Human Rights Council in 2030: Relevant or moribund?


Despite some successes, the Human Rights Council’s responses to situations of human rights violations still lack substance and a rigorous approach to measuring progress. In its next decade, it should become more responsive to people’s needs, and inclusive of victims' voices, writes R. Iniyan Ilango.

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By R. Iniyan Ilango, UN Advocacy Programme Manager at the Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA)

The most basic and fundamental function of the UN Human Rights Council is to address and prevent human rights violations. Despite several debates in the last 10 years, a clear methodology to systematically and effectively address serious human rights violations is still absent.

The Council is a political animal, member states primarily function based on their national self-interest and political alliances. The acceptance and rejection of calls for attention on human rights situations often depend on the vagaries of international politics. Attempts have also been made to soften the Council’s scrutiny of situations by suggesting that human rights situations should only be addressed thematically or as matters of capacity building and assistance. However, the impracticality of this can be seen form the fact that many states that support this themselves do not always follow this argument in their voting behaviour. 

Despite this, in the last 10 years the Council has been able to address several serious human situations with some level of success. For example in Asia: the Council acted as a key reference point for opposing a repressive regime and exposing wartime atrocities after the Civil War in Sri Lanka; it has maintained sustained international pressure in the context of key democratic changes in Burma/Myanmar; and in North Korea, the Council mandated investigation was instrumental in exposing the enormous human rights catastrophe in the country.

While the Council must be recognised for its successes it should also not be forgotten that these successes are far from the ideal. In Sri Lanka, the Council failed to stop gross human rights violations as they happened. Instead in 2009, when the war ended, it passed a deeply flawed resolution that overlooked violations and marked one of the lowest points in the Council’s history. It took many more years for the body to make amends and gain some eventual success. The process is still ongoing while justice and accountability on the ground are still lacking. Can the Council change all this by 2030?

In a political body such as the Council it is no coincidence that ‘politicisation’ is a common accusation deployed by States of all shades against one another. In such a situation it may be beneficial to have independent trigger mechanisms that prompt members of the Council to discuss situations. This could be in the form of a recommendation by the High Commissioner for Human rights; or from a group of Special Procedure mandate holders; or from relevant regional mechanisms; or from an A-Status National Human Rights Institution in association with recognised NGOs. These triggers would not erode existing prerogatives of States to flag human rights situations but add to them.[1]

The Council must also ensure that its responses are substantive and lasting. A key gap in the current approach is a tendency to stop focusing on a human rights situation very quickly, particularly when there has been some form of political transition. Political change does not necessarily mean better protection of human rights. The Council should ensure that it is able to measure progress in an objective manner using benchmarks, and base its decisions to end scrutiny of a situation on actual results on the ground. The Council has taken a good step in this direction in its latest resolution on Burma/Myanmar, where it called for benchmarks to measure progress. This is a model that could be further built on.

The Council’s increasingly overloaded schedule needs relief if enough time is to be found to effectively discuss human rights situations. Further, the Security Council should be reformed and democratised, so that a few states do not monopolise the power structures of the UN, causing imbalances that can and do affect debates in the Human Rights Council. The Human Rights Council cannot be an ivory tower. It needs to become more relevant for people on the ground and be able to directly listen to victims and be inclusive of diverse voices. This change requires not just the efforts of States, but also that of UN officials and civil society that support the Council.

Addressing human rights situations is the raison d’être of the Human Rights Council and there is a need to move towards increased effectiveness. 10 years is a short time, some argue. But consider this: Almost 100 years ago failure to be effective brought another institution, the League of Nations, to its death bed in only about 15 years. As we look ahead to 2030, the UN Human Rights Council, which is located in the same premises as the erstwhile League, has the benefit of learning from this grim reminder.


[1] For more see proposals in a document produced by a group of civil society organisations entitled 'Strengthening the Effectiveness of the Human Rights Council at 10'.


  • Asia
  • United Nations
  • UN Human Rights Council
  • Myanmar
  • North Korea
  • Sri Lanka