The 10th Anniversary of the Human Rights Council: Reflecting back and looking forward

29.05.2016

The Human Rights Council has played a significant and positive role in protecting human rights, promoting dialogue, and contributing to the prevention of violations. The work of human rights defenders has been critical to the Council’s success. However, the Council's anniversary should be an occasion not only for for celebration, but for a commitment to make the Council more efficient and effective, says its 2016 President.

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By CHOI Kyonglim, President of the UN Human Rights Council

Ten years ago, on 15 March 2006, the Member States of the UN created a new inter-governmental body with the hope that it would breath new life into the organisation’s human rights programme and revitalise the important human rights pillar. They gave the new body the guiding principles of universality, impartiality, objectivity, constructive international dialogue and cooperation.

Since then, the Human Rights Council (the Council) has lived up to its mandate to promote and protect human rights and fundamental freedoms for all. It has established itself as the premier forum to hear a wide range of voices from all stakeholders, and played a key role in sounding the alarm on potential or deteriorating crises.

The Council’s role in protecting rights, promoting dialogue and contributing to the prevention of violations

The Council has also contributed to mainstreaming human rights within the UN system. Discussions in the Council on challenging and pressing issues have often triggered much needed debates in the Security Council and the General Assembly. The Human Rights Council's actions on Syria, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and Burundi are just three examples of this, illustrating the link between human rights and peace and security, and demonstrating how these two pillars of the UN are mutually reinforcing.

The Universal Periodic Review (UPR), a universal and inclusive mechanism of the Council that provides a forum for non-politicised, non-selective and non-confrontational discussion among peers, continues to show great promise. Widely recognised as one of the most important achievements of the Council and commonly referred to as the Council’s ‘crown jewel’, the UPR illuminates the human rights situation in all 193 member States.

The Special Procedures also play a central role within the Council, acting as its ears and eyes and shining a light into the darkest corners of the world. The reports of the Special Procedures mandate holders constitute one of the main sources of reliable information for the Council and provide a solid basis for dialogues, discussions and debates. The country visits carried out by the mandate holders provide the Council with direct information on achievements made and challenges faced by the concerned countries.

Indeed, the Council has made great achievements. But it also faces difficult challenges. In many parts of the world, serious violations of human rights continue to take place. Issues relating to migrants, refugees, terrorism, violent extremism, climate change and development remain serious hurdles in the promotion and protection of human rights. The world looks to the Council for guidance, and the victims and the vulnerable look to the Council for help.

The tenth anniversary: An opportunity to make the Council stronger, more efficient and more effective

The tenth anniversary provides us with the opportunity to reflect on the Council’s achievements and challenges, assess what we have learned, prescribe change where necessary, and look forward to a stronger and more effective Council.

This year, I have the great honour and privilege to witness first-hand and up close the achievements of the Human Rights Council as well as the challenges it faces.

The latest session of the Human Rights Council, in March 2016, was the busiest session to date. In just 19 days, we considered 99 reports, hosted more than 100 dignitaries, listened to more than 3000 statements, and adopted 40 resolutions and decisions. The programme of work was completely packed with back-to-back meetings: 66 meetings in total, including six night meetings, in less than four weeks.

While the Council’s considerable workload demonstrates the importance that so many attach to its mandate, the overload affects the quality of what we do. The Council has become so busy that it lacks sufficient space and time to properly address important current issues and focus on implementation. For example, the potential of the 2030 Global Agenda for Sustainable Development to promote the universal enjoyment of human rights deserves more heeded discussion in the Human Rights Council. However, the Council does not have enough time to focus on the issue more closely. The Council has, in fact, become a victim of its own success.

The Human Rights Council faces an additional challenge that is often referred to as the gap between New York and Geneva. For example, initiatives undertaken in Geneva are not always adequately supported by decisions in New York, and information related to discussions being held in New York often fails to reach Geneva in time. The relationship between New York and Geneva, and more specifically between the General Assembly and the Human Rights Council, is of the utmost importance. This gap must be bridged in order for the Council to work more efficiently and to have greater impact.

The UPR process is not without its imperfections. As we prepare to close the second cycle of the UPR and commence the third cycle, we should embrace the moment to assess what we have learned and consider what should be done to further strengthen this unique and valuable process.

Human rights defenders: Indispensable contributors to the Council’s impact

Human rights defenders, regardless of the form that they take, are an essential piece of the Human Rights Council. They provide the Council and its mechanisms with first-hand information about human rights situations and the effect our decisions have on the ground, and infuse passion and perspective into our discussions. It is our duty to encourage their participation in the Council and its mechanisms, and protect them against all acts of intimidation and reprisal that result from their work.

The next ten years

The Human Rights Council is still young. In its first ten years it has encountered many challenges, but it has also demonstrated enormous potential, including by empowering people and groups who would not otherwise be able to make their voices heard.

The Council will host a high-level panel on the first day of its 32nd session in June, to reflect on the body’s achievements, shortfalls and future challenges. Between now and then, I would like to encourage all stakeholders to consider how we can work together to strengthen the work and the impact of the Council.

I am immensely proud of what the Human Rights Council has achieved in its first decade, and am truly honoured to be serving as President of this august body during this momentous year. Over the next ten years, we must continue to build on our successes and address the challenges, while always maintaining our focus on those we aim to serve – the vulnerable and victims of human rights abuses.

CHOI Kyonglim is President of the Human Rights Council during 2016. He previously served as the Ambassador and Permanent Representative of South Korea to the UN in Geneva.