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Last updated 6 February 2013
Update: On November 12, 2012, 18 new members were elected to the United Nations Human Rights Council: Argentina, Brazil, Côte d’Ivoire, Estonia, Ethiopia, Gabon, Germany, Ireland, Japan, Kazakhstan, Kenya, Montenegro, Pakistan, the Republic of Korea, Sierra Leone, the United Arab Emirates, the United States of America, and the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela. Now a majority of the Council -- 24 of 47 members -- are states that are "unfree" or "partially free" according to the Freedom House's rankings.
The United Nations Human Rights Council is the principal UN intergovernmental body responsible for human rights.
Founded on 15 March 2006 by the General Assembly of the United Nations, through Resolution 60/251, the Human Rights Council is a subsidiary organ of the General Assembly of the United Nations and was established to replace the Commission on Human Rights. Made up of 56 member states, the Commission on Human Rights had convened annually since 1946, and like the Human Rights Council, was headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland. The mission of the Commission on Human Rights was “to weave the international legal fabric that protects our fundamental rights and freedoms.” At its sixty-second session in 2006, the Commission adopted a resolution to conclude its work and refer reports on human rights issues to the new Human Rights Council.
The Human Rights Council continues many of the programs of the Commission on Human Rights, including managing working groups on human rights issues and creating Special Rapporteurs for particular human rights questions. The main program of the Human Rights Council is the Universal Periodic Review (UPR). The goal of the UPR is to offer the international community an opportunity to examine how well individual states are complying with international human rights law. The UPR applies human rights standards defined in documents such as the Charter of the United Nations, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and other human rights instruments to the regulatory framework of individual countries.
There are 47 member states of the Human Rights Council. The members are elected from among the member states of the General Assembly of the United Nations. Members are elected by secret ballot and the seats on the Council are proportionately distributed among regional groups. There are thirteen seats for African states, eight for Latin American and Caribbean States, thirteen for Asian states, six for Eastern European States, and seven for Western European and other states.
The Human Rights Council Bureau, comprised of a President and three Vice Presidents, is responsible for the procedural and organizational leadership of the Council. The President chairs the Universal Periodic Review, calls informational meetings to discuss resolutions, and performs similar administrative tasks. The Council elects the President and the Vice-Presidents each year from among the representatives of the members of the committee.
The Human Rights Council Advisory Committee exists “to provide expertise to the Council in the manner and form requested by the Council, focusing mainly on studies and research-based advice.” Human Rights Council Resolution 5/1, “Institution-building of the United Nations Human Rights Council” § 75 (18 Jun. 2007). The Committee has 18 members, and like the full Human Rights Council, its members are elected and seats are reserved for particular regions. African states have five seats on the Committee, Asian states have five seats, Eastern European states have two seats, Latin American and Caribbean states have three seats, and Western European and other states have three seats. Each member of the committee serves for three years and can be reelected once. The Advisory Committee's role is exclusively consultative. The Committee is instructed to focus “mainly on studies and research-based advice. Further, such expertise shall be rendered only upon the latter’s request.” Human Rights Council Resolution 5/1, “Institution-building of the United Nations Human Rights Council” § 75 (18 Jun. 2007).
In addition to the Bureau and the Advisory committee, the Council has several working groups studying human rights issues and maintains the Special Rapporteur projects of the Commission on Human Rights.
