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Human Rights

UN Human Rights Council tackles big issues

Since its foundation, the UN Human Rights Council has faced numerous challenges. The mandate to monitor human rights in member countries around the world remains a difficult task.

The UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) is currently in session in Geneva to conduct one of its periodic reviews of member states, this time of a group of 14. On Tuesday, Israel became the first country to boycott the proceedings.

The Israeli government cut ties with the UN body last year, claiming it was being singled out for its treatment of Palestinians.

Israelis far from the only country the Human Rights Council is concerned about.

A chamber where prisoners are executed through lethal injection in Huntsville, Texas (Photo: Paul Buck)

The death penalty is still enforced in several countries

In the United States the death penalty is still employed, despite international protest. In Russia, regime critics are being detained. And new human rights violations are reported daily from countries in conflict, like Mali and Syria.

These are only a few of the cases the council is monitoring. "Not a week passes in which we don't deal with human rights problems. They are either being reviewed by the council itself or by one of the UNHRC institutions," Eric Tistounet, the body's secretary, told DW.

Shortly after the UN was founded, the UN Commission on Human Rights was created to promote and protect human rights.

But the commission faced criticism for leaving politically important countries untouched while reproving less influential countries. An increasing number of African and Asian states accused more influential governments of using double standards in cases of human rights violations and failing to put their own houses in order. Thus the commission was reorganized and replaced by the Human Rights Council in 2006.

Equality for all member states

Secretary Tistounet is very aware of the changes the council has undergone, having served the Human Rights Commission for three years. As before, there is one rapporteur per country. But, Tistounet explains, now there is a monitoring system, the Universal Periodic Review Mechanism (UPR), which takes place every four years for each of the 193 UN member states.

A Palestinian at a building site in an East Jerusalem neighborhood (Photo: Jim Hollander)

Israel boycotts HRC hearings over criticism of its settlements in Palestinian areas

Under the procedure, all countries have to report on their human rights strategies, while both governments and NGOs provide information on the situation. "There is no difference between the USA or Andorra, or between Russia and Papua New-Guinea." Since the mechanism has been in place, all member states have been reviewed.

The Human Rights Council is made up of representatives of 47 countries, which change every three years. The representatives are usually diplomats from the countries based in Geneva. The council convenes three times a year, with panels on various topics, including corruption and its role in human rights violations or children's rights. Special rapporteurs also present reports during these meetings.

The rapporteurs' role

Special rapporteurs to the council cover specific topic areas, such as torture, the death penalty, violence against women and the right to education. These special rapporteurs have a three-year mandate, which can be prolonged. Additional special rapporteurs can be appointed to work on particular cases. The council also works with human rights organizations from all member countries, including, for instance, the German Institute for Human Rights (DIMR).

A boy pans for gold in a river

Rapporteurs monitor child labor

"We have various focus areas in the institute, such as racism and children's rights," says Wolfgang Heinz, a researcher at the DIMR. "Our colleagues are in contact with the UN Human Rights Council, and are they stay up to date with the topics the special rapporteurs there are working on."

Heinz says the Human Rights Council is indeed trying to improve the human rights situation around the world. With nine UN conventions in place and 48 active special rapporteurs, the council works on a wide variety of issues.

But the council is not strong on ratifying agreements, Heinz says, adding that it's hard to gather support for one agreement in particular: the convention meant to protect the rights of migrant workers and their families.

Only very few western countries and countries in North Africa and the Middle East have ratified the migrants convention. Most of the countries that back the document are Latin American or South Asian, where many migrants come from.

Of 193 UN member states, only some 46 have signed or ratified the agreement so far.

Another problem is the fact that the council's recommendations on human rights violations in specific countries are not binding. In the worst case, a country that continues to violate human rights can become a case for the UN Security Council, which does have the power to agree on political measures.

Abuse cover-ups

Like the DIMR, the international NGO Human Rights Watch (HRW) also works with the Human Rights Council. And it also expects more of the council. The council took a very long time before it started researching human rights violations in the current conflict in Syria, according to

Julie de Rivero

De Rivero criticizes the HRC's slowness to act

Juliette de Rivero, HRW's advocacy director in Geneva.

"In North Korea, the council has been monitoring rights violations for some time," de Rivero points out. "But in countries like Eritrea, which still don't get enough international attention, the council has only just begun to document rights violations."

De Rivero has taken this complaint to the Human Rights Council, and it appears that she is being heard. HRC Secretary Tistounet, says North Korea and Syria are both on the agenda for the next session in March.

At the current Geneva meeting on the Periodic Review Mechanism, the countries present agreed to postpone Israel's human rights review to November, warning that "if Israel failed to participate by the set deadline, the council would weigh steps against it."

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