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A Rough Guide to the Human Rights Council

The Human Rights Council is the main intergovernmental body within the United Nations (UN) system responsible for “promoting universal respect for the protection of all human rights and fundamental freedoms for all” and for addressing human rights violations, including gross and systematic violations.

The Council was created on 15 March 2006 by UN General Assembly resolution 60/251 which decided “to establish the Human Rights Council, based in Geneva, in replacement of the Commission on Human Rights”. The Commission had become discredited amid controversies over its membership and perceived politicisation. The establishment of the Human Rights Council was part of a comprehensive UN reform effort by former Secretary-General Kofi Annan outlined in his 2005 report, ‘In Larger Freedom: Towards Development, Security, and Human Rights for All’. He presented human rights, along with economic and social development and peace and security, as one of three ‘pillars’ on which to base the work of the UN.

The Council, which comprises 47 members apportioned by geographic region, meets for three regular sessions per year (March, June and September) for a total of 10 weeks or more. It can also hold special sessions at the request of any Council member with the support of one-third of the Council membership.

Institution-building package

The Council’s first session took place from 19th to 30th June 2006. One year later, the Council adopted its ‘Institution-building package’ (resolution 5/1) which details procedures, mechanisms and structures that form the basis of its work. Among those mechanisms were the new Universal Periodic Review mechanism, the Advisory Committee and the Complaint Procedure – all of which report directly to the Council. The Council also assumed a number of mechanisms established by the former Commission of Human Rights including the Special Procedures.

Council sessions

Regular sessions of the Human Rights Council (three per year) serve as a forum for dialogue on pressing thematic and country-specific human rights issues facing the international community. A typical session includes a briefing by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights on important human rights issues and situations, the presentation of UN reports on human rights promotion and protection, the holding of interactive dialogues with UN Special Procedures (based on their reports to the Council), the adoption ofUPR reports for recently-reviewed countries, panel debates on matters of particular interest or importance, and the consideration (Council members only) of complaints brought to the Council’s attention under the Confidential Complaints Procedure (see below).

The main output of a given Council session is a series of Human Rights Council resolutions drafted and negotiated by States and designed to take forward a particular human rights issue or agenda. Action is taken on such resolutions (adoption by consensus, adoption with a vote, or rejection) at the end of each Council session.

If one third of Council members so requests, the Human Rights Council can decide at any time to hold a Special session to address human rights violations and emergencies (with either a country or thematic focus). Special sessions last for one day and allow States and other stakeholders to hear updates (for example by the High Commissioner, relevant Special Procedures mandate holders or Commissions of Inquiry) and present their views on the issue at hand. The session usually concludes with the adoption of a resolution.

A good summary of the work of the Human Rights Council in a given year can be found here.

Universal Periodic Review

All Council members and other UN member States are required to undergo a Universal Periodic Review (UPR) that examines a State’s fulfilment of its human rights obligations and commitments. Each review is an intergovernmental process that facilitates an interactive dialogue between the country under review and the UPR working group, which is composed of the 47 Council members and chaired by the Council President.

During the review cycles, which began in April 2008 and see each State reviewed every four and a half years, the UPR working group makes initial recommendations with subsequent reviews focusing on the implementation of recommendations from the previous review

More information on the UPR Process, including on how to engage with it, can be found here.

Complaint Procedure

The Council maintains a Complaint Procedure that allows individuals and groups to report human rights abuses in a confidential setting. The goal of the procedure is to objectively and efficiently facilitate dialogue and cooperation among the accused State, Council members, and the complainant(s). A working group on communications and a working group on situations evaluate the complaints and bring them to the attention of the Council.

Special Procedures

The Council, like the previous Commission, maintains a system of Special Procedures that includes country and thematic mandates.Country mandates, which normally last for a year and can be renewed, allow mandate-holders to examine and advise on human rights situations in specific countries. Thematic mandates, which normally last for three years and can also be renewed, allow mandate-holders to analyse major human rights phenomena globally. Special Procedure mandate-holders serve in an independent, personal capacity and conduct in-depth research and site visits pertaining to their issue area or country.

There are a number of different types of Special Procedure, with ‘Special Rapporteur’ being the most common. Other types include ‘Independent Experts’, ‘Working Groups’ and ‘Special Representatives of the Secretary-General’. All undertake similar tasks, as set out in the resolution establishing or renewing their mandates, although there are differences in emphasis – for example Independent Experts tend to focus on norm-setting (in the case of thematic mandates) and technical assistance and capacity-building (in the case of country mandates), whereas Special Rapporteurs usually carry out a wider range of human rights promotion and protection activities including norm-setting, country visits and receiving and acting upon individual complaints.

Mandate-holders are appointed by the Human Rights Council upon a proposal of the President of the Council. The President bases his or her proposal on the recommendations of a consultative group (five ambassadors, one from each regional group) and following wide consultations.

More information on Special Procedures, including how to engage with them, can be found here and here.

Five-Year Review

On 17th June 2011, the UN General Assembly adopted resolution 65/281, which was the result of a review of the work and functioning of the Human Rights Council after five years (as mandated by General Assembly resolution 60/251).

In the resolution, member States agreed to maintain the Council’s status as a subsidiary organ of the General Assembly. They also adopted several procedural changes to the Council’s work, such as moving the start of its yearly membership cycle from June to January (thus moving Council elections from the spring to the autumn), creating an office of the Council President, and establishing future review mechanisms.

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