|Founding Document||Resolution Adopted by the General Assembly, 60/251,
"Human Rights Council" (3 April 2006)
|Head||President of the Council|
|Governing Bodies||The President and three Vice Presidents comprise the Bureau.|
|Key Human Rights Agreements||Charter of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights
Other UN human rights instruments that are binding on individual member states
|Key Judicial Bodies||The UNHRC does not have judicial bodies. Through the Universal Periodic Review, the members of the UNHRC examine and report on the human rights practices of other members, but the UPR is not a judicial body.|
|Benin||Jordan||Republic of Moldova|
|Burkina Faso||Kuwait||Russian Federation|
|Djibouti||Nigeria||United States of America|
|Guatemala||People's Republic of China|
(membership effective June 20, 2011 - December 31, 2012)
|Freedom of Association||Legal Protection||Charter of the United Nations;
Universal Declaration of Human Rights; Resolution on Freedom of Assembly and Association;and
other UN human rights instruments that are binding on individual member states
|Civil Society Participation||Ability to Participate in UNHRC Activities||Economic and Social Council resolution
1996/31 (25 July 1996)
|Registration Process||"The Participation of NGOs in the Human Rights Council shall be based on the arrangements and practices observed by the Commission of Human Rights, including Economic and Social Council Resolution 1996/31 of 25 July 1996. Participation of NGOs in the regular and special sessions of the HRC, as well as the sessions of its working group on the Universal Periodic Review (UPR), is limited to NGOs enjoying consultative status with ECOSOC."|
|Registered CSOs||Search CSOs Accreditation Database|
Below are the founding documents of UNHRC and other important documents relating to the organization.
|General Assembly resolution 60/251 establishing the Human Rights Council||2006|
|Institution-building of the United Nations Human Rights Council - Resolution 5/1||2006|
|Universal Periodic Review - Decision 6/102||2007|
|Modalities and practices for the universal periodic review process PRST/8/1||2008|
|Resolution on Freedom of Assembly and Association||2010|
The Universal Periodic Review
Perhaps one of the most significant innovations of the UN Human Rights Council to international human rights law is the creation of the Universal Periodic Review. According to the Human Rights Council, “The Universal Periodic Review (UPR) is a unique process which involves a review of the human rights records of all 192 UN Member States once every four years. The UPR is a State-driven process, under the auspices of the Human Rights Council, which provides the opportunity for each State to declare what actions they have taken to improve the human rights situations in their countries and to fulfill their human rights obligations. As one of the main features of the Council, the UPR is designed to ensure equal treatment for every country when their human rights situations are assessed."
The General Assembly created the Universal Periodic Review process in the same resolution that replaced the Commission on Human Rights with the Human Rights Council. The resolution explains that the Review is to examine, “based on objective and reliable information, […] the fulfillment by each State of its human rights obligations and commitments.” See the Resolution adopted by the General Assembly, 60/251 § 5(e) (15 Mar. 2006).
The UN Human Rights Council conducts the UPR during the three sessions of the UPR working group each year. During each session, several states are subject to review. In preparation for the review under the UPR, each state produces a report about its own compliance with international human rights standards. (Human Rights Council Resolution 5/1 § 15(a). The Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights (OHCHR) prepares a separate report, compiling information from treaty bodies, special procedures, and other sources. § 15(b). The OHCHR also compiles a summary of information provided by other relevant stakeholders, such as human rights NGOs. Each state’s review is facilitated by a “troika” of other member states.
The UPR completed its thirteenth session in May 2012, in which it reviewed fourteen states including Bahrain, Tunisia, Indonesia, the United Kingdom, Brazil, Ecuador, Morocco, Finland, India, Philippines, the Netherlands, Algeria, Poland, and South Africa.
Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council
When the Human Rights Council replaced the Commission on Human Rights in 2006, the responsibility for creating Special Procedures passed to the Human Rights Council. A Special Procedure is a mandate for an individual (called a “Special Rapporteur”) or a working group (usually composed of five members) to examine a particular human rights issue. Mandates may either be thematic or country specific. The Working Group on Arbitrary Detention is an example of a thematic mandate, and the Independent Expert on the situation of human rights in Haiti is an example of a country mandate. There are currently 31 thematic mandates and eight country mandates.
Resolution on The Rights of Freedom of Assembly and Association
During the 15th Session of the Human Rights Council in September of 2010, the Human Rights Council passed the Resolution on The Rights of Freedom of Assembly and Association. In addition to affirming the right to peaceful assembly and association, the Resolution calls for the appointment of a Special Rapporteur to monitor and “study trends, developments and challenges in relation to the exercise of these rights, and to make recommendations on ways and means to ensure the promotion and protection of” these rights. The current Special Rapporteur is Maina Kiai, who began his duties on 1 May 2011 for an initial period of three years.
