United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC)
China and Russia were elected to the United Nations Human Rights Council, but support for Beijing dropped by more than 20% compared with a 2016 vote and Saudi Arabia failed in its bid to win a seat on the Geneva-based body.
• The Human Rights Council replaced the former United Nations Commission on Human Rights.
• It is an inter-governmental body within the United Nations system responsible for strengthening the promotion and protection of human rights around the globe and for addressing situations of human rights violations and make recommendations on them.
• The Council is made up of 47 United Nations Member States which are elected by the UN General Assembly.
• It contains the Universal Periodic Review mechanism which serves to assess the human rights situations in all United Nations Member States, the Advisory Committee which serves as the Council’s “think tank” providing it with expertise and advice on thematic human rights issues and the Complaint Procedure which allows individuals and organizations to bring human rights violations to the attention of the Council.
• The UNHRC, headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland, has two key functions — the council passes non-binding resolutions on human rights issues through a periodic review of all 193 UN member states called the Universal Periodic Review (UPR), besides overseeing expert investigation of violations in specific countries.
• UNHRC’s structure — drawing a group of nations from the General Assembly through rotation and election via a “one state, one vote” principle — has allowed the organisation to be fairly representative.
Saudi Arabia's failure to win a seat on the Human Rights Council is a welcome reminder of the need for more competition in U.N. elections.
Both the elected countries have been criticized internationally for their human rights records. Most recently China has been condemned by Western countries for its treatment of Uighur Muslims in the country's Xinjiang region and handling of pro-democracy protests in Chinese-ruled Hong Kong.
What makes the Council’s composition problematic is that several of its members run afoul of its proclaimed aims e.g. the one-party systems of China and Cuba that have a controversial record on freedom of expression or the anti-gay policies of Russia.
U.S. President Donald Trump's administration quit the Human Rights Council in 2018 – half way through its term –over what it called chronic bias against Israel and a lack of reform.
The council ignores the worst cases of human rights abuses in favour of “softer” topics like the elderly, children and the disabled. The detention of political opposition in Cuba, destruction of civil society in Venezuela has not been questioned in UNHRC. The stand taken by HRC on Libya and Syria is also insufficient.
It occasionally prioritises pet projects over common concerns and fails to follow through on the implementation of its own decisions and recommendations.
It has been a challenge for UNHCR to advocate for human rights and not interfere with the sovereignty of the states. Many recommendations of the Special rapporteur of UNHCR are discarded on this basis, solely.
There has always been an inherent tension between countries from the West that espouse an individualist notion of human rights that lays emphasis on political and civic rights and those from the developing world who have laid greater emphasis on socio-economic and cultural rights, such as Cuba.
The UNHRC is leading the global fight for human rights amid external challenges and internal contradictions. The unique arrangement of representation, review and collaboration, with civil society groups over and above nation-states has certainly improved the functioning of the UNHRC in comparison with its predecessor Commission. But the challenges remain grave. The UNHCR is still a work in progress.