The UN Human Rights Council was created by Resolution 60/251 of the UN General Assembly on March 15, 2006, as a replacement for the discredtied UN Commission on Human Rights. The UNHRC began its work on June 19, 2006.
Universal Periodic Review
To become a member, a country must receive the votes of at least 96 of the 191 states of the UN General Assembly (an absolute majority). In electing Council members, the resolution provides that General Assembly members "shall take into account the candidates’ contribution to the promotion and protection of human rights and their voluntary pledges and commitments made thereto." An additional consideration should be whether the given candidate country can meet the obligations of Council membership, which include (a) "to uphold the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights" and (b) to "fully cooperate with the Council."
The Council has 47 seats, divided among the UN’s five regional groups as follows: 13 from the African Group, 13 from the Asian Group, 6 from the Eastern European Group, 8 from the Latin American and Caribbean Group (GRULAC), and 7 from the Western European and Others Group (WEOG).
The resolution creating the Council gave it the following main responsibilities:
- To promote universal respect for the protection of all human rights and fundamental freedoms for all, without distinction of any kind and in a fair and equal manner;
- to address situations of violations of human rights, including gross and systematic violations;
- to promote effective coordinaton and mainstreaming of human rights within the United Nations system;
- to promote human rights education and learning, advisory services, technical assistance, and capacity building;
- to serve as a forum for dialogue on thematic issues on all human rights;
- to make recommendations to the UN General Assembly for the further development of international law in the field of human rights;
- to promote the full implementation by UN member states of their human rights obligations and commitments;
- to undertake a univeral periodic review of every UN member state's fulfillment of its human rights obligations and commitments; and
- to contribute, through dialogue and cooperation, toward the prevention of human rights violations and respond promptly to human rights emergencies
The resolution requires that the Council's work "shall be guided by the principles of universality, impartiality, objectivity and non-selectivity, constructive international dialogue and cooperation with a view to enhance the promotion and protection of all human rights. . . ."
The Council is mandated to meet for at least three regular sessions, totaling at least ten weeks, per year. It also can convene in special session when necessary, upon the request of one-third of its members.
The first Council session of its first year took place from June 19 to 30, 2006. Two special sessions, both on Israel, followed, on July 5-6 and August 11.
The Council's second session met from September 18 to October 6, 2006. A third special session, again on Israel, was held on November 15.
The Council's second session resumed on November 27-28, 2006 Its third session followed immediately, meeting from November 29 to December 8. A fourth special session, on Darfur, was held on December 12. The Council's fourth session met from March 12 to 30, 2007.
The Human Rights Council was touted as a major improvement over its predecessor, the Commission on Human Rights, which had been discredited by its poor membership and performance. In recent years, the Commission included some of the world’s worst human rights violators, and was known for its obsessive and unbalanced condemnation of one country—Israel. Even UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan recognized, in 2005, that the Commission’s "credibility deficit" was "cast[ing] a shadow on the reputation of the United Nations system as a whole."
The election requirement was an attempt to improve the membership, which previously only required nomination by a county’s regional group. However, although some abuser states chose not to run and several who did run were not elected, the first Council included nine countries ranked Not Free by the Freedom House survey of political rights and civil liberties. Four of these nine, moreover, were among Freedom House’s "Worst of the Worst" regimes. These four - China, Cuba, Russia, and Saudi Arabia - also are among five countries that UN Watch identified, before the May 9, 2006 election, as particular threats to the Council’s legitimacy. Sadly, all four received well over the 96-vote threshold that was supposed to prevent violators from winning membership.
In an attempt to improve performance, the resolution creating the Council requires it to base its work on "the principles of universality, impartiality, objectivity, and non-selectivity." It is supposed to promote and protect human rights "without distinction of any kind and in a fair and equal manner."
The Council’s first few years have gone from bad to worse, showing even more selectivity and politicization than that which marred the Commission. The 47-nation body has condemned Israel in 80% of its country censures, in 20 of 25 resolutions. The other 5 texts criticized North Korea once, and Myanmar four times. The Council has ignored the UN’s other 189 countries, including the world's worst abusers. While Darfur was addressed several times, these resolutions were non-condemnatory, often praising Sudan for "cooperation."
In June 2007, dominated by repressive regimes, the Council eliminated its monitors of abuses in Belarus and Cuba. Then it sacked its expert team on Darfur. Next it cut its expert on violations in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Liberia was next. Slated for elimination in March 2009 is the expert on Sudan.
In 2008, the Islamic-controlled council overturned the mandate on freedom of expression, so that now the expert investigator is required to report individuals who use "abuse" this freedom, i.e., those who dare say something deemed offensive to Islamic sensitivities.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry verbally assailed members of the UNHRC in March 2015, delivering a passionate defense of Israel and a scathing criticism of the UN body tasked with the universal protection of human rights. Kerry spent time denouncing human rights abuses in Syria, North Korea, Africa, and Ukraine, before addressing the UNHRC's “deeply concerning” record of anti-Israel bias. Kerry attacked the council as a whole, stating that “the (council’s) obsession with Israel actually risks undermining the credibility of the entire organization.” Shortly after delivering his address to the UNHRC, Kerry returned to Geneva to continue nuclear negotiations with Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif.
Upon the reelection of the United States to the UNHRC on October 28, 2016, the U.S. State Department issued a statement urging the council to “end[...] [it's] excessive and biased focus on Israel.”
The universal periodic review (UPR) mechanism, called the UNHRC's most important innovation, was designed to review all 192 UN member states every four years to "ensure universality of coverage and equal treatment of all Member States." The UPR process has a number of stages - each country under consideration sends representatives to make speeches about its human rights situation; other states comment and make recommendations for improvement; the state voices its acceptance or rejection of the recommendations; and, finally, everything is put into a report which is perfunctorily adopted.
Many defenders of the Council have invoked the UPR as a saving grace. Then-President of the General Assembly, Jan Eliasson, said of the UPR: "Such a mechanism would ensure equal treatment with respect to all Member States and would prevent double standards and selectivity." The European Union claimed the UPR was an "opportunity to build new trust by addressing human rights in a spirit of honesty, equal treatment and the avoidance of double standards."
In practice, however, the UPR has proven to be a toothless exercise with repressive regimes praising one another and democratic nations, like the United States, being overly criticized.
The Syrian UPR, for example, included representatives from Myanmar saying it "congratulates Syria for its successful efforts to create advanced health care for its people," while Venezuela "wished to reiterate its unambiguous support to the significant efforts that President Assad is making to preserve his country's stability when faced with the onset of greedy imperialism." All of this was while Assad was brutally leading a civil war that had already claimed tens of thousands of lives.
By contrast, during the UPR of the United States in 2010, Iran told the US to "combat violence against women," Nicaragua told the US to redress wrongs "caused by capitalism," North Korea told the US to "prohibit and punish brutality by law enforcement officials," and China complained that the US limited citizens freedom of expression and the right to free internet access."