Resolution on The Promotion, Protection and Enjoyment Of Human Rights on the Internet
During the 20th Session of the Human Rights Council in June of 2012, the Human Rights Council passed the Resolution on the Promotion, Protection and Enjoyment of Human Rights on the Internet. The resolution “takes note of the reports of the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression” and “affirms that the same rights that people have offline must also be protected online, in particular freedom of expression, which is applicable regardless of frontiers and through any media of one’s choice, in accordance with articles 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.” That several countries which impose severe Internet censorship regimes felt compelled to join the 80 co-sponsors of the resolution shows that these countries are uncomfortable owning up to their actions. The resolution is “principally useful for public shaming,” according to Human Rights Watch.
Civil Society Participation in the Human Rights Council
The Human Rights Council invites broad participation by civil society organizations as sources of information on states' compliance with international human rights standards. As discussed above, for each state undergoing the Universal Periodic Review process, the OHCHR compiles a summary of information from stakeholders, including human rights and other civil society organizations, about the country under review.
UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) Consultative Status
The Human Rights Council maintains that “participation of NGOs in the Human Rights Council shall be based on the arrangements and practices observed by the Commission of Human Rights, including Economic and Social Council resolution 1996/31 of 25 July 1996. The participation of NGOs in the regular and special sessions of the Human Rights Council, as well as the sessions of its working group on the Universal Periodic Review (UPR), is limited to NGOs enjoying consultative status with ECOSOC.”
Organizations that hope to gain consultative status with ECOSOC and the Human Rights Council must meet certain requirements. These requirements include:
- The organization's activities must be relevant to the work of ECOSOC;
- The NGO must have been in existence (officially registered) for at least 2 years in order to apply;
- The NGO must have a democratic decision-making mechanism; and
- The major portion of the organization's funds should be derived from contributions from national affiliates, individual members, or other non-governmental components."
If the Committee on NGOs – which is a standing committee of the ECOSOC – accepts an application, it may recommend approval to ECOSOC. If ECOSOC grants final approval, then the NGO gains consultative status. The website of the NGO Branch – which services the Committee on NGOs – lists over 3,000 NGOs with Special, General, or Roster Consultative status.
The Committee has come under criticism for deviating from the guiding principles in ESOSOC resolution 1996/31 in its handling of applications for consultative status and review of quadrennial reports.
The Social Forum
The Social Forum is an initiative tied to the Human Rights Council which provides an additional opportunity within the United Nations system to exchange ideas and concerns about human rights in all regions worldwide. The Human Rights Council describes the Social Forum as “a unique space for open and interactive dialogue between the representatives of Member States, civil society, including grass-roots organizations, and intergovernmental organizations on issues relating to the national and international environment needed for the promotion of the enjoyment of all human rights by all.”
The Social Forum has existed since 2002, but it came under the direction of the Human Rights Council in 2007. The 2008 Social Forum focused on poverty and globalization including “the role of civil society in the eradication of poverty at the grass-roots level.” Report of the 2008 Social Forum, Paragraphs 39-41. In attendance were numerous state members of the Human Rights Council and the United Nations, international organizations and United Nations organizations. 24 NGOs participated as well.
|Recent Human Rights Council Reports||18th session of the Human Rights Council (2011)
19th session of the Human Rights Council (2012)
While we aim to maintain information that is as current as possible, we realize that situations can rapidly change. If you are aware of any additional information or inaccuracies on this page, please keep us informed; write to ICNL at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Zimbabwe must respect fundamental freedoms in run-up to constitutional referendum (February 2013)
Three United Nations Special Rapporteurs urged the Government of Zimbabwe to respect international human rights norms and standards pertaining to freedoms of association, of peaceful assembly and of expression in the run up to the constitutional referendum on 16 March and subsequent elections which may take place next July.
Effective measures and best practices to ensure the promotion and protection of human rights in the context of peaceful protests (January 2013)
The UNHRC report was submitted pursuant to Human Rights Council resolution 19/35 requesting the High Commissioner for Human Rights to prepare and submit a thematic report on effective measures and best practices to ensure the promotion and protection of human rights in the context of peaceful protests.
