Human Rights Council: what does the next session have in store?

(Keystone / Salvatore Di Nolfi)

Overcoming the Covid pandemic, tackling climate change and restoring democracy will be key focuses during the upcoming 46th session of the UN Human Rights Council.

The Geneva-based UN Human Rights Council begins its 46th session on Monday, meeting almost entirely virtually due to the Covid-19 pandemic, which has posed major challenges to the way the body functions.

Allocations have had to be made to ensure smaller states and civil society groups can still participate, and there’s disagreement over how states should vote on resolutions - with a system still yet to be confirmed. The difficulties have prompted some states to suggest the session be postponed altogether.

However, Ambassador Nazhat Shameem Khan of Fiji, the council’s new president, has stressed that bringing member states together is more important now than ever before. “It is an important message and an important moment in our history to emphasise the relevance of the council,” she said during a press conference last week. “Very clearly, the council cannot afford to be silent in these times, and the human rights dimensions of the coronavirus are vast.”

“If we at this time of the Covid-19 pandemic are not able to address the injustices, breaches and violations of human rights, then the relevance of the council would be in question,” she added.

What is the Human Rights Council?  The council is the UN’s main inter-governmental body with a mandate to “promote and preserve human rights around the world”. It has been instrumental in highlighting human rights violations in countries such as Syria, Myanmar, Yemen, Belarus and the Philippines. But it has also been heavily criticised over its membership, with countries with poor human rights record like China, Saudi Arabia, Libya, Sudan and Somalia winning seats at this year’s session.

This year, its 47-member council will see the return of major powers including Russia, UK and France alongside China, as well as the return of the United States as an observer, in what some officials are warning could set the stage for a politically fraught session.

What’s on the agenda? The 46th session will kick-off with a three-day high-level meeting in which over 130 representatives and dignitaries from countries around the world will outline their human rights priorities for the year ahead. An unprecedented number of high-level speakers will take part this year, including many more heads of state than usual. Secretary general António Guterres and high commissioner for human rights Michelle Bachelet will give their opening remarks and an update on the human rights situation around the world.

Throughout the next month, the council will hold dialogues on issues related to counter terrorism and extremism, children’s rights, the rights of persons with disabilities, and systemic racism following on from the urgent debate held by the council last year after the death of George Floyd.

Member states are expected to act on over 30 draft resolutions and texts on specific issues such as the environment, the right to universal and equitable access to vaccines during health emergencies, and privacy in the digital age - with special emphasis on the impact of social media and disinformation on human rights.

As is the case with every session, the council will also consider country-specific resolutions and hear reports on the human rights situation in countries including Syria, Iran, Sri Lanka and the Occupied Palestinian Territory. There will also be reports on Belarus, where the government has recently launched a renewed crackdown on civil society organisations, the media and political opponents, and an update on the situation in Myanmar after the council adopted a resolution calling for the release of ousted leader Aung San Suu Kyi last week.

Covid-19 and human rights. Unsurprisingly, the human rights implications of Covid-19 will be a key focus throughout the session, particularly how countries can ‘build back better’ from the pandemic and address the stark inequalities it has revealed. In her opening statement as president of the council at the beginning of February, Ambassador Khan noted that solidarity among states was “crucial to addressing the challenges caused by Covid-19.”

“It is our collective responsibility to draw attention and to respond to the deep inequalities that were laid bare by the pandemic – and to ensure that human rights standards, combined with our shared commitment to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, will guide us as we do all we can to recover from what is, a global health – and a human rights – crisis.”

There will also be a focus on how governments have used Covid as a pretext to further restrict human rights, including targeting human rights defenders.

The return of the United States. Another issue that is expected to be discussed during the session is democracy and human rights, which has come under increased scrutiny over the past year due to events surrounding the US election, as well as elections elsewhere in countries such as Belarus, Uganda and most recently Myanmar.

US President Joe Biden has made democracy and the rule of law a pillar of both his domestic and foreign policy since he took office in January. With the US back in the council as an observer state, the new administration is expected to place democracy at the centre of the country’s return to the international human rights stage.

“Biden has repeatedly said he's going to strengthen democracy at home as a first step towards the US once again becoming a beacon of democracy around the world,” said Marc Limon, director of the Universal Rights Group, a Geneva-based human rights think-tank. “In his foreign policy speeches he has repeatedly emphasised human rights and democracy, and I hope and expect he will bring that to the Human Rights Council.”

Climate change: a human rights issue. Although the majority of member states recognise the right to a healthy environment in their constitutions, legislation and various regional treaties they are party to, the UN has not yet formally recognised this as a human right. However, this could be the year when this changes. Ambassador Khan has also emphasised the need to address climate change, which is a key issue for small island states such as Fiji and the Bahamas, which holds the vice presidency this year.

In March, the council is set to act on a resolution on human rights and the environment co-sponsored by Switzerland, Costa Rica and the Maldives, and receive an update from the UN special rapporteur on the right to a healthy environment.

A time for reform?  For many years, the HRC has faced calls for reform, most notably from the US under the Trump administration, which quit halfway through its term in 2018. When secretary of state  Antony Blinken announced the US’ re-engagement with the council, he emphasised that it would do so while seeking reforms to what he called the “flawed body”.

In her confirmation hearing, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, Biden's nominee as US ambassador to the United Nations said it would also "push back on UN human rights violators who want to be legitimised" by seeking joining the council at the next elections.

The upcoming 2021-2026 review of the council by the General Assembly starting this year will also give UN member states the chance to voice their concerns, said Ambassador Jürg Lauber, Switzerland’s permanent representative to the UN.

“The Human Rights Council is one of Geneva’s institutions that has done particularly well despite the pandemic: it never stopped working. Now, like all intergovernmental bodies and international organisations, there is always need to improve upon its processes,” he told journalists last week.

The HRC was created in 2006 in large part to address the problem of abusive members, which plagued its predecessor the UN Commission on Human Rights, and to create more competitive elections, said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch in a recent article on its website.

Council members are elected by the UN General Assembly through a secret ballot in geographical groups that is meant to ensure fair representation and competition for the seats. However, when the same number of countries apply as there are seats, then no competition occurs and whichever member country applies is likely to get elected, prompting calls from human rights groups for the election process to be reformed.

The council’s inaction on the Chinese government targeting ethnic and religious minorities, including Uyghurs, is frequently criticised, as is their failure to condemn human rights abuses in Russia. In return, as member states, Russia and China frequently use their addresses to the council to accuse it of politicisation and interfering in the domestic affairs of countries where human rights violations have occurred, with Myanmar as the most recent example.

Despite its flaws and criticism of its members, defenders of the council argue that it’s important to have a body that is truly representative of human rights around the world - a point emphasised by Ambassador Khan.

“I firmly believe that there is no country in the world which has a perfect human rights record,” she said in a press conference last week when questioned on the council’s membership. “I don't think that perfection of human rights record is what we can aspire to, but I do think that having full engagement with the council by all countries is valuable, important and essential if the council is to have credibility with all communities and all countries in the world.”

“The real value of the Human Rights Council is as a multilateral space where everyone can participate, including small states, where everybody can have their voice heard and where we can find multilateral solutions,” said Limon.