The Human Rights Council is an intergovernmental body of the United Nations, through which States discuss human rights conditions in the UN Member States. The Council’s mandate is to promote “universal respect for the protection of all human rights and fundamental freedoms for all” and “address situations of violations of human rights, including gross and systematic violations, and make recommendations thereon.”
The Human Rights Council was established in 2006 by Resolution 60/251 as a subsidiary body to the UN General Assembly. It replaced the former Commission on Human Rights, which operated from 1946 to 2006.
The Council is composed of 47 Member States elected from the UN General Assembly to staggered three-year terms, with a specified number of seats going to each major geographic region. General Assembly Resolution 60/251 provides that Members States should be elected considering “the contribution of candidates to the promotion and protection of human rights” and “members elected to the Council shall uphold the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights.” In practice, these standards are open to interpretation and the human rights records of States seeking election to the Council have been the subject of significant controversy.
The Council serves as a forum for dialogue among States, with input from other stakeholders. As a result of its discussions, the Council may issue resolutions calling on States to take specific actions or uphold certain principles, or it may create mechanisms to investigate or monitor questions of concern.
The Human Rights Council has created or renewed the mandates of various “special procedures.” The special procedures are experts appointed to monitor human rights around priority themes or in specific countries with serious human rights problems. The special procedures may be individual experts (“special rapporteurs” or “independent experts”) or working groups.
The Council also manages the Universal Periodic Review, a process through which each UN Member State’s overall human rights record is reviewed.
In addition, the Council receives complaints alleging patterns of human rights violations, which are considered by the Working Group on Communications and may be referred to the Working Group on Situations. The Working Group on Situations reports substantiated claims of consistent patterns of gross violations to the Council and makes recommendations for action.
The Council conducts its substantive work primarily in Regular Sessions and Special Sessions. Regular Sessions are held no fewer than three times a year, usually in March, June, and September. The agenda and program of work for each Session are established with respect to any adopted Council resolutions and in consultation with Member States. Regular Sessions include the presentation of human rights reports and interactive dialogues with Special Procedure mandate holders or Member States, panel discussions and debates on a wide range of human rights issues, and consideration of Universal Periodic Review reports.
Council Special Sessions address urgent human rights situations arising between Regular Sessions and may be called at the request of any Council Member State with the support of at least one third of the Council membership. Having a more narrow remit than Regular Sessions, Special Sessions usually occupy a few days, with programs of work focused on the discussion of the urgent human rights situation raised and deliberations around the concluding resolution to be adopted by the Council.
CIVIL SOCIETY PARTICIPATION
General Assembly Resolution 60/251 explicitly acknowledges that “non-governmental organizations play an important role at the national, regional and international levels, in the promotion and protection of human rights” and further determines that the Council should work “in close cooperation in the field of human rights with Governments, regional organizations, national human rights institutions and civil society.”
Learn more about access and advocacy opportunities with the UN Human Rights Council by reading IJRC’s 10 Essential Steps for First Time Advocacy at the Human Rights Council and Primer for Advocacy Opportunities with the Human Rights Council (2011). The technical guidelines to follow for submitting written reports or statements to the Council can be found in Working with the United Nations Human Rights Programme: A Handbook for Civil Society and the Human Rights Council: Practical Guide for NGOs. Complaints may be submitted by individuals, groups, or non-governmental organizations.