The United Nations Human Rights Council: Bridge or Barrier to Change? – Dr John Pace

In his address at the opening of the current session of the Human Rights Council (HRC), the High Commissioner, Zeid Ra’ad Al Husseini announced that, since this would be his last address as High Commissioner, he was going to be blunt – and indeed blunt he was.

His first target was the permanent members of the United Nations (UN) Security Council (SC) and the ‘pernicious use of the veto’, which made those who used it responsible, ‘second to those who are criminally responsible … for the continuation of so much pain … it is they – the permanent members – who must answer before the victims’.

The High Commissioner’s comments point to a foundational issue: the lack of priority currently accorded to the plight of the individual’s fundamental rights reflects a lack of understanding within the SC of one of the three pillars of the UN. This comes as no surprise: it was only in 1994 that the SC acknowledged that violations of human rights could constitute a threat to international peace and security. Since then, peacekeeping operations have come to include a human rights ‘presence’, – but how seriously is this taken? Lack of regular budget resources have plagued the human rights programme, as the High Commissioner pointed out: ‘the size of the budget is telling enough … the importance accorded to it often seems to be in the form of lip service only’.

This lack of resources has historically hindered the emergence of international human rights law. Problems that seriously affect the functioning of the treaty bodies, most of which relate to the availability of resources that emerged already in the 1970s, are still not satisfactorily addressed. This weakens the treaty system at the highest level, by leaving binding commitments as words on paper rather than permitting their translation into action.

But the syndrome also persists in the HRC specifically, where States have stockaded themselves from input by civil society. Civil society plays a vital role in all human rights activities; historically, they should carry the credit for the formulation of the treaty system, and the development and implementation of special procedures. Yet civil society is now virtually excluded from the Universal Periodic Review (UPR), the process by which the HRC reviews the overall human rights record of each UN Member State on a rolling basis. Civil society submissions are ‘summarised’ in a 10-page document, and their full text buried as a footnote on the webpage; they are not allowed to address the UPR except for a few minutes to be shared by all of them at the adoption of the ‘outcome’ in plenary.

In 1945, the introduction of civil society as a composite element of the human rights programme under the UN Charter added an unprecedented dimension to public international law. This has become more pronounced over time and, with the shrinking of governments and the expansion of the international corporate sector, the search for international order has shifted. When Kofi Annan launched the Global Compact at Davos in 1999, the corporate sector became a ‘timid’ partner in this search. Nineteen years later, there is still a long way to go.

The HRC as set up in 2006 was intended to be a ‘bridge’ institution. The objective was to depart from the Human Rights Commission that had existed from 1946 to 2006 and move toward what would hopefully become a “Charter body” on the same level as the Economic and Social Council, the General Assembly, and the Security Council, hence the provision for review after 5 years (i.e. in 2011). When that review took place however, any revision of the HRC was shelved for 10 to 15 years. Similarly, the question of ‘effective functioning’ of the treaty bodies has been put to one side until 2020.

Contrary to this stalling, however, the High Commissioner is right: the sooner the international system concentrates on the individual, the better are the chances of preventing or resolving conflicts. The role of civil society in this project cannot be understated. Thus, while it is certainly true that structural change in the SC and other UN institutions is required to continue moving the human rights agenda forward, the HRC cannot simply pass the buck in this regard. It is also time for some introspection if the HRC is truly to fulfil its bridging mandate, as well as expanding respect for human rights more broadly.

In conclusion, high-level change must involve the grass roots of humanity. Indeed, as was said in 1946, as the Human Rights Commission was being launched:

In the reconstruction of the world, the material tasks are most important, but the effort of all town planners, of architects, or doctors, will only assume its real significance if humanity start again to have confidence in its destiny, if the human community gets together around a minimum of common principles.

(Henri Laugier – Assistant Secretary General for Social Affairs under Secretary-General Trygve Lie, on Monday 29 April 1946)

Dr John Pace served as Secretary of the UN Commission on Human Rights between 1978 and 1994, as Coordinator of the 1993 World Conference on Human Rights (Vienna Conference), as Head of Special Procedures, Technical Cooperation and other UN Human Rights sectors, and as Senior Advisor to Human Rights missions in Iraq, Liberia, Cambodia, Palestine, and Indonesia.