Bridging the divide: A proposal for ‘hybrid’ resolutions at the Human Rights Council


The use of ‘hybrid’ resolutions, focusing on particular human rights situations in a particular country or region, could be a way for the Council to avoid being a thematic ‘talk shop’ and to more effectively address human rights situations in a concrete and targeted way in line with its mandate, writes Marc Limon.


Article disponible en français ici

By Marc Limon, Executive Director of the Universal Rights Group

The use of ‘hybrid’ resolutions, focusing on particular human rights situations in a particular country or region, could be a way for the Council to avoid being a thematic ‘talk shop’ and to more effectively address human rights situations in a concrete and targeted way in line with its mandate, writes Marc Limon.

It is hard to think of a question that divides the Members States of the UN as thoroughly and as intractably as the question of whether - and how - the international community should address situations of violations of human rights in specific countries.

During the early decades of the United Nations’ existence, it was the major Western powers that held the position that the UN should not interfere in the internal affairs of States. Fortunately for the victims of human rights violations in places like South Africa and Chile, in the late 1960s and 1970s a courageous group of developing countries from Africa, Asia and the Caribbean begged to differ. More recently of course, there has been something of a role-reversal: today, an influential group of developing States (containing some of the same States that helped dismantle Western exceptionalism half a century earlier) maintains a so-called ‘principled position’ against country-specific resolutions and mandates, which they consider to be an unfair, selective, politicised and, ultimately, futile exercise in ‘naming and shaming.’

When one considers the mandate and purpose of the Human Rights Council (the Council), this continued schism in the international body politic is perhaps surprising. When UN Heads of State decided to establish the Council in 2005, they made clear that the new body’s main purpose would be to address gross and systematic violations of human rights (GA resolution 60/1). This core mandate was repeated by the General Assembly in resolution 60/251.

The first ten years: An inadequate focus on situations requiring attention

Yet, despite this clear mandate, the fight over whether and how the Council should address human rights violations has remained one of the defining characteristics of the first decade of the Council’s existence. One consequence of this polarisation is that, over the past ten years, only around eight percent of all Council resolutions have been adopted under ‘item 4’, i.e. human rights situations requiring the Council’s attention.

This imbalance has also been evident in terms of the amount of Council time devoted to different parts of its mandate. Universal Rights Group research has shown that during the period 2010-2014, activities under item 3 (general thematic issues) took up approximately one-third of the Council’s session time (an average of 129 hours per year). This is in stark contrast to the hours devoted to item 4: around 10 percent of the Council’s total session time (around 31 hours per year).

If the Council is to ever fulfil its mandate, it is imperative that the international community uses the body’s tenth anniversary to reflect on possible solutions to this situation.

There are a number of options. One is to focus on paragraph 5f of GA resolution 60/251, which states that the Council shall contribute, through dialogue and cooperation, to the prevention of human rights violations. There are of course numerous benefits to a preventative approach, not least the fact that, unlike the Council’s normal reactive approach, prevention emphasises dialogue and cooperation with the State concerned, and is thus more likely to be accepted. A second possibility is what is often called the ‘incremental approach.’ During the second Glion Human Rights Dialogue in 2015, some States that traditionally oppose country-specific resolutions explained that they do not oppose such resolutions per se, rather they oppose them as an approach of first resort. Following this logic, if the Council makes a genuine attempt to reach out to and work with a concerned State, but such overtures are rejected, then traditional opponents of item 4 might be more willing to let subsequent, more condemnatory resolutions pass.

A third option to help overcome divisions between those States that believe that the Council has a clear mandate to address country situations, and those that believe that the Council’s main function is to provide a forum for thematic debate; is simply to combine the two approaches.

Hybrid resolutions: Fulfilling the Council’s mandate

There is nothing in GA resolution 60/251, or in the Council’s institution-building package, to suggest that Council resolutions should be either country-specific or thematic. Indeed, item 3 of the Council’s agenda says nothing about general thematic debate. Rather speaks of ‘the promotion and protection of all human rights.’

This means that there is nothing to stop the Council addressing a particular theme or human right (e.g. freedom of expression, the right to food) but in a specific geographic setting (e.g. a country). On the contrary, such a ‘hybrid’ approach has much to commend it. For example, if the Council, instead of passing generic annual resolutions on the rights of migrants, on the rights of minorities, on the right to education, or on freedom of expression, were to adopt ‘hybrid’ resolutions on, say, the rights of migrants in the Mediterranean basin, or the rights of religious minorities in Europe, or the right to education of girls in northern Nigeria, or on the maintenance of blasphemy laws in OIC countries, it would have the double advantage of showing the Council’s relevance (especially in the eyes of the media and the public), and of allowing Member States (potentially) to agree on specific and implementable recommendations. It is also (just) possible that such resolutions might be more acceptable to the concerned State than a broader resolution on ‘the human rights situation in….’

There is some evidence that States are aware of the potential benefits of this approach. In June 2010, the Council adopted resolution 14/15 on ‘Addressing attacks on school children in Afghanistan.’ More recently, in 2015, after discussions on the issue during Glion II, Pakistan, on behalf of the OIC, tabled a resolution on the rights of [religious] minorities in Myanmar.

Human rights violations do not differentiate between being ‘thematic’ and being ‘country-specific,’ and there is no reason why human rights resolutions should draw so strict a distinction. Instead, hybrid resolutions offer an innovative approach to addressing specific cases of violations in the context of their general theme. Such resolutions would enhance the protection mandate of the Council, and help redirect it from becoming a thematic ‘talking-shop’ into serving as a body that responds quickly and efficiently to cases of gross and systematic violations of human rights.

Marc Limon is Executive Director of the Universal Rights Group. Follow him on Twitter at @Marc_Limon.