The world needs a strong Human Rights Council now more than ever


The Human Rights Council should ensure sustained, high-level attention to country situations, support democratic transitions and human rights progress, and strengthen support for civil society in Geneva and on the ground, says Philip Ruddock.

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By the Hon Philip Ruddock, Australia’s Special Envoy for Human Rights

Human rights have been at the centre of the United Nations for the past 70 years. From the Charter in 1945 to the Sustainable Development Goals in 2015, human rights have been at the core of the UN’s values, activities and purpose.

We live in a period of protracted humanitarian crises and rapid, destabilising change. As the Australian Foreign Minister, the Hon Julie Bishop MP, said at the General Assembly last year, the rise of terrorist groups like Daesh, the continuing depredations of the North Korean regime and the persistence of contemporary forms of slavery reinforce the need for the UN to prosecute a strong human rights agenda – now more than ever.

Australia supported the historic UN General Assembly resolution that established the Human Rights Council (the Council) in 2006 because we recognised the need for a body which would be more effective in promoting and protecting human rights around the globe. The Council has shown over the last decade that it is up to the challenge of engaging on the toughest human rights issues in the world and contributing to global action. Australia is committed to ensuring the Council continues to give hope to victims and advances human rights for all.

At the time of the Council’s creation, Australia said the real measure of the new body’s success would be in the practical improvements it brought to the lives of people whose human rights have been violated. The tenth anniversary is an opportunity to reflect on what the Council has achieved and how it can remain effective and relevant in the decades ahead.

Significant achievements

In Australia’s view, the Council’s achievements have been significant. Key to this has been the ability of the Council to be flexible and adaptive in responding to diverse country situations. Through its Special Procedures, commissions of inquiry, fact-finding missions and other mechanisms, the Council has demonstrated an ability to identify situations of human rights concern, investigate violations, offer practical recommendations and pursue accountability.

The Council’s responses should continue to reflect the unique characteristics of each country situation. Situations of the utmost human rights concern should continue to receive sustained, high-level attention. It was for this reason that Australia led efforts in 2014 to have the situation in the DPRK (North Korea) placed on the UN Security Council agenda. Australia supports the Council’s role as an early warning mechanism to prevent the escalation of human rights violations and abuses. The Council should also engage constructively with countries in transition and offer effective technical support in response to tangible improvements in human rights. Its recent engagement with Sri Lanka is a good example of this type of approach in action. Australia also supports collaborative efforts to promote further improvements in the human rights situation in Myanmar and elsewhere.

In Australia’s view, the Council’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR) process has been fundamental to the Council’s success because it has underscored the universality of human rights. The UPR is a peer-review mechanism without parallel in the history of international relations. It has generated a comprehensive body of assessment and addressed the full spectrum of global human rights practice. But in order for the UPR to live up to its potential there needs to be a renewed focus on the implementation of its recommendations. In our second UPR appearance in November last year, Australia made a voluntary commitment to develop a public and accessible mechanism to monitor our progress against UPR recommendations, including through a periodic public statement. We encourage other member States to consider similar approaches.

The Human Rights Council has also been effective because it has been inclusive. Enshrining participation by civil society and national human rights institutions as a core principle has paid strong dividends. Civil society groups have added a richness and robustness to the Council’s deliberations and helped to connect the on-ground reality of country situations to outcomes in Geneva.

In this light, intimidation and reprisals against NGOs and human rights defenders related to cooperation with the Council are unacceptable and should have no place in the Council. Australia is in fact supporting efforts to extend the Council gold standard of civil society engagement, particularly by national human rights institutions (NHRIs), to other UN bodies such as the Commission on the Status of Women.

Committed to supporting the Council’s work

Ten years after its creation, Australia remains convinced of the Human Rights Council’s value and committed to supporting its work. Australia is seeking an inaugural term on the Council for 2018-20. As a member of the Council, we will bring the same values and attributes that have characterised our engagement over the past decade, including a focus on practical outcomes; a principled commitment to upholding the highest human rights standards while striving for further improvement; an understanding of diversity grounded in Australia’s multicultural society, our deep engagement in our own Indo-Pacific region and proactive support for indigenous peoples; and an open-minded and pragmatic attitude to proposals for further strengthening the Council and its mechanisms.

On the Council, we would seek to give a special focus to gender equality, governance, freedom of expression, the rights of indigenous peoples, NHRIs and capacity building. We will also continue to champion the abolition of the death penalty and the rights of persons with disabilities.

I congratulate the Council on its tenth anniversary and look forward Australia’s continued close engagement with it in the decades to come.

The Hon Philip Ruddock MP is Australia’s Special Envoy on Human Rights. Australia is standing as a candidate for election to the Human Rights Council for 2018-20. Follow the Australian Mission to the UN in Geneva on Twitter at @AustraliaUN_GVA.


  • United Nations
  • UN Human Rights Council
  • Universal Periodic Review
  • Australia
  • Myanmar
  • North Korea