Personal commitment to human rights and political will to think creatively, the keys to successful leadership


In steering the Human Rights Council to fulfil its important mandate, the personal commitment of its President to the full and effective promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms for all persons, and the political will to think outside the box are central, says former Laura Dupuy.

Article disponible en français ici

By Laura Dupuy, Ambassador of Uruguay, and President of the Human Rights Council from June 2011 to December 2012

The Human Rights Council (the Council) has a vital role to play in strengthening the protection of human rights, preventing violations, promoting accountability and pursuing implementation of human rights obligations by States. In this endeavour, civil society actors play a key role; they bring the United Nations closer to the realities on the ground, and therefore their participation in the work of the Council is fundamental. To do so safely, human rights defenders must be protected.

From my experience during a year-and-a-half as President of the Council, in its sixth cycle from June 2011 to December 2012, I realised that many aspects of the Council’s work can and should be enhanced, even within the existing norms and rules of procedure which frame its work. Thinking ‘outside the box’ and having the political will to do so are very much needed.

An example was improving in practice the methods of work of the confidential complaint procedure, winning in interaction and potential, without losing its confidential nature.

Further small steps were improvements made to the accessibility of the UN buildings in Geneva and to the Council’s work; changing our daily way of doing things, empathising with persons with disabilities, and looking for opportunities for them to interact. For example, this included making assistive technology available to them, such as a braille printer, and facilitating their physical entrance into the UN, both achieved without substantial costs.

Personal commitment needed

In steering the Council to fulfil its important mandate, the personal commitment of the Council president, to the full and effective promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms for all persons, is central. He or she should act as a fair broker on critical human rights and institutional issues, trying to approach all relevant actors, asking for their understanding and cooperation.

On political or sensitive thematic issues, it is clear that governments still tend to repeat methods that have proved to be ineffective. They do so guided by national interests or legal or socio-cultural context, failing to look beyond these restraints for the common good of humankind or of our societies.

Key areas of future improvement

The Council’s journey to improvement must include five key elements. First, the consistent message by all Council presidents has to be to demand respect of all human rights and fundamental freedoms for all, starting at the Council’s own sessions, meetings and spaces. This means giving space for civil society representatives to engage, contributing to the advancement of international law and standards and their implementation on the ground, bringing both criticism and proposals to enhance rights respect based on good practices.

Second, we must tackle reprisals. The practice of intimidation or reprisals has already been condemned by the Council as a whole, and by successive presidents, but tackling this issue requires constant vigilance. Council presidents should use a both dialogue with the concerned countries, and alerts or clear calls to respect rights and freedoms, depending on the circumstances. This is especially important and urgent when the victims are participants in the Council sessions, or their families.

Third, the financial and human resource limitations of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and the Human Rights Council must be addressed. Voluntary contributions should be used to supplement substantive work, such as by reinforcing human rights officers at a national or regional office or UN stabilisation mission, while getting more budget from the UN to support structural aspects, like the work of Special Procedures and support for webcasting, which is the only official record of the Council and UPR meetings, a tool for a proper follow-up of resolutions and recommendations.

Fourth, while it should be reminded that the secretariat of the Council president has been slowly institutionalised, the presidency requires further support. It is positive that there is now a team of advisers, making it autonomous from the OHCHR secretariat. Nevertheless, the president is continually approached by many different actors, including governments, international organisations, NGOs, human rights defenders, national human rights institutions, private lawyers, and academia. This places a heavy burden on the president’s office, in advising according to the international human rights standards, promoting existing mechanisms or suggesting new ways to move forward, such as new forms of coordination and synergies at international and regional levels, touching on legal, procedural and political aspects as needed.

Fifth, and finally, we must keep in mind that human rights, development and peace and security are intertwined purposes of the United Nations. The UN Agenda for Development with its Sustainable Development Goals and indicators will be an important guide to all States on how to work in an inclusive and non-discriminatory manner, and it has the potential to impact positively on our lives and those of future generations.

The Human Rights Council should definitely help in achieving this objective, through its Special Procedures, the UPR mechanism, and deliberations, to build more awareness, conscience, opportunities of exchanging experiences, and consensus around principled and effective solutions. In the long term, the best cure to prevent human rights violations and atrocities is to invest in building democratic societies under the rule of law.

Laura Dupuy is the former Permanent Representative of Uruguay to the UN in Geneva, and was President of the UN Human Rights Council from June 2011 to December 2012. Prior to that, Ambassador Dupuy served, inter alia, as Director of Human Rights and Humanitarian Law at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Uruguay, as Director for the Americas, responsible for bilateral relations with the countries in the region, and as President-Rapporteur of the Social Forum 2010 on Climate Change and Human Rights.


  • United Nations
  • Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR)
  • Special Procedures of the UN Human Rights Council
  • UN Human Rights Council
  • Universal Periodic Review