Ten lessons from 30 sessions: Improving the Human Rights Council


Ten brief ‘lessons’ highlight the great potential and possible pitfalls of the Human Rights Council’s ability to respond to serious violations. These lessons stem from Philippe Dam’s direct exposure to the Council during its ten years of existence and its 30 first sessions, and are shaped by his work with then-Geneva Director at Human Rights Watch, Julie de Rivero.

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By Philippe Dam, Human Rights Watch Advocacy Director for Europe and Central Asia, and former Human Rights Watch Geneva Deputy Director.

1.  The Council can succeed if it shows resolve

When it established the Human Rights Council (the Council), the UN General Assembly mandated it to ‘address situations of violations of human rights, including gross and systematic violations, and make recommendations thereon’ and to ’respond promptly to human rights emergencies.’ This was a straightforward ask. The Council’s authority to scrutinise a government’s human rights record can change the course of events on the ground and at the international level. This is precisely why many fear its action and go out of their way to prevent it.

Ten years into the Council, a small number of States continue to oppose action on country-specific situations as a matter of policy and have fought fiercely to prevent the Council from taking action. When this fails, those same States work to weaken the Council’s resolve, using procedural objections or promoting a so-called ‘cooperative approach’ with the concerned State, regardless of the reality on the ground. Despite such diplomatic counter-efforts, in cases such as Eritrea, North Korea, Sri Lanka, and in the early months of the crisis in Syria, the Council’s decisive action helped expose human rights violations and shifted or influenced the global response to these situations.

2.  The Council does make a difference to human rights defenders on the ground

While the Human Rights Council does not have enforcement powers like the Security Council, its political weapon is to shine a light, to expose violations and their perpetrators. When the Council recognises abuses being committed in a given country, it takes action by appointing an independent mechanism to assess the situation and make recommendations, through engagement with the government and other stakeholders – including, and especially, civil society. This generates independent, international scrutiny that supports the causes of human rights defenders and provides legitimacy to their goals as no other institution can do.

The contributions, session after session, of so many human rights defenders from all over the world and their support for the renewal of reporting mandates, for example on Iran or Belarus, are the best evidence that the Council matters to those on the ground. For human rights defenders and victims of abuses, the Council’s relevance lies in its capacity to expose violations and hold governments to account.

3. The Council cannot resolve a human rights crisis on its own but it can help catalyse international action

The Council’s actions are most relevant when they amplify the work of national players and contribute to holding perpetrators to account. But given the complexity of many crises, the Council cannot always resolve a situation of human rights violations alone. What it can do is serve as a much needed catalyst to mobilise international attention and trigger action.

For instance, the work of the Commission of Inquiry appointed by the Council on crimes in North Korea led the UN to recognise that crimes against humanity were committed in the country. As a result, the Security Council was encouraged to consider referring the situation to the International Criminal Court. Similarly, the Commission of Inquiry on Syria was repeatedly asked to brief the Security Council on crimes committed by all parties in the conflict. By providing a detailed, independent and expert assessment of a given situation, the Human Rights Council has the potential to provide the groundwork for action by other international bodies.

4.  The Security Council can be a more relevant body than the Human Rights Council in preventing human rights violations

Despite the Human Rights Council’s specialised mandate, the reality is that the Security Council can sometimes address human rights concerns in a more forceful and direct way. For example, the International Commission of Inquiry on human rights in the Central African Republic was established in December 2013 by the Security Council – not the Human Rights Council. Another clear case in point has been the situation in South Sudan, where the Security Council has developed a peacekeeping presence with a strong mandate, including human rights and protection of civilians. By contrast, the Human Rights Council has struggled to bring the country under international scrutiny.

In these cases, the Human Rights Council can work instead to expose crimes, thus mobilising the international community to prevent future violations or promote greater accountability for atrocities. Once a human rights situation deteriorates into an all-out conflict and requires more robust efforts to protect civilians on the ground, the work of the Security Council proves more relevant.

5.  Power or regional politics should not trump accountability

The Human Rights Council’s capacity to react to serious human rights violations is constrained by regional group politics. The continued bloc-style positioning of the African Group, for example, has de facto amplified the views of States that have expressed the most hostile views against the Council’s action on country situations and eroded the diversity of views within the continent. Similarly, by opposing Council actions that do not enjoy the support of the country concerned – i.e. by the government violating rights – the African Group, Arab Group or the group of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation contribute to a steady erosion of the Council’s ability to respond to rights abuses.

When Western countries practice this bloc politics, they also negatively influence the Council’s capacity to address grave situations of grave human rights violations. For example, when the European Union has not been able to reach a common position, Western States’ paralysis has hampered efforts to address important human rights crises, including on Bahrain, Azerbaijan, Egypt and in response to the crimes committed by the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen.

