supervisory bodies and third is the implementation of norms in their domestic law.
Matters of Human rights have had primacy in the 21st century. The influence of the United National Human Rights Council has been taken seriously by States; states have incorporated matters of human rights in their foreign policy documents and agendas.
The donor countries have consistently opted to using human rights record as a requisite when they want to allocate foreign aid whether military or economic, the issue of democracy and good governance has been made mandatory for any state to receive donor funding. This has been one of the effective ways of ensuring that human rights are protected.
Consequently the UNHRC has been instrumental in whipping states against violation of human rights. The suspension of Libya was unanimous and required no vote. It sent a note that states that violate the universal human rights have no place in the international arena.
It was the first time that a state had been suspended from the UNHRC since its inception. The suspension of a country, however, does not necessarily remove it from the UNHRC but will only hinder it from participating in its activities until that time that the General Assembly determines the fate of its reinstatement (Blanchfield 14).
The project of UNHRC
The introduction of the Universal Periodic Review by the UNHRC is considered one of the important projects. The Universal periodical Review analyses the status of countries’ human rights record.
The UPR is universal and reliable. This has been considered the best way of defeating double standard in the identification of countries to be examined. The UPR calls on all the membership states to cooperate since failures comply may warrant an expulsion from the council which some states term as an embarrassing act (Arroba 73).
Successes of the Council
After its creation in 2006, the council has attempted to overcome obstacles that plagued the previous UNHCR which had been widely criticized, this is despite the fact that it is too early to criticize or to praise it. The main activity of the body at the present is to structure the council.
The council being an organ of the UN General Assembly has managed to overcome the notion of protecting national sovereignty that has been a creation of states and a scapegoat against interference by any international body on the internal affairs of the state. The states have been using the privileges of national sovereignty to trample upon the rights of its citizens.
The UNHRC therefore has managed to balance national sovereignty and the protection of human rights. This dilemma had complicated the work of the previous commission in the western Darfur region of Sudan where the Sudanese government felt that external intervention amounts to the violation of its national sovereignty.
Being an organ of the General Assembly therefore has made the council more effective in its role to placing betterment of the world and the protection of human rights at the forefront over national interest (Arroba 80).
The failures of UNHRC on its mission
The UNHRC has been criticized for paying too much focus on the Israel in most of its sittings; this has been done at the expense of other human rights violation around the globe like in Darfur, Iraq and Zimbabwe.
The failures of the UNHRC have been catastrophic and open to see, first to begin with, the Universal Periodic Review has not been universal in form; the continuous singling out of Israel in its objectives has led to its diminishing influence.
Consequently, the universal periodic review which is global and covers all the global corners and not only the members of the council as it may be thought, it does not however include observers and this technically excludes the Palestinian Authority, this is considered an element of bias against Israel.
Also the scrutiny of the human rights record of the member states annually as been considered a failure in the effectiveness of UNHRC. The pace amounts to sixteen countries per session and with three sessions per year; the scrutiny cycle takes four years to cover the 192 countries.
Furthermore, the parameters of the review have been criticized; UNHRC bases its review on the information contained in treaty bodies. This implies that the blatant violators of human rights which sign few or no treaties at all will have little scope for review whereas the states which have demonstrate greatest respect for Human rights by ratifying many treaties will have a big scope for review, this creates bias against those who demonstrate high degree for the promotion and protection of human rights (Terlingen 43).
Obstacles facing UNHRC
The perception of member states that national interest takes precedence human rights issues has emerged the major challenge facing the council. Members states vote on the items of the UNHRC only based on their self interest. Consequently, the UNHRC is ineffective in discharging its duties.
Since it is the organ of the UN, it falls under the command of the Security Council which is the supreme organ of the UN; as such its role is only to advice and not to act or command. Unless the Security Council agrees to any intervention the UNHRC may not act to prevent human rights violations (Arroba 1).
There have been criticisms of the council based on the notion that the council is politicized. This is due to the fact that it has allowed the membership of undemocratic and human rights abusers like Libya, China, and Cuba to join it. This casts aspersion on its role in protecting human rights (Carlsnaes and Simmons 155).
The report on the human rights situation in the Palestine territories should also include all human rights violations that were committed by the both parties and not to only concentrate on the human rights violations committed by Israel. This is an arbitrary and discriminatory.
I also suggest that Israel becomes part of the regional bloc; being a member of the UN since 1948 and its denial to join one of the regional groupings is doing a disfavor to the state of Israel. In the UNHRC, it is the regional blocs who nominate and also vote for any member to any of the committees in the United Nations.
Its rejection by states from the regional blocs meant that Israel can not qualify to be elected in one of the committees of UN since no regional bloc can forward or nominate Israel for election. This has been largely associated with the continuous condemnation of Israel by UN institutions.
The Israel could have belonged to the Asian bloc but the Arabic countries have vehemently rejected it, no other bloc could allow Israel into its grouping because groupings operate via consensus. This has the effect of excluding Israel from UNHRC deliberation even if it is the main item on the agenda and hence makes it a target of manifest prejudice.
I strongly suggest that bloc voting be abandoned completely; this will help in achieving the intended objectives of the council. Vote bloc is the best way of curtailing the dominance and the hegemony of the Organization of the Islamic countries (OIC). This however seems a mirage since almost all the regional blocs have perfected the art of voting as a bloc as show of solidarity, besides the OIC, European Union have perfected voting as a bloc to strengthen their union (Matas 10).
Leadership from democratic countries; there has been lack of leadership in the council especially a leader from that countries that have an excellent human rights record. The voting regime has been detrimental to the objective of getting a able, and democratic leader, this is because unlike in other UN agencies who have devised a voting pattern that is based, the UNHRC votes based on blocs and whichever bloc that has a lot of members will be the winner and in this has been to the advantage of the OIC.
Arroba, Angel. The New United Nations Human Rights Council: What Has Changed? What Can Change? WEBASA, 2006. Web.
Blanchfield, Luisa. United Nations Human Rights Council: Issues for Congress. New York: DIANE Publishing, 2002. Print.
Carlsnaes, Walter and Simmons, Beth. Handbook of International Relations. New York: SAGE, 2010. Print.
Matas, David. Reforming the “Reformed” United Nations Human Rights Council. Institute of International Affairs of B’nai Brith Canada, 2009.Web.
Terlingen, Yvonne. The Human Rights Council: A New Era in UN Human Rights Work. UNACHINA, 2007. Web.
UNHRC. United Nations Human Rights Council. UNHRC, 2011. Web.