Statement by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association at the conclusion of his visit to the United Kingdom (January 2013)
In January 2013, Mr. Maina Kiai carried out an official visit to the United Kingdom, at the invitation of the Government, for the purpose of making an in-depth assessment of the situation of freedoms of peaceful assembly and association in the country. He visited London, Belfast and Edinburgh where he met senior officials, representatives of the legislature, human rights commissions and other independent monitoring institutions, and civil society.
UN condemns attacks on human rights defenders ahead of elections (January 2013)
Citing arbitrary arrests, intimidation and harassment, the United Nations human rights arm today condemned recent attacks against human rights defenders in Zimbabwe ahead of elections expected later this year. “We are concerned about the crackdown on non-governmental organisations and dissenting voices seen as critical of President Robert Mugabe’s rule and apparently politically motivated prosecutions,” Rupert Colville, spokesperson for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), said at a briefing in Geneva.
Human rights council elections: Pander time (November 2012)
On November 12, 2012, 18 new members were elected to the United Nations Human Rights Council, which the UN says is the forum "all victims of human rights abuses should be able to look to... as a springboard for action." But the election process was emblematic of the betrayal of core human rights principles in the face of challenges from authoritarian states, and the disintegration of the idea of human rights itself in the main institution charged with defending it. The newly elected members include Pakistan, Venezuela and others with serious human rights deficits. A majority of the Council -- 24 of 47 members -- is now composed of states that are unfree or only partially free according to rankings by the nongovernmental organization Freedom House. None of the members from Africa are free, while three of five Asian members are only partially free. A majority of the Council are states from the "Global South."
UNHRC membership elections: Empty pledges by Asian states (November 2012)
The elections of members to the Human Rights Council by the United Nations General Assembly in New York has demonstrated the unfortunate continuation of reproachful practices in electing Asian member States to the UN’s principal body which is responsible for promoting universal respect for the protection of human rights, as only 5 candidates were put forward to fill the 5 vacant seats for the Asia group.
Burkina Faso, Colombia, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan undergo UPR process (October 2012)
CIVICUS' latest interventions in the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) process of the UN Human Rights Council, which reviews countries' human rights progress, address the status of civil society freedoms in the countries of Burkina Faso, Colombia, The Republic of Turkmenistan and The Republic of Uzbekistan. CIVICUS raises a number of concerns regarding the freedoms of expression, association and assembly.
ASEAN backs Vietnam’s bid for UN Human Rights Council in 2014 (October 2012)
Foreign ministers of ASEAN member countries pledged support for Vietnam’s candidacy for a 2014–2016 seat on the UN Human Rights Council. The officials voiced their support following an informal ASEAN foreign ministers meeting on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York. The announcement comes amid Vietnam’s heightened Internet crackdown and just a week after Vietnamese authorities sentenced three pro-democracy bloggers to lengthy jail sentences.
Russia's troublesome "traditional values" resolution (October 2012)
Article 19 urges the UN Human Rights Council members to reject a draft resolution proposed by Russia on “traditional values” as the concept may be abused to legitimize discrimination against minority groups, to silence dissent, and violate human rights. Increasing dialogue on the role of traditional values in society and raising understanding of the many different values held by people is positive where done within a framework of respect for human rights. However, the draft resolution fails to recognize that traditional values are not always invoked positively and have often been abused to legitimize discrimination against marginalized and minority groups, to silence dissent, and violate people’s human rights.
“A Robust Civil Society is Necessary for Cambodia’s Advancement” (September 2012)
Read the Statement that a member of the US Delegation to the UN Human Rights Council, Eric N. Richardson, made at the 21st session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva.
Bahrain agrees to majority of UN human rights recommendations (September 2012)
Bahrain pledged to improve its treatment of political activists, crack down on torture and prevent violence against ethnic and religious communities, while accepting the vast majority of the UN’s recommendations regarding human rights.
Violations in Syria growing (September 2012)
United Nations investigators say civilians are increasingly coming under attack by both Syrian government forces and rebels. The Independent International Commission of Inquiry of Syria, which presented its findings to the UN Human Rights Council on Monday, found that violations of human rights in Syria have grown.
