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Through 2014, the Human Rights Council has faced an unprecedented proliferation of human rights crises in many regions around the world. In the face of those challenges, the Council’s record has been mixed. Overall, the Council engaged helpfully on issues that were already on its agenda, but it failed to respond adequately to emerging human rights crises. In a world facing more turmoil, states at the Human Rights Council need to step up to meet the growing threats to human rights across the globe. They should demonstrate greater leadership to respond to the needs of victims, while redoubling efforts to combat double standards and selectivity.
The Human Rights Council’s mixed record in 2014
At one level, 2014 showed continued effective engagement by the Council on situations in need of attention. In March, the Council called for a full-fledged international investigation into violations by all sides during the final months of Sri Lanka’s civil war. The Council also found that crimes against humanity were committed for decades in North Korea and sent a clear message that the country’s leaders should be held accountable through Security Council action. Just a few months later, the Council set up another Commission of Inquiry, this time on Eritrea. Throughout 2014, the Council adopted 29 resolutions or Presidential Statements addressing 20 different country situations. Two new situations were added to its agenda: the human rights crisis in Ukraine and the situation in Iraq following the takeover of large portions of its territory by the extremist group Islamic State (known as ISIS).
But a closer look at the Council’s record last year gives a different picture. On Libya, the Council mustered only a resolution on technical assistance in March 2014. When the situation in Libya deteriorated dramatically several months later, with violent clashes between rival armed groups intensifying, the Council failed to re-engage, and did nothing to bring greater focus to the mounting abuses and the need for accountability.
On Iraq, the Council stepped up to condemn the extraordinary brutality of ISIS. But when mandating the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) to investigate abuses in Iraq, the Council failed to address violations by all parties to the conflict. The Council’s flawed approach failed to recognize that credible investigations require looking at the conduct of all combatants, a shortcoming rectified by OHCHR’s report.
Finally, although the Council took up the conflict in South Sudan during each of its regular sessions in 2014, the Council has yet to establish the long-overdue independent mechanism needed to ensure accountability.
Worse still, other country situations did not make it onto the Council’s agenda at all. Twenty-seven states issued a joint statement on the massive government crackdown in Egypt that followed the Raba’a Square massacre. Yet, in the face of thousands detained, mass death sentences issued, and rapidly closing space for civil society, the situation in Egypt was not otherwise addressed by the Council. In Bahrain, human rights defenders and activists continue to be harassed and hundreds of people are detained for exercising their basic rights. But as the government keeps playing for time with the OHCHR and special rapporteurs, the Council has been reluctant to act in a more concerted manner beyond joint statements led by Switzerland. Finally, chronic situations such as Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, or Nigeria following attacks by the extremist armed group Boko Haram did not find their way onto the Council’s agenda.
Membership and the power of initiative
Since the creation of the Human Rights Council in 2006, states from different regional groups have gradually consolidated support for the Council’s mandate to address country situations. This is particularly true for Latin American states. Chile, Costa Rica (which rotated off the Council in 2015) and Mexico have been among the most consistent supporters of Council action in situations of rights violations, including through their support to resolutions addressing the crisis in Palestine and the occupied Arab territories (OPT). The trend in favor of Council engagement on country situations is also visible for African members, including Botswana, Sierra Leone, Benin, and Cote d’Ivoire. The support expressed by Sierra Leone on the Council’s Sri Lanka action, and by Chile and Botswana on North Korea is indicative of their growing commitment to uphold the highest principles for the protection of human rights at the Council.
However, double standards by many Council members affect the credibility of their engagement at the Council. Countries such as China, Cuba, Russia, and Venezuela rejected all country resolutions put to a vote, with the exception of each resolution addressing the OPT, which they supported. Other states, including South Africa, Namibia and Ethiopia, voted in favor of each of the OPT resolutions, but systematically abstained on all other country-specific resolutions, arguing that such resolutions are politicized and divisive. At the same time, the United States has consistently supported the Council’s engagement on many country situations while uniformly rejecting actions focusing on Israel.
States generally only invoke "selectivity" to urge that the Council address fewer situations, not more. As a consequence, many situations that deserve the Council’s attention, like crackdowns on civil society in China or Egypt, ongoing abuses in Afghanistan, arbitrary detention at Guantanamo Bay, or mass surveillance, escaped the Council’s scrutiny. States that are genuinely concerned by selectivity should work to ensure all situations meriting the Council’s attention are addressed, rather than invoking selectivity as an excuse for inaction.
Addressing the leadership gap
Many delegations fail to translate their concerns over emerging or chronic country situations into action. Initiating Council engagement on a country situation undoubtedly requires an investment of both time and political capital. But the Council cannot fulfill its mandate unless one or more of its members are willing to make that commitment. Yet, when it comes to identifying a champion among Council members for engagement on a country situation not already on the agenda, few states are willing to step forward and play this important role.