6.  More countries need to step up and take leadership

Assertive action on situations of concern is more likely when a group of States has a clear vision of what they are trying to achieve through the Council. Yet when it comes to identifying new champions to address a country situation not already on the Council’s agenda, few are willing to step forward. The United States has traditionally exercised significant leadership in building coalitions to act on human rights violations, as demonstrated by the Council’s resolutions on accountability in Sri Lanka or on human rights in Iran. The European Union has at times played a key role as well, including on Belarus and North Korea. But too often, the challenge of taking up new situations is perceived as too costly.

In 2012 and 2013, Switzerland successfully led a series of joint statements denouncing the crackdown in Bahrain and calling for the referral of the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court. But the failure of other delegations to replicate this approach or to actively support such efforts, either by evolving from a joint statement or by shouldering some of the burden of outreach, is deeply troubling.

7.  Council members should not denounce selectivity and double standards while at the same time blocking a more objective response to situations

Since the creation of the Council in 2006, a growing number of States from various regional groups have worked to consolidate the implementation of its mandate to address situations of violations. However, too many continue to reject country-specific action as a matter of policy. Countries such as China, Cuba, Russia and Venezuela have systematically rejected all country resolutions put to a vote – with the notable exception of each resolution addressing the Occupied Palestinian Territories, which they supported. Those countries invoke ‘selectivity’ to urge the Council to address fewer situations, not more. By doing so, they may protect themselves from scrutiny, but at the same time they allow the Council to ignore many other situations that deserve the Council’s attention, including ongoing abuses in Afghanistan, arbitrary detention at Guantanamo Bay, mass surveillance, or the poor handling of the refugee crisis by European governments.

8.  A small group of cross regional States who take a principled stance can make a big impact on the Council’s ability to respond to serious violations

The Council’s success is conditional on the support of States, and over the years a gradually larger number of States have demonstrated their willingness to address country situations. The principled engagement of countries like Chile, Mexico, Uruguay or Costa Rica in the Latin American Group, or of Botswana, Sierra Leone or Ghana in the African Group, has made a massive difference in the way the Council acts. Similarly, the proactive role played in the Western European and Other Group by countries like Switzerland, the Netherlands or Ireland, as well as the UK on Sri Lanka and France on West and Central African crises, acts as a counterbalance to the Council’s tendency toward inaction.

9.  ‘West-rest’ politics is the Council’s Achilles heel, but can be overcome

The perception that addressing situations of human rights violations is solely an interest of the West is a key threat to the Council’s ability to hold those responsible for grave violations to account. For States that regularly seek to delegitimise the Council’s role in addressing situations of violations, like China, Russia, Egypt or Pakistan, denouncing the politicised nature of the Council and excluding the sufferings of victims from the debate is a more convincing argument than advertising their open support to abusive governments. However, in response, strong and principled cross-regional partnerships can and do counteract this strategy, as evidenced by the Council actions on Sri Lanka or North Korea. The Council’s most successful engagement came out as the result of the solid engagement of States from different regional groups working.

Cross-regional strategies help avoid the polarising effect of the regional bloc politics mentioned earlier. But as long as Western States remain the main initiators of country specific resolutions, they will have to demonstrate they are unshakably principled if they want to secure cross-regional support. The trust required is very fragile, especially when those same Western countries continue to protect their allies whenever it suits them. The uniform opposition of the US to resolutions addressing violations committed by Israel, or the failure of the US, the UK and others to genuinely address the abuses committed by the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen or by allied militias in Iraq, fail the victims as much as they strengthen the argument that Council debates simply revise confrontation between Western interests and the rest of the world.

10.  Individuals, not just States, make a difference

Working at the Human Rights Council exposes defenders and NGOs – including me – to diplomats from all over the world. Of course, their job is to defend the principles and objectives of their governments. But beyond geopolitics, the hard work and passion of many working there is critically important to the Council’s activities, and ultimately one of the central drivers of the Council’s most successful debates. Diplomats from a broad range of countries and from all regions have impressed and sometimes galvanised us by their determination to put human rights before politics. Many of them have been deeply touched by testimonies of victims, have reconsidered their perceptions and have moved mountains. As we discuss the Council’s next ten years, human rights defenders and activists should never forget that many of those sitting behind their country’s name plate in Room XX are true human rights diplomats.


  • Africa
  • Asia
  • Europe
  • Latin America and Caribbean
  • Middle East and North Africa
  • North America
  • United Nations
  • UN Human Rights Council
  • Afghanistan
  • Azerbaijan
  • Bahrain
  • Belarus
  • Botswana
  • Chile
  • China
  • Costa Rica
  • Cuba
  • Egypt
  • Eritrea
  • France
  • Ghana
  • Iran
  • Ireland
  • Israel
  • Mexico
  • Netherlands
  • North Korea
  • Pakistan
  • Russia
  • Sierra Leone
  • Sri Lanka
  • Switzerland
  • Syria
  • United Kingdom
  • United States
  • Venezuela
  • Yemen