Ten years on: From a short play with intermissions to opera without pause


In its inaugural decade, the Human Rights Council has been very effective in spotlighting crises at an early stage and has dealt with chronic and urgent human rights violations. However, routine and workload risk turning it into a long opera without any pause, says Eric Tistounet


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By Eric Tistounet, Chief of the Human Rights Council Branch of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and former Secretary of the Human Rights Council. This article reflects the author’s personal views.

In its inaugural decade, the Human Rights Council has been very effective in spotlighting crises at an early stage and has dealt with chronic and urgent human rights violations. However, routine and workload risk turning it into a long opera without any pause, says Eric Tistounet

The Human Rights Council’s experience in the past ten years has indeed been a success; there is no doubt about it. Multiple panels, debates, interactive dialogues, inter-sessional activities, informal conversations and other features have been organised to sharpen the focus on issues demanding the attention of the human rights community. Numerous mandates of Special Rapporteurs, Independent Experts, Commissions of Inquiry, Fact-Finding Missions, ad hoc investigations or mechanisms were established. It is fair to state that the Council has addressed issues broadly and boldly and has thus served the countless human rights victims across the globe over the past ten years.

The recently concluded session of March 2016 confirms this active engagement. Throughout the four-week session, no fewer than 99 reports were presented and discussed covering a wide range of topics; some 100 dignitaries participated in the annual high-level segment; 30 interactive dialogues were held with leading experts on a vast array of issues; and 250 side events organised by governments and civil society took place in parallel.

Beyond this factual assessment, it is important to underline the invaluable role of the Special Procedures – the Council’s independent human rights experts – and other Council bodies, which have been expanded significantly with a view to addressing the complexity of human rights violations and crises around the world. Since the Council began operating ten years ago, the number of Special Procedure mandates has grown from 35 to 55.

Civil society continues to play a crucial role in the Council, unparalleled in their involvement in any other UN body. Indeed, at any given session, NGO representatives expose in an honest and direct manner human rights violations as they may unfold anywhere in the world. Some 2000 representatives of 250 organisations attend each Council session instilling passion and resolve into the work of the Council, sometimes at a very high personal cost.

Reflecting on the achievements and challenges of the Council over the past ten years, it is my firm personal conviction that it has been very effective in spotlighting crises at their early stages before they intensify or spiral out of control; the Council’s special session on Burundi held last December is just one example. It has also dealt with chronic and urgent human rights violations, initiating urgent investigations with the aim of establishing facts, holding perpetrators accountable and sending a message of hope to victims.

Compared with the former Commission on Human Rights, the Council has demonstrated its flexibility by addressing vital issues in timely and innovative ways, including urgent special sessions, enhanced interactive dialogues, targeted panels, or other ad-hoc formats.

A different sense of frustration against the international community

From the 1970s to the 1990s, the main criticism raised against the Commission on Human Rights was that it had not been a sufficient alarm bell in cases of gross and massive human rights violations. This intense frustration was evident in the Commission’s inaction on the genocides in Cambodia or Rwanda.

Nowadays, the main issues raised by civil society and the world opinion are of a different nature. The Council is indeed credited for alerting the international community about gross and massive human rights violations, but questions are being raised about concrete measures taken to address them in a meaningful and efficient manner.

This means that the previous sense of frustration directed against the Commission solely has now moved slightly away from the Council and is also directed at other UN organs and bodies.

Risk of routine exercise by the UPR and Special Procedures

As far as the Human Rights Council is concerned, the Universal Periodic Review mechanism (UPR) represents the most prominent, innovative and powerful tool to promote change and reflection on sensitive issues for each community, region and country. However, I need to share my personal anxiety about a risk of fatigue as we embark into the 3rd UPR cycle. The UPR should not turn into a routine exercise and its UPR recommendations should be translated into action.

This collective thinking and action must also focus on the responses to the Special Procedures’ recommendations, urgent appeals or communications. The expansion in the number of procedures should be matched with an expansion in the attention given to their work, and this should include a way to deal efficiently with their findings.

Lost in translation?

Indeed, the Council operates like a stage play: there is a message (human rights violations exposed to the public scrutiny; an audience (governments, NGOs, media representatives, civil society at large); and a setting (the beautiful Room XX at the Palais des Nations in Geneva with its stellar ceiling).

But, from a purely ‘personal podium’ point of view, I believe we have moved away from a short play with adequate intermissions to long operas without any pause.

The Human Rights Council has done its best to operate in a transparent manner using webcasting and social media – which incidentally came into being more or less at the same time as the Council was established – and including civil society deeply into its work.

However, 11 panels, six weeks of meetings packed into four, with consecutive meetings lasting from 9:00 am to 9:00 pm, and some 30 interactive dialogues, have led to a loss in purpose and focus, and risk undermining the fundamental aim of the Council.

Two issues require priority action. We need to delineate in a much clearer manner what the Council’s priorities are, and we need to ensure that we are not desensitised to the many important messages echoed during the Council proceedings.

While much has been achieved by the Human Rights Council over the past decade, we need to continue working collectively, across borders, to ensure it is as efficient and effective as it can be. The world’s human rights problems are just too big to be tackled by any one nation alone, or even regionally by a group of nations. The Council has made a difference in people's lives by addressing and exposing human rights in an international setting and by triggering much needed action. If this global stage did not exist, where would the world turn in the face of adversity, misfortune, suffering, and human rights abuses?