The United States has traditionally exercised significant leadership in making the Council more responsive and in building coalitions of states to act on human rights violations. The European Union has also played a key role in numerous resolutions, including those on Burma, Belarus and, together with Japan, North Korea. But with very few exceptions, individual EU members have not been willing to take up the challenge of bringing new situations forward.
At the same time, states that are supportive of the Council’s action on country situations, including some Latin American states like Mexico, Chile, Argentina and Brazil, are still unwilling to play a more significant role in leading action on a situation not yet addressed by the Council. The African group puts forward the most country resolutions of any regions (almost all under Item 10), but the quality of these resolutions varied significantly depending on the willingness of the country concerned to recognize its human rights challenges. Switzerland successfully mobilized collective action in 2012 and 2013 through a series of joint statements denouncing the continued crackdown in Bahrain and calling for the referral of the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court. The failure of other delegations to replicate this approach in other situations is disappointing.
The Council’s inaction on situations like in Russia, China or Uzbekistan are reminders that leadership matters. States seeking Council membership should not limit their role to supporting initiatives championed by others, but instead should mobilize action on situations that should be on the Council’s agenda. Council members should also revive the successful practice of cross-regional groups of states working together to address sensitive situations of violations.
Misuse of Item 10
The Human Rights Council adopted the majority of its country-specific resolutions under agenda Item 10 on Technical assistance and capacity-building. Engagement under Item 10 is premised on the idea that countries are willing to address the human rights challenges they face through working with the Council, recognizing that when possible, human rights issues are better tackled with commitment of the country concerned.
Unfortunately, the translation of this premise into decisions at the Council reflects more cynicism than genuine commitment to redress dire situations.
The most obvious flaw in current practice is the growing tendency to accept that countries should draft their own resolutions under Item 10. In 2014, all Item 10 resolutions were primarily drafted by the government concerned. By holding the pen, governments facing major human rights challenges, have a virtual veto over the language used in the resolutions. As a consequence, resolutions under Item 10 often fail to reflect the gravity of the situations addressed, as did those on the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sudan and South Sudan. Item 10 resolutions often fail to set up follow-up mechanisms that can have any meaningful impact on the crisis.
This obvious conflict of interest places all states in an unfortunate position, as even the most willing state sometimes has difficulty putting sensitive issues forward in a political environment. Of course, the very fact that a situation is being addressed under Item 10 is at times a result of the concerned state’s lack of ability or willingness to take action to address ongoing violations in the first place, making that state a poor choice to author the resolution. Finally, having the concerned state author a resolution on itself creates a significant risk that the resulting resolution will have gaps or lack balance, as was the case with the Iraq special session resolution. These problems were also further exposed in September 2014 when only the threat of an alternative resolution convinced the government of Sudan to accept more critical language within the resolution it had authored under Item 10.
Item 10 is intended to be a space in the Council’s agenda to address situations of countries willing to receive technical assistance to address human rights challenges that they acknowledge and are committed to addressing. In fact, Item 10 is now being used to allow situations of grave violations to be debated with very limited consequences.
Members of the Council that take the provision of technical support seriously should urgently revisit their approach to the Council’s Item 10 resolutions. They should develop working methods that better reflect the concerns of the international community and better respond to the needs of victims. They should also condition the adoption of Item 10 resolutions to the concerned country’s willingness to acknowledge the challenges they face; their commitment to address past and ongoing violations and to provide access to independent human rights monitors; and their willingness to genuinely cooperate with mechanisms established by the Council.
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The Human Rights Council was established nearly 10 years ago. While some argue that reforms are needed, the reality is that the Council could take huge steps forward without any major overhaul. All it would take is for each of its members to take greater responsibility for shaping a Council that is more responsive to the needs of victims. The collective response of the Council to violations is not only made of the sum of their positions, but also by the resolve of their leadership. It is time to take the initiative, and take further action.
When the UN Human Rights Council was created in 2006, Human Rights Watch called on member states to work vigorously to make it a strong and effective protector of human rights worldwide. Eight years later, the Council has come some distance towards fulfilling that potential, but still has a substantial way to go.
The Council’s record has improved significantly
over the past two years.At the same time, it continues to be plagued by several
persistent problems that prevent it from receiving top marks for its work
during this period.
Glass Half Full
In the past four years, the Human Rights Council has more than doubled the number of situations around the world in which it has taken action. In 2013 the Council adopted a total of 31 resolutions covering 20 human rights situations compared to 10 resolutions on eight situations in 2009.
The Council not only expanded its engagement on countries in crisis or conflict, such as Central African Republic and Libya, but also started to shed light on serious, but otherwise neglected situations in countries such as Eritrea and Sri Lanka.
While the “situation in Palestine and other Occupied Arab Territories” remains the Council’s only standing agenda item on a particular location, the Council’s work on the crisis in Syria has shown that it can shine an intense spotlight on other conflict situations as well.
A growing number of Council members are now willing to support engagement on specific country situations.
