Is the Human Rights Council headed for a reckoning?

Delegates gather in the Human Rights and Alliance of Civilizations Room, best known as Room XX, for the 50th session of the Human Rights Council, at the European UN headquarters in Geneva, 13 June, 2022. (Credit: Keystone/Valentin Flauraud)

Sixteen years after its creation, the UN rights body is put to the test by unprecedented geopolitical tensions.

At Palais des Nations, under Miquel Barceló’s colourful stalactites dripping down Room XX’s domed ceiling, world powers are exchanging blows over opposing visions of human rights. One, Russia, has been knocked out by the west. As China stands freshly accused of serious rights violations in Xinjiang by the UN office for high commissioner for human rights, Michelle Bachelet, western states are called back to the ring to face an even more fierce opponent.

Can the 16-year-old UN body survive the pressure or is it doomed to meet the same fate of its predecessor, the Commission on Human Rights? Geneva Solutions spoke to Marc Limon, executive director of Universal Rights Group and a seasoned observer of the Human Rights Council, about the challenges the Geneva-based body faces.

A battle for influence

To understand where the Human Rights Council is going, we must look at where it came from, Limon stresses: “The UN human rights system, previously led by the Commission on Human Rights and now the Human Rights Council, has always been a function of tension and interplay between two different visions of human rights.”

Western powers have historically argued that those who commit serious rights abuses should be held to account publically – “the naming and shaming approach”, Limon calls it. In this line, they have pushed for inquiry mechanisms and appointment of experts that single out states for their wrong doings. Cuba, China and its allies have opposed these methods, claiming that human rights should be promoted through cooperation and dialogue.

Similarly, a battle has ensued between progressive and conservative interpretations of human rights law, Limon adds, with the West pushing, for example, for wider recognition of women and LGBTQI rights, and Saudi Arabia, Russia and other conservative states leading the charge against their attempts.

“Historically, the west has won out,” Limon says. And it continued to do so as it voted Russia out of the Human Rights Council and appointed a commission of inquiry into its invasion of Ukraine. But China has been reversing the tide.

China rising

“Over the past three or four years, China has moved to the centre of the international stage,” says Limon. It has placed Chinese nationals in high-level positions at international organisations and has deployed heavy diplomatic efforts at multilateral fora, including the Human Rights Council, where “it was aided and abetted by Donald Trump's decision to pull the US out of the Council”.

Its efforts have been fruitful. “Developing countries led by China and the more conservative states like Saudi Arabia, and before Russia, have been fighting back effectively for the first time,” says Limon, citing the historic defeat of the war crimes probe on Yemen and the adoption of a South-led resolution on colonialism in September 2021, “a clever piece of diplomacy to attack western states without naming them”.

The high commissioner’s report on Xinjiang, according to Limon, is the West’s response to the perceived threat: “China has been pushing the boundary in their direction and this was an important effort by western interests to push the boundary back again.”

Now states face a tough decision over whether to present a resolution and risk defeat, or do nothing and lose credibility – both scenarios “would be a disaster”, says Limon. The US, the UK and other countries tabled a draft resolution on Monday calling for a debate on Xinjiang at the next session of the Council in February.

Time of reckoning

While the battle for influence on the human rights field has been long standing, it has reached a boiling point before. “In 2001, the US lost for the first time an election to the Commission on Human Rights around the same time when Libya under Gaddafi became chair of the commission, and Sudan at the time of the Darfur genocide was a member,” says Limon. This ultimately culminated with the demise of the Commission in 2006 and the birth of the Human Rights Council in an attempt to redress the balance.

The Human Rights Council could face some of the same scrutiny as it undergoes a review process between 2021 and 2026, where the UN General Assembly is due to consider whether it should remain a subsidiary body or become a main UN body. But Limon sees little risk of the UN human rights system breaking down: “States as always will push their interests and values, but international human rights law itself and the institutions and mechanisms that underpin it and oversee it will remain robust.”

Stretched thin

A factor that poses a bigger threat, according to Limon, is the Council’s ever widening agenda. “It's like stretching something and therefore it gets thinner in terms of its impact,” Limon says. Reform proposals have been floated around, including removing adoptions of Universal Periodic Reviews from regular sessions, rationing the number of experts and other special procedures – which currently amount to over 60 – and diluting item 7 on the human rights situation in Palestine and other occupied Arab territories into other agenda items – a highly political issue that is likely to face much resistance.

Money will also play a role in determining the fate of the Human Rights Council.  “The UN human rights pillar has never pushed much over three per cent of the UN's regular budget, whereas the security and development pillars get more than 20 per cent,” says Limon. “And the reason why it's imbalanced is because, whereas development and security is about interstate relationships, human rights is about the relationship between a state and its own people and states don't like the UN peering into their inner workings.”

So far, UN secretary general Antonio Guterres’s way around the problem has been to maximise the impact of that three percent by integrating human rights approaches into the security and development pillars, Limon continues, a work spearheaded by former UN rights chief Michelle Bachelet. Her successor Volker Turk, a UN insider who knows how the UN system works, might be the one to finally mobilise the missing financial resources that the Geneva-based UN human rights system so desperately needs.

This article was published as part of a special 2nd anniversary print edition of Geneva Solutions, published in collaboration with Le Temps.