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UN Human Rights Council

FEB 11

Mains   > International relations   >   International Institutions   >   Other Institutions


  • The USA has announced that it will return to the U.N. Human Rights Council (UNHRC) as an observer, after quitting it in 2018.


  • The Human Rights Council is an inter-governmental body within the United Nations.
  • It is 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 UNHRC was established by the UN General Assembly on 15 March 2006 to replace the UN Commission on Human Rights.


  • The headquarters of UNHRC is in Geneva, Switzerland and meets for three or more sessions per year.
  • The Council will have a President and four vice presidents representing regional groups in the Council. They are responsible for all procedural and organizational matters related to the Council.


  • The Council is made up of 47 UN member states, which are elected by the UN General Assembly for a staggered three-year term.
  • No member can occupy a seat for more than two consecutive terms.
  • Election is on a regional group basis: 13 for Africa, 13 for Asia, 6 for Eastern Europe, 8 for Latin America and the Caribbean (GRULAC), and 7 for the Western European and Others Group (WEOG).




  • To do its work, the Human Rights Council gets help from groups of experts. They are called ‘Advisory Committees’.
  • Sometimes, the Human Rights Council also works with other experts who have knowledge about a particular right or a particular country, called ‘Special Procedures’.


  • All Council members and U.N. member states are required to undergo a Universal Periodic Review (UPR).
  • It examines a member’s fulfillment of its human rights obligations and commitments.
  • The review is an intergovernmental process that facilitates an interactive dialogue between the country under review and the UPR working group


  • Took human rights to the forefront: As a fairly high-profile forum, it ensures that human rights remain visible among UN activities.
  • Adaptability to change: The council has adopted several mandates and policies that uphold human rights in today’s dynamic world.  
    • New mandates have been created to address important issues such as the right to privacy and the elimination of discrimination against women.
    • Important new standards have been adopted and are starting to be used, such as the “Guiding Principles on business and human rights”.
    • Special sessions are often held to address emergencies.
  • Held countries accountable: Council initiatives have contributed to accountability efforts in countries such as Côte d’Ivoire, Sri Lanka and North Korea.
  • Effective review mechanism: The council’s Universal Periodic Review process has become a useful means for addressing and reviewing human rights issues. The Special Procedures have also grown in strength and influence.


  • Continuing crisis: The council has failed to successfully address some of the long standing human rights violations, such as those in Syria, Yemen and Palestine. 
  • Questionable effectiveness: The Council's ability to act effectively and quickly is overly dependent on the political will of its members. The Council's credibility is also being undermined by those states which have chosen not to join the body, especially USA.
  • Politicization of the council: Throughout its years, it has become a highly politicised body, dependent upon the political will of its members to act. Eg: Its limited impact on the Russian annexation of Crimea, largely due to Russia’s dominant presence in the Council.
  • Involvement of questionable members: Critics are concerned that countries widely perceived as human rights abusers, such as China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Venezuela, have served (or are serving) as Council members.
  • Over emphasis on Israel: Some criticize the inclusion of the human rights situation in Palestine and Israel as a permanent item on the Council’s agenda, called ‘Agenda item 7’. Out of the six special sessions called since its inception, the Council has devoted four to Israel.
  • Financial dependency on US: The Human Rights Council is funded primarily through the U.N. regular budget, of which the United States is assessed 22%. Hence, the US holds a de-facto control over the council’s affairs.
  • Opaque election process: The Council adopts a closed ballot system for elections in the General Assembly. This makes it easier for countries with questionable human rights records to be elected to the Council.


  • Transparent elections: Some experts and policymakers have proposed open ballots in Council elections to hold countries publicly accountable for their votes and lowering the two-third vote threshold to make it easier to remove a Council member.
  • Enhance cooperation with USA: American acquiescence and cooperation is vital to the success of the Council as the Council needs the US for funding, support, and its power in influencing other states to comply with human rights norms.
  • Ensure consistency: In order to prevent accusations of selectivity and politicization, the Council must respond to human rights issues consistently and not be dependent on the ideological, political or economic alliances of its members.


Q. Give an account of the structure and mandate of the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC). Has the council lived up to its objectives. Substantiate your views?

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