The UN Human Rights Council a Year Later
Tuesday, August 28, 2007 5:00 PM

In June, the UN Human Rights Council was one year old. How is it different
from its predecessor the Commission on Human Rights?

The United Nations Human Rights Council has now been in existence for a
year. The Council replaced the Commission on Human Rights which had become
disreputable for a number of reasons. The Commission was notorious for its
reluctance to probe the human rights records of its member countries.  Some
of these countries were themselves known to be gross human rights violators
yet they were not barred from membership to the Commission; in fact some
were even allowed to chair it. The Commission was also noted for its
slowness to respond to emerging crisis situations in member countries. The
body was overly politicized and Edith Ballantyne says that 'every state
used or misused the Commission at one time or another for its own political
purposes.' [1] The structure and workings of the Human Rights Council were
intended to address these flaws, although there has been criticism that the
Council has inherited some of its predecessor's problems. 

New Procedures

The new Human Rights Council sits throughout the year, unlike its
predecessor which sat in open session for only six weeks annually, a
cramped schedule that made the Commission ineffective in many respects. The
Council's longer schedule should allow it more time and
flexibility to conduct its work and respond to human rights emergencies. It
has already sat to discuss the human rights situations in Darfur and
Lebanon, although the continuing violations illustrate its limitations.

Rather than selected countries being named and shamed as was the case with
the Commission, all UN member countries - including Council members - will
be routinely scrutinized under the Universal Periodic Review (UPR)
mechanism. The UPR is designed to ensure that there are no double standards
in the review of countries' human rights records. 

Selection of Commission members was a controversial issue and the secret
ballot method that the Council now employs has been welcomed. However its
elections have not been without controversy. Egypt won a seat on the
Council despite strong protests from national and international human
rights organizations who opposed the country's candidature on the grounds
that it has been guilty of gross human rights violations and on occasion
has also been uncooperative with the UN. On the other hand intense lobbying
by NGOs helped prevent
the election of Belarus to the Council.

The UPR procedures allow for NGOs to provide written input regarding the
human rights situation in states being scrutinized. They will be able to
give oral input before the Working Groups reviewing the states, but not to
participate in the interactive dialogues with the state representatives
during the review sessions. Nevertheless they will continue to be allowed
to sit in on the dialogues. The question of the role government-sponsored
NGOs at Council sessions and how to ensure that there is adequate
representation of less well funded NGOs remains unresolved.

Women's Rights: Room for Improvement

Throughout the Council's first year, NGOs have been involved in the
negotiations concerning the workings of the Council. Women's rights
organizations have in particular been working to ensure that the organs and
procedures of the Council respect the principle of gender equality. The
agenda of the Commission had a specific item on women's human rights, but
this has not been carried forward to the Council. One of the principles of
the UPR mechanism however includes applying a 'gender perspective' to the
Council's review work. There are other areas in which the Council has
committed itself to observe a gender balance; within the Special
Procedures, in the election of the Human Rights Advisory Committee and in
the Working Group on Communication within the complaints procedure.

Women's rights organizations have advocated for much stronger emphasis on
women's rights. A group of them have called for the Council to ensure:
' 1. At least one full day of discussion every year on the human rights
violations suffered mainly or exclusively by women. 
2. Adequate planning and capacity-building for the Council to address the
differential impact on women and girls of all human rights situations under
its consideration.' [2] 

In relation to the Special Procedures they have also recommended more
explicit consideration of women's and girls rights.

Need to Grapple with Old Issues

Ballantyne argues that regardless of the new structure and willingness for
transparency, an old issue will not go away:

'The debates in the ongoing formal Council sessions and informal
consultations confirm the fundamental gulf between two approaches to
promote and protect human rights for all... In very simple terms, for most
of the developing countries the achievement of economic, social and
cultural rights, including the right to development is a priority. Progress
in achieving civil and political rights has to be assessed in relation to
the former.' [3]

For the majority of women in the world the Human Rights Council will not be
doing justice if it fails to give due regard to economic, social and
cultural rights in reviewing the implementation of human rights conventions
within each country.


1.In a paper presented at the Berlin Free University in January 2007.
2. See
3. See note 1.

Published in: The UN Human Rights Council a Year Later, Kathambi Kinoti, Association for Women's Rights in Development (AWID), 24 August 2007.