United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, voiced clear dissatisfaction with Member States’ lack of cooperation with UN human rights monitors, in his recent address to the United Nations Human Rights Council, which begun its 33rd session on September 13, 2016. The High Commissioner directed the international community’s attention to the growing number of Member States that refuse to allow access to or to engage with human rights mechanisms. [OHCHR Press Release: States] In that same statement he also made reference to political figures who ignore international legal standards and are “xenophobes and bigots,” drawing on the same rhetoric he used in a speech a week earlier condemning politicians in the European Union and United States who gained prominence through manipulative tactics that are contrary to international legal standards for human rights. [OHCHR Press Release: States; OHCHR Press Release: Politicians] The High Commissioner implored the international community to continue to focus on collective action to realize all human rights. [OHCHR Press Release: States]
During the Human Rights Council’s general debate on human rights bodies and mechanisms, States expressed varying views on the current functioning of the universal human rights system. While some asserted that the Council was overburdened and its human rights mechanisms were under resourced, others put the responsibility on their peers to make specific commitments to collaborating with the Council’s independent experts (“special procedures”) and with the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). [OHCHR Press Release: Debate] The debate was based, in part, on the UN Secretary General’s recent report on cooperation with UN human rights initiatives. See Human Rights Council, Cooperation with the United Nations, its representatives and mechanisms in the field of human rights: Report of the Secretary General, UN Doc. A/HRC/33/19, 16 August 2016. Civil society has also reminded States that cooperation and commitment to the human rights framework is particularly important in light of the upcoming elections for State membership on the Human Rights Council for the period 2017 to 2019. [ISHR: Elections; ISHR: Enhancing]
The 33rd Session of the Human Rights Council
The 33rd session of the Human Rights Council will be held September 13 to 30, 2016 in Geneva, Switzerland. The Human Rights Council is an intergovernmental body tasked with strengthening, protecting, and promoting human rights in UN Member States. The 33rd session will address the most pressing global human rights issues through high level discussions.
This session marks the beginning of a new decade for the Human Rights Council, and many developing, continuing, and escalating human rights issues are expected to be addressed. At the forefront of conversation are discussions regarding the situations in Syria, Yemen, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Ukraine. The 33rd session will also see the appointment of the first independent expert dedicated to promote the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people. [UN News Centre]
The High Commissioner on the State of the UN Human Rights System
In his statement addressing the Human Rights Council at the start of its current session, Zeid stressed the significance of the Council as an institution dedicated to resolving common problems through collective action and criticized the current trend among States of disregarding human rights standards. The High Commissioner addressed the delicate timing of his statements, noting the popularity of xenophobic and bigoted political figures, as well as the assertions by some Member States that human rights are used misleadingly in order to intrude on their sovereignty. The High Commissioner expressed a growing concern with the potential polarization of the Human Rights Council and with States’ repeated evasions of human rights scrutiny. [OHCHR Press Release: States]
His recent address echoed his previously stated alarm regarding leaders who gain their popularity through the exploitation of insecure populations. The concern that xenophobia and bigotry have, and continue to be, used as weapons, must be addressed, Zeid commented, through the legal safeguards provided by the international human rights regime. The High Commissioner called on the international community to implement these standards, and to speak out against abuses. [OHCHR Press Release: Politicians]
The High Commissioner further reflected on Member States’ evasion of responsibility for alleged human rights abuses through invoking national sovereignty; he referenced specifically the apartheid regime in South Africa as an example of the importance of rejecting sovereignty arguments. The High Commissioner suggested that, just as was done then, the international community should now continue to reject attempts to hide human rights abuses. The High Commissioner clarified that under international law wrongful intervention, such that would impede upon state sovereignty, is that which “is by nature coercive.” The OHCHR, however, depends on the consent of Member States in order to access, monitor, and report situations within them, and the OHCHR seeks to “strengthen national protection systems.” The OHCHR, thus, could not rise to wrongful intervention by virtue of its mandate. [OHCHR Press Release: States].
The High Commissioner asserted that attempts to keep the OHCHR, or other human rights bodies, out of a Member State will not prevent the remote monitoring and reporting functions currently pursued or supported by the High Commissioner and the OHCHR. More broadly, the High Commissioner implored the Human Rights Council to continue to fulfill its mandate to address human rights abuses, without needing Member State approval. He reminded the international community of the origin of the human rights framework after World War II and that only collective action can tackle “common problems.” [OHCHR Press Release: States]
The Impact on Upcoming Elections
The debates regarding the functioning of the international human rights system coincide with the upcoming election, by the UN General Assembly, of States to the Human Rights Council, providing a forum for additional commentary on the human rights systems as a whole, the Human Rights Council’s role within it, and States’ engagement with human rights bodies and experts. [ISHR: Elections; ISHR: Enhancing] Members of civil society have asserted that the Human Rights Council must elect Member States who have demonstrated a genuine commitment to the protection and promotion of human rights in a meaningful way, rather than those that commit only on paper but not in practice. [ISHR: Elections] These advocates suggest that electing strong and committed candidates will aid the Human Rights Council to better protect and promote human rights throughout the UN system. [ISHR: Enhancing] The election will be held in October and is for membership from the start of 2017 through 2019. [ISHR: Elections; ISHR: Enhancing]
Pursuant to General Assembly resolution 60/251, the Human Rights Council consists of 47 Member States, all elected through secret ballot by majority vote of the General Assembly. For more information on the elections, please see the OHCHR Human Rights Council Elections webpage.
For greater discussion of Member States’ compliance with their obligation to realize human rights, please visit the OHCHR’s publication National Mechanisms for Reporting and Follow-Up A Study of State Engagement with International Human Rights Mechanisms.
For more information about the UN Human Rights Council, please visit IJRC’s Online Resource Hub. In particular, see IJRC’s 10 Essential Steps for First Time Advocacy at the Human Rights Council and Primer for Advocacy Opportunities with the Human Rights Council for information on how to engage with the Human Rights Council.