Until very recently,many Council members explicitly contested the Council’s engagement on country situations, denouncing such work as biased or politicized. Today, more states than ever before are willing to sponsor or vote in favor of resolutions that confront countries about their human rights records.This positive trend is intimately linked to the decreasing role of regional-block politics in the Council.Governments that committed themselves to work across regions in order to rise above regional or political divides should be credited for this important change, as should those that became more willing to engage on country situations based on the merits of each case.
Since June 2011,the positive shift in engagement
by African Council member was one of the most notable developments. The
constructive role of Botswana, Mauritius and Nigeria was remarkable, and new
member state Benin also had a strong voting record. States such as Costa Rica,
Chile and Austria also raised the bar with their strong, principled positions
and solid voting records. Switzerland stood out for its leadership in engaging
on country situations that other members failed to address adequately. In
particular, Switzerland successfully enlisted a number of governments to take up
human rights violations in Bahrain and to request referral of the situation in Syria
to the International Criminal Court. The United States continued to exercise substantial
leadership in the Council and invested significant energy in making the Council
more responsive to country situations, although criticism of its double
standards regarding key allies, particularly Israel, remained warranted.
Glass Half Empty
Although the Human Rights Council has made progress in addressing some human rights situations, in other deserving cases such as Afghanistan, Turkmenistan and China, it failed utterly to respond. This inconsistent record reflects the reality that the Council’s agenda is what governments make it. While a number of states have, as noted, become more willing to support country-specific action once a situation is under discussion at the Council, only a few states are willing to lead initiatives for the Council to take up a country situation. This circumstance means that the range of issues considered reflects the priorities of these states, giving these countries a disproportionate role in shaping the Council’s agenda and ensuring that situations like the Guantanamo Bay detention facility remain unaddressed at the Council. To remedy this situation, states should actively pursue the proposal that emerged during the review of the Council in 2011, which suggested that independent entities such as the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights or the UN Secretary-General be allowed to place issues before the Council for discussion. This would allow a greater number of situations to be addressed and would help combat the Council’s selective engagement.
The problem of quality control
Even when it does take up a country situation, the Council at times adopted resolutions that failed to respond adequately to ongoing human rights violations, particularly when resolutions were adopted under the Council’s technical cooperation agenda item.
In these cases, the concerned state was permitted to draft itself the resolution relating to its own human rights situation, without any conditions attached. Unsurprisingly, the resulting resolutions have been generally more focused on praising the relevant government’s efforts regarding violations than expressing concern about the persistent abuses it commits. One of the worst examples of such a self-serving, incomplete resolution is the text adopted on human rights in Sudan,which failed to adequately address any of the serious human rights violations in the country.
When the Council considered the human rights situation in Libya after the fall of Muammar Gaddafi, it took up a resolution in 2012 that ignored the recommendations made by the Council’s own commission of inquiry. Russia and Uganda suggested amendments that would have strengthened the draft by providing for independent reporting on the situation and adding concerns on arbitrary detention and the violation of migrants rights. Those amendments were voted down, however, as Libyan authorities rejected them. The Council was left with a resolution that neither responded to the challenges on the ground nor committed Libya to serious cooperation with the Council.After much criticism and a further deterioration in the human rights situation, the resolution adopted on Libya the following year remedied some of these problems.
In conflict and post-conflict situations, the Council’s approach also runs the risk of failing to hold all parties responsible for violations and to press for impartial justice. For example, in the case of Mali, the Council adopted a resolution in 2012 that failed to give adequate attention to the issue of state responsibility for human rights violations, and instead focused almost entirely on the responsibility of non-state armed groups in the north of the country.
This virtually unchecked ability of governments to dilute and at times misdirect the Council’s engagement should be addressed. States engaged in negotiations on country resolutions should instead rely on clear benchmarks to test whether a country is genuinely committed to cooperating with the Council and to work with the Council to address the human rights challenges it faces. Denial that there are any such challenges should be a red flag – only governments that are ready to openly acknowledge the human rights problems they face can be expected to take steps to address them. When they are not willing to engage transparently and cooperatively in addressing concerns -particularly those identified by experts appointed by the Human Rights Council itself -member states should insist that the concerned state should not have veto power over the contents of the resolution. In such instances, no resolution may be a better option than a resolution that is so tame that it endorses an abusive government’s behavior.
Double standards in approaching country situations continue to undermine the Council’s response to human rights violations worldwide. For example, while several League of Arab States members called for strong and concerted action to denounce violations in Syria, the same states were unwilling to support Council engagement in other deserving cases. Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait all strongly supported Council action on Syria, but Qatar voted against resolutions on Sri Lanka and Iran, and abstained on a resolution concerning Belarus, while Saudi Arabia and Kuwait opposed the Sri Lanka resolution and abstained on Iran and Belarus.
These double standards are clearly seen as well
in the readiness of Russia, China, and Cuba to reject almost any engagement on
country situations anywhere in the world, while routinely supporting all the
Council’s action on human rights violations by Israel. At the same time, the
United States continues to vote against any resolution focusing on Israel,
while supporting Council engagement in many other situations.