Strengthening the HRC's mandate and impact: A vision for the (near?) future


The Human Rights Council should be a principal organ of the UN, civil society should be able to put items and initiatives on its agenda, and norms and standards should be developed by experts if the Council is to be the truly responsive, influential and effective body the world so desperately needs, says John Pace. 

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By John Pace, former Secretary of the UN Commission on Human Rights and Coordinator of the Vienna Conference on Human Rights

Great expectations

The establishment of the Human Rights Council in 2006 was generally viewed with expectations of a new approach to human rights by the United Nations. It marked a milestone in the evolution of a process launched 70 years earlier, in 1946. The Council carried on with most of the work of its predecessor and introduced the Universal Periodic Review – a more sophisticated version of an earlier version, the System of Periodic Reports (1956-1981) – in addition to setting out certain criteria for membership of its 47 members. Importantly, the Council was a General Assembly body, as distinct from the Commission on Human Rights, which was a functional commission of the Economic and Social Council. Since 1994, the Security Council acknowledged violations of human rights as a possible threat to international peace and security. In 1998, the Rome Statute included human rights crimes, (crimes against humanity) in the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court (ICC).

The Commission on Human Rights was set up to draft the International Bill of Human Rights, and as the international political situation evolved, so did its work, through the Cold War, the emergence of the non-aligned and de-colonised countries, as well as the various economic (and more recently environmental) and social developments and upheavals. By 2006, the Commission had developed a rich arsenal of tools most of which were assumed by its successor, the Human Rights Council.

Much hope and expectation was expressed at the Council’s inaugural meeting on 19 June 2006. The then President of the General Assembly, Jan Eliasson, and Secretary-General Kofi Annan both emphasised the arduous negotiations leading to the adoption of GA resolution 60/251 which established the Council. Significantly, the Secretary-General underlined the fact that ‘For the moment it is a subsidiary organ of the Assembly. But within five years the Assembly will review its status. I venture to hope – and I suggest it should be your ambition – that within five years your work will have so clearly established the Human Rights Council’s authority that there would be a general will to amend the Charter, and to elevate it to the status of a Principal Organ of the United Nations’. Indeed that was the recommendation of the High Level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change.

Unfulfilled promise … and a vision for the future

The exhortation of the Secretary-General to upgrade the Council to Principal Organ status did not materialise. The review that took place in 2011 not only maintained the status of the Human Rights Council as a subsidiary body of the General Assembly – as distinct from a Principal Organ – but it put off further review to ‘an appropriate moment and at a time no sooner than ten years and no later than fifteen years.’

The trend that emerged since has been one of a ‘stockade mentality’ by a number of States who view human rights as a threat to their sovereignty or an offence to their dignity. This in turn has produced a trend to push to minimise – if not exclude – the role of civil society in the Council’s work.

This push risks depriving the Council of that oxygen that has driven human rights in the United Nations since its first days. This phenomenon is further reflected by the Council’s treatment of the Advisory Committee, described as the Council’s ‘think-tank’ but subject to strict control by the Council, thereby limiting its potential benefits.

History shows that this is but a passing phase – but there is a need to help history along. The current situation reflects a Council very much immersed in its own agenda and working methods, a civil society that is growing but increasingly outside any meaningful involvement in the Council’s agenda, and a conventional system sorely in need of streamlining and alien to the Council’s work.

So what might an accessible, responsive and effective Council look like in 2030? Here’s my humble vision.

Global civil society should be able to put items and issues on the Council’s agenda

There is a clear need to harness civil society energy to the benefit of the work of the Council. This could be accomplished by setting up a Chamber for Civil Society within the Council, consisting of organisations representing various interest groups, coming from the respective regions. In much the same way as occurred in preparation for the Vienna Conference in 1993, regional civil society forums could be held to thrash out priorities and to designate representatives to the Chamber. The Civil Society Chamber could formally put issues and items on the plenary Council’s agenda and follow up on those issues, reporting back to the regional forums. This would much better connect the Council to the ground.

Human rights norms and standards should be developed by experts

The Council will have a second Chamber on Norms and Standards, made up of the Human Rights Committee and the Committee on Economic and Social Rights, whose task would be to define issues and priorities relating to standards. These issues and priorities would be identified in consultation with a Standards Advisory Group, consisting of a plenary of all other treaty bodies. This arrangement would also assist in streamlining the work of the treaty bodies, without necessitating any amendment to the existing conventions. Like the Civil Society Chamber, the Chamber on Norms and Standards should be mandated to put issues on the agenda of the Council and ensure follow up with the treaty bodies.

The Council should be a Principal Organ

For this system to function effectively, the Council would need to become a Principal Organ of the UN – a move that remains on the agenda and which must not be lost sight of. Increasing the membership is the best way of ensuring accountability and universality, principles underpinning the UPR, which should carry on under this arrangement. It should also contribute to changing the current defensive culture which has stymied the work of the Council.


On its tenth anniversary, the Council presents a picture of an institution that has almost reached its ‘use-by’ date in the current configuration. The delivery of the Council on substantive issues has been disappointing in comparison to the expectations at its creation. This would be one way of ensuring a renewed and stronger future for human rights.

Dr John Pace served for more than three decade in a range of senior human rights positions within the UN, including as Secretary to the Commission on Human Rights (1978-91 and 1993-94), head of Special Procedures, Technical Cooperation, Research and Right to Development with the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, and Chief of the Human Rights Office of the UN Assistance Mission to Iraq (2004-2006). He was also Coordinator of the landmark World Conference on Human Rights held in Vienna in 1993. 


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  • United Nations
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