The UN agency is leading the global fight for human rights amid external challenges and internal contradictions
On October 13, elections were held for the cohort of member nations who will serve for the next three years (2021-23) in the UN Human Rights Council. Among the five countries that were vying for membership from the Asia-Pacific region, four — Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Nepal and China — made it, while Saudi Arabia lost out.
The UNHRC has 47 members serving at any time with elections held to fill up seats every year, based on allocations to regions across the world to ensure geographical representation. Along with the aforementioned countries, the others who booked a seat in the council included Russia and Ukraine from Eastern Europe; France and the U.K. from Western Europe and other states; Ivory Coast, Gabon, Malawi and Senegal from Africa; and Bolivia, Cuba and Mexico from the Latin American and Caribbean States. Countries are disallowed from occupying a seat for more than two consecutive terms.
The election to the Asia Pacific cohort this year was eventful. Saudi Arabia which had controversially earned a representation twice (2014-16, followed by 2017-2019) despite a known reputation for several human rights violations, could not secure a seat this time. In the secret ballot conducted in the 193-member UN General Assembly, Saudi Arabia could manage only 90 votes in comparison to Pakistan (169), Uzbekistan (164), Nepal (150) and China (139). For a nation with immense clout in West Asia, the inability to secure a seat despite the regime’s efforts to refurbish its image could be chalked up to the fallout of the assassination of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the detention of several women rights’ activists, among others.
Yet, despite the exclusion of Saudi Arabia, the record of some other member-states such as China and Russia in the council has also not lived up to the aims and mission of the UNHRC, which has led to critics questioning its relevance. Powerful countries such as the U.S. have refused to participate in the Council, with the Trump administration taking the country out of the Council in 2018, years after it was reinstated under President Barack Obama.
The UNHRC, which was reconstituted from its predecessor organisation, the UN Commission on Human Rights, is a United Nations body whose mission is to promote and protect human rights across the world. The council is seen as a central structure in the global human rights architecture, a political body with representatives drawn from the General Assembly.
Apart from the council, the UN has also set up a number of treaty-based organisations to monitor compliance with human rights standards and international human rights treaties such as the Human Rights Committee and the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.
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 (Special Procedures).
Human rights breaches that are investigated by the UNHRC across UN member states relate to themes such as freedom of association and assembly, freedom of expression, freedom of belief and religion, women’s rights, LGBT rights and the rights of racial and ethnic minorities. However, what makes the Council’s composition problematic is that several of its members run afoul of its proclaimed aims (for example, the one-party systems of China and Cuba that have a controversial record on freedom of expression or the anti-gay policies of Russia).
At one level, the 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 of the General Assembly without special privileges for the more developed Western countries, as is the case with other multilateral institutions such as the IMF or the World Bank.
The UNHRC replaced the Human Rights Commission in 2006 after a vast majority of the UN member States endorsed the then UN Secretary General Kofi Annan’s proposal to create a new institution that would overcome the “credibility deficit” of the previous organisation. The General Assembly Resolution 60/251 helped establish the Council, whose detailed workings were negotiated subsequently.
The mechanism of Universal Periodic Review (UPR) was incorporated into the functioning to give teeth to the organisation. The UPR, which has a national report from the state under review plus a compilation of UN information prepared by the Office of the UN High Commission for Human Rights, also allows for a summary of information from civil society actors.
Countries such as Israel, Syria, Iran, North Korea, Myanmar, Sudan, Cambodia, Belarus, Burundi and Eritrea have been investigated and strongly condemned by the UNHRC for violating various human rights. Sri Lanka, for example, had, in a co-sponsored resolution in 2015, provided commitments to the council to promote reconciliation, accountability and human rights, following the end of the civil war in 2009. The Gotabaya Rajapaksa-led government withdrew the country from those commitments earlier this year.
In a unanimously passed resolution that was sponsored by African states, the UNHRC in June 2020, ordered a report on “systematic racism” against people of African descent following the murder of the African-American George Floyd in the U.S. India has not been spared from scrutiny either. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, had earlier this year expressed concern over the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the clampdown in Kashmir, besides the “inter-communal attacks” in Delhi in February. Later, Ms. Bachelet had welcomed the release of political leaders in Jammu and Kashmir, but expressed concern over the communications restrictions as part of “Global Human Rights update” at the start of the 45th session of the UNHRC in September 2020.
While the U.S. has stayed away from the council, keeping in line with the isolationist impulse of the Trump administration, other Western countries have actively participated in the UNHRC despite their misgivings about countries with a blemished rights record. 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). Between these “extremities”, there are other rising powers such as Brazil and India who have committed to hold states to account for human rights issues.
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.
Studies have shown that, in terms of “human rights scores” — an overall evaluation of human rights records of countries as part of the grouping — the UNHCR’s scores have steadily increased (at least till 2016, according to one study) and have been much higher than that of the Commission. The gap between the scores for the countries within the UNHCR and for the rest in the UNGA has also narrowed down over time, indicating that the membership included more countries with better human rights records”. But the challenges remain high. The UNHCR is still a work in progress.