Human Rights Council
Long criticised for its ineffectiveness and the political nature of its discussions, the Commission on Human Rights was replaced in March 2006 by the Human Rights Council (HRC). The purpose of this reform was to raise the profile of human rights within the United Nations system by making the HRC a subsidiary organ of the UNGA ( and no longer of the ECOSOC) and to be able to rely on a more effective, reactive, permanent and cooperative body. The HRC provides for virtually continuous monitoring of human rights in the world and can meet in extraordinary session if a crisis requires it.
The HRC is due to report on its work and functioning in 2011 and the General Assembly will review its status that same year.
The HRC’s mandate is to “promot[e] universal respect for the protection of all human rights and fundamental freedoms for all, ... address situations of violations of human rights, including gross and systematic violations, and make recommendations thereon.” It has also be granted a preventive role and a crucial normative function, with the elaboration of legally binding human rights instruments. To that end the HRC makes “recommendations to the General Assembly for the further development of international law in the field of human rights”. The HRC also has the task of promoting human rights education and technical assistance. Finally, it courages States to fully comply with the obligations they have endorsed.
The HRC comprises 47 members elected for three years with an equitable geographical distribution. No State may serve more than two consecutive mandates. The election procedure for the HRC has been revised to strengthen the selection of members according to their human rights record. Any State wishing to become a member must make public and voluntary pledges and commitments to promote and protect human rights. It must also receive at least 97 supportive votes to be elected, that is an absolute majority of the General Assembly.
The great majority of HRC sessions are open to all UN Member States, but only Council members have voting rights. Representatives of accredited NGOs also attend most meetings as observers and are sometimes invited to take an active part in the work of the Council.
The HRC holds three ordinary sessions per year, for a total period of at least 10 weeks (compared with a single six-week session for the former Commission on Human Rights). It may convene an extraordinary session at the request of one-third of its members. The HRC met twelve times in extraordinary session between 2006 and June 2010, to address geographical issues (such as Lebanon, Myanmar, DR Congo, Sudan, Guinea and Gaza) and thematic issues (food crisis, economic and financial crisis).
Universal Periodic Review (UPR)
This innovative procedure allows for an automatic peer review of the human rights situation in all UN Member States every four years. Each State review is carried out with three States drawn by lot and acting as rapporteurs forming the “troikas”and on the basis of information provided by the State, civil society and experts (NGOs, national human rights institutions) and UN expert mechanisms such as treaty bodies. The HRC members, meeting in a working group, assess whether the State under review complies with its international obligations and implements the recommendations of UN bodies. Upon completion of the review, the HRC may formulate recommendations and decide on actions of technical assistance, in coordination with the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. France was among the first countries examined under the UPR, in May 2008.
The Commission on Human Rights had set up a number of non-treaty based procedures and mechanisms (“special procedures”) which were entrusted to working composed of individual experts or to independent persons known as “special rapporteurs” or “independent experts”. The selection of these experts is based on criteria of competence, experience, independence, impartiality, integrity and objectivity. Principles of gender equality, equitable geographical distribution and representation of various legal systems are also taken into account.
Country mandates involve experts monitoring the human rights situation in a given country, while thematic mandates mobilise experts addressing a crosscutting human rights issue. There are currently about ten country mandates and about thirty thematic mandates, covering matters such as freedom of expression, freedom of religion or conviction, enforced or involuntary disappearances, extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, torture and other cruel, inhumane or degrading punishment or treatment, children in armed conflicts, promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms in anti-terrorism action and the right to food.
The independent experts issue recommendations to the States they review. They present their reports to the HRC. This presentation is followed by an interactive dialogue between the rapporteur and the HRC Member States, notably those directly concerned by the report.
Normative role: resolutions
The HRC is the forum for the elaboration and monitoring of the implantation of international human rights law. Resolutions are adopted during HRC sessions with the aim of promoting human rights throughout the world and advancing international human rights law. For example, France recently facilitated the adoption of a resolution calling on all States to ratify the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance so that it could enter into force as soon as possible, and another concerning human rights and extreme poverty.
Update : July 2010