About the Human Rights Council

The UN Human Rights Council was created in 2006 by the UN General Assembly. It sits in Geneva, Switzerland and has sessions throughout the year.  All UN member states can participate in the activities of the Human Rights Council, but only 47 of them are members with voting rights. Members are elected for three-year terms and can serve two terms consecutively; they then must rotate off the Council for one year before seeking membership again.  Elections to the Council are staggered, so that one-third of the seats are up for election each year.

The seats at the UN are distributed in the following way: 

  • 13 seats for the Africa Group

  • 13 seats for Asia Group

  • 8 seats for the Latin America and the Caribbean Group

  • 7 seats for Western Europe and Others Group

  • 6 seats for Eastern Europe Group

For the current members of the Council, click here.

How does the UN Human Rights Council respond to situations of violations around the world?

The Council's toolbox to respond to particular country situations is diverse. Its actions can include adopting a resolution condemning violations, appointing a UN expert to monitor and report on a particular situation, or establishing fact-finding missions or inquiries to investigate violations. These and other tools can be used to clarify the situation on the ground, document violations, identify perpetrators of abuses, and bring pressure to bear on governments to put an end to the violations.

The Council engages with concerned governments to address human rights violations, and in many cases, governments cooperate with the Council by acknowledging areas of concern and agreeing to take action to address them. However, when governments are unwilling to recognize the need for Council engagement and reject the need for corrective action, a cooperative approach is not viable. 

What kind of violations or "country situations" does the Human Rights Council address?

The Human Rights Council has an explicit mandate to:

  • address situations of violations of human rights, including gross and systematic violations; 

  • contribute to the prevention of human rights violations; and 

  • respond promptly to human rights emergencies.

There is no cap on the number of situations the Council can respond to and no other criteria limiting the situations it should address.  

Since 2011, the Council has taken action on the following country situations: 

  • Belarus

  • Burma
  • Burundi 

  • Cambodia

  • Central African Republic
  • Cote d’Ivoire
  • Democratic Republic of Congo

  • Eritrea

  • Guinea

  • Haiti

  • Palestine and other Occupied Arab Territories
  • Iran
  • Iraq
  • Libya

  • Mali

  • North Korea
  • Somalia

  • South Sudan

  • Sri Lanka
  • Sudan

  • Syria

  • Yemen

Who decides what situations are addressed by the Council?

Any member or observer state can put forward resolutions on an issue, although only member states can adopt all decisions of the Council.  A simple majority is required for a resolution to be adopted.

Member and observer states can also make individual or collective statements to address a particular situation.

The support of one-third of the Council’s members (16 of 47) is required for the Council to hold a special session. 

Although the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and UN experts can raise issues of concern when they speak or present reports before the Council, member states are not obliged to take up these issues for further discussion within the Council’s work.

Ultimately, all governments participating in the Human Rights Council, members and observers alike, have the ability to help set the Council’s agenda, through debates, negotiations,and  resolutions. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) play an important role in influencing governments to take up particular issues. For example, Sri Lankan and international NGOs played a crucial role providing information to governments showing the need for an international response to Sri Lanka's continued impunity for war crimes, and the Council has engaged on that issue since 2012.

Typically for a situation to be taken up by the Council, at least one country must be willing to take the lead and convince a sufficient number of other states to act and support the Human Rights Council's action. 

Do some situations receive more attention than others?

Yes, some situations receive a lot of attention while others remain ignored by the Human Rights Council.

The Human Rights Council has done nothing to respond to serious violations in places such as Uzbekistan, Afghanistan and Zimbabwe, to name a few.  Yet, the Council’s work on the crisis in Syria has shown that it can shine a global spotlight on some situations. Since the beginning of the Syria crisis, the Council has adopted more than a dozen resolutions, held four special sessions and hosted several debates on the situation.  

Somalia is another country situation where the Council has taken action regularly by organizing special panel debates and adopting numerous resolutions. In the case of Somalia, this has been achieved through a cooperative approach, as the Somali delegation has accepted to work with the Council in addressing its situation.

A growing number of country situations are the subject of annual discussions. This is currently the case of the situations in North Korea and Eritrea, for instance.

The situation in Palestine and other Occupied Arab Territories is the only country situation that has its own agenda item – agenda item 7. It is the focus of a regular Council resolution and has been the subject of five special sessions.

Why are some situations addressed and others ignored?

As in a national parliament, decision-making within the Human Rights Council is a political process that reflects the interests, positions and commitments of its members. The quality of the decisions adopted by the Council depends not only on the Council's composition, but also on power politics within the body, the roles of regional groups, and the capability of particular ambassadors. The Council's action is also sometimes hampered by the limited number of governments willing to champion specific human rights issues. 

Why is the situation in Palestine and the other Occupied Arab Territories treated as a separate issue?

When the Council was established, a majority of states decided that the Human Rights Council should have a permanent agenda item on the “situation in Palestine and other Occupied Arab Territories.” This remains the Council’s only standing agenda item on a particular location, making the Council's focus on Israel disproportionate.  Since the Council’s establishment, Human Rights Watch has said that it is not the Council’s decision to address human rights violations by Israel that is problematic, but rather the manner in which member states take up those situations in contrast with the way in which they downplay or even ignore other offenders.

For more on Human Rights Watch's assessment of the Council's engagement on Israel / Occupied Palestinian Territories, click here.

Previous Human Rights Watch reports on the HRC