Posted on May 17th, 2021



The Human Rights Council of the UN is, as its name indicates, the UN body which deals with human rights. However, UNHRC does not rank as one of the principal UN organizations. UNHRC is designated a subordinate body of the UN. It is not therefore, a powerful body”.

The principal organizations of the UN are General Assembly, Security Council, ECOSOC, Trusteeship Council, International Court of Justice , UN Secretariat, specialized agencies and affiliated organizations.

The   UN Human Rights Council was created in 2006 to replace UN Commission on Human rights, by Resolution 60/251.

Resolution 60/251, stated that

  • UN decides to establish the Human Rights Council, based in Geneva, as a subsidiary organ of the General Assembly. The Assembly shall review the status of the Council within five years ( clause 1)
  •  The Council shall be responsible for promoting universal respect for the protection of all human rights and fundamental freedoms for all, without distinction of any kind and in a fair and equal manner. (Clause 2)
  •  The work of the Council shall be guided by the principles of universality, impartiality, objectivity and non-selectivity, constructive international dialogue and cooperation, with a view to enhancing the promotion and protection of all human rights, civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights, including the right to development; (clause 4)
  • the work of the Council shall be transparent, fair and impartial ( Clause 12)

HRC has three regular sessions per year, in March, June and September. HRC can also   hold a special session at any time, to address human rights violations, if one third of the HRC panel requests it. That was how the 11th Special Session of the HRC was convened in 2009 to consider the situation in Sri Lanka, just one week after the conflict came to an end.

The UNHRC is   empowered, through its Universal Periodic Review (UPR) to examine the HR status of all 193 UN Member States. The human rights position of all UN member countries come up before the HRC on periodic review, every four years. The dialogue between UNHRC and the member state are  recorded in UNHRC documents ( forget title) .  I have looked at  them. No member state ever admitted guilt. They had explanations, excuses and where necessary, there was outright rejection of the charges.

UNHRC  can pass resolutions on a country, on majority vote, whether that country likes it or not. But the Resolution  will not have legal force.   No resolution of the UNHCR can have direct legal consequence UNHRC  can only make recommendations, said Palitha Kohona.  UNHRC lacks the power to act against countries. UNHRC cannot cannot impose sanctions. It does not have that power either.

Subhas Gujadhur and Toby Lamarque were asked to make an assessment of the HRC Resolutions issued over the years. Their report was published as The evolution and future direction of the UN Human Rights Council’s resolution system’ (2015). They found that Resolutions relating to specific countries, were a mere 7% of its total output, the rest were on  themes. The country resolution were confined to 12 situations,  mainly Israel but also Sri Lanka. The authors noted that the    10 highest ranked countries for HR violations were not in this list.

Most of the resolutions  were introduced by USA and the European Union, 56%  by EU and 20%  by USA. The Council’s willingness to address country-specific human rights violations is therefore heavily dependent on just two Western powers, the EU and the US. When one considers the scale of human rights violations that have taken place  since 2007, it is clear that, by only addressing fourteen situations, the Council is guilty of  neglecting its responsibilities, said Gujadhur and Lamarque . 

The resolutions brought by the west mainly target developing countries, particularly those in Asia and Africa, said Sri Lanka’s Pathfinder Foundation. The west   decides which country should be hauled before it and who should undertake the task. Sri Lanka was handled by Canada in the 1980s and by USA and UK  in 2017. Certain third world countries have grouped together to counter this. It was this group that supported Sri Lanka during the special session in May 2009, said Pathfinder.

Pathfinder observed that the developed countries in the west and the oil rich Gulf countries are rarely, if ever, summoned before HRC. The sole exception to this is Israel. HRC has passed many resolutions against Israel, to the fury of Israel. In 2017, HRC adopted 5 such resolution in one session despite opposition from US and UK. Israel and Cuba have ignored UHRC  Resolutions.

UNHRC is not well off financially. UNHRC receives only 3.7 per cent of the  UN regular budget. This  is insufficient for the work of the UNHRC and donors have to step in. UNHRC  web page   called for donations in 2017. IN 2020   it was announced that UN is having a financial crisis,  and  had cut down the funds given to the UNHRC.   UNHRC has had to reduce some of its activities such as lunch time meetings.

Two thirds of the UNHCR budget comes from voluntary contributions  from Member States and other donors.  in 2017, the leading donors were United State of America (USD 450,360,2382), Germany (476,918,6683) European  Union (436,036,9864), Japan (152,359,7735) United    Kingdom (136,219,3706) Sweden (111,958,9457) Norway (98,941,9568).

In 2019 the leading donors were United States of America (1,706,832,053, and 33,898,591)  Germany (390,479,234 )Sweden (142,556,147, and 22,687,329),Japan (126,466,093 and 29,780,084) United Kingdom (122,408,890) Norway (94,345,776) Denmark (91,641,152)Netherlands (72,362,386).

Because  they provide most of the funds Western countries have a hold on the HRC, said critics. They control appointments to the HRC and OCHRC. Most of the staff in the HRC are white.   There are unusually high numbers from US, UK, France, Germany,  and Italy in the HRC  . Some junior staff are paid directly by member countries.

Countries have objected to the imbalanced representation in the HRC and OHCHR.During the 2012 session, Sri Lanka, along with Cuba and Pakistan successfully sponsored a resolution seeking transparency in funding and staffing the UNHRC.

They complained that that 80% of the UNHRC’s funding requirements are supplied by powerful nations such as the United States and its allies.  And key positions in the UNHCR are mostly held by   persons who have served in the foreign services of such countries.  This affects the impartiality of the UNHRC, they said.   

The structure of the UNHRC will lead to problems, sooner or later. UNHRC consists of a rotating body of UN member states, sitting in judgment over the rest. This creates two UN groups, HR pure and HR guilty”. This is the only UN body, in my view, which has got itself into this situation.

Resolution 60/251 tries to solve this problem by declaring ‘When electing members of the Council, Member States shall take into account the contribution of candidates to the promotion and protection of human rights, may suspend the rights of membership in the Council of a member of the Council that commits gross and systematic violations of human rights.  (Clause 8)

In 2016, some member countries of the HRC objected to China, Russia, Cuba and Saudi Arabia holding seats in the HRC. ‘Too many repressive regimes have found a place on the United Nations Human Rights Council, We must vote in countries  that they have good human rights records’, said UK sanctimoniously.

At the plenary session of the HRC in 2016, an NGO called UN Watch protested about the inclusion of China, Russia and Cuba in the Council.  Cuba promptly brought in a point of order. An NGO has no right to adversely comment on the composition of the HRC, said Cuba.  Cuba will obstruct if the NGO tries to do so again. China, Russia, Pakistan, Venezuela, agreed with Cuba that they had every right to sit on the HRC. USA, UK, Netherlands and Canada disagreed. (

UN General Assembly   has, from the start, had its doubts about this new Council.   The Organization is still under observation. When the UNHRC was created, the UN General Assembly decided that the work and functioning of the new HRC should be reviewed five years after it had come into existence, and the review should take place at the level of the General Assembly. At this review, the status of the Council would also be considered.”

The first review of the UHRC took place in 2011.The General Assembly decided to  continue   the Human Rights Council as  a subsidiary body  and to re-examine its position at a date   no sooner than ten years and no later than fifteen years from 2011. (Resolution 65/281 of 17.6.2011.) This means that UNHRC will come up for review before the UN General Assembly in 2021 or between 2021 and 2026.

 It is likely that at this second review, a firm decision will be taken whether to continue with the UNHRC or not. This means that at present, the future of the UNHRC is uncertain. It is certainly not a powerful, entrenched body of the UN. (continued)

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