CSOs concerned about African Human Rights Council candidates (July 2012)
CSOs working to promote human rights at the UN Human Rights Council have expressed concern at the recent decision of the African Group to endorse the candidacies of Ethiopia and Sudan in the upcoming UN General Assembly elections for membership of the Human Rights Council in a closed slate that does not allow for a competitive vote.
UNHRC adopts landmark resolution regarding human rights online (July 2012)
The UN Human Rights Council adopted by consensus a resolution stating that there can be no division or double standard regarding human rights online. The resolution makes clear that all individuals are entitled to the same human rights and fundamental freedoms online as they are offline, and all governments must protect those rights regardless of the medium. U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton’s Press Statement notes that, “This resolution is a welcome addition in the fight for the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms online, in particular the freedom of expression, as well as the freedoms of religion or belief, assembly and association, and the right to be free of arbitrary interference with privacy.”
Committee on NGOs accredits 129 NGOs in “politicized” process (June 2012)
The Committee on Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) held its session in New York from May 21-31, 2012. The Committee is tasked with considering the applications of NGOs for consultative status with the UN as well as the quadrennial reports submitted by NGOs already in consultative status. During this session, the Committee granted consultative status to 129 NGOs and deferred the applications of 130. This session was similar to others in that some Committee members continued to oppose NGOs that hold views they do not agree with, or that have been critical of a government’s human rights record. The Committee is known for excessive politicization and the balance of the Committee’s membership tends towards States that do not support a vibrant civil society at the UN.
UN human rights body condemns Syrian forces for Houla killings (June 2012)
The United Nations’ top human rights body condemned Syria for the massacre of more than 100 people in the township of Houla, laying the blame with forces loyal to President Bashar Assad. U.N. human rights chief Navi Pillay said the attacks could amount to crimes against humanity.
UNHRC condemns Syrian forces for Houla killings (June 2012)
The UNHRC condemned Syria for the massacre of more than 100 people in the township of Houla, laying the blame with forces loyal to President Bashar Assad. U.N. human rights chief Navi Pillay said the attacks could amount to crimes against humanity.
Human rights crimes still taking place in Syria (May 2012)
Syrian government forces have executed entire families in their homes as part of a crackdown on the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad, U.N. investigators said. Both Assad's troops and opposition fighters were committing gross human rights violations despite a six-week-old ceasefire in the conflict, but the army and security forces were responsible for most of the crimes documented since March, a U.N. report said. Children were often victims, it said.
Navi Pillay expresses concern that new restrictions on NGOs are undermining human rights (April 2012)
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay on Wednesday expressed deep concern about current or recent moves in a number of countries to curtail the freedom of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and other civil society actors to operate independently and effectively. In particular, she named Venezuela, Algeria, Egypt, Israel, and Ethiopia.
Inputs on UNHRC Universal Periodic Review process (March 2012)
The UN Human Rights Council meeting in Geneva, Switzerland from February 27 to March 23, 2012 saw a number of countries come under the spotlight as part of the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) process in which States report on their human rights records. CIVICUS and its partners have made inputs to the UPR processes on Moldova, Syria, Uganda, Venezuela and Zimbabwe.
Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders presents report on defenders at particular risk (March 2012)
On 5 March 2012, the Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders, Margaret Sekaggya, presented her fourth annual thematic report to the Human Rights Council. The report focused on human rights defenders at particular risk, including journalists and media workers, defenders working on environmental and land issues, and youth and student defenders.
Libya: Human Rights Council monitoring needed (March 2012)
The UN Human Rights Council should condemn serious, ongoing human rights violations by militias in Libya, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said. HRW advocates that the Council appoint an independent expert to document the abuses and monitor the government's responses. The Human Rights Counil is discussing Libya during its current session, with a resolution expected the week of March 18, 2012.
Indian law on foreign funds to NGOs worries UN body (March 2012)
In what is perhaps the first international reaction to the Indian government's heightened scrutiny of NGOs receiving foreign funds, the United Nations Special Rapporteur Margaret Sekaggya has in a report presented at the ongoing session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva expressed concern about the new regime introduced by Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA), 2010. The more stringent FCRA, 2010, which replaced the FCRA of 1976, came into force on May 1, 2011.
UN Rights Council condemns Syrian Crackdown (March 2012)
The United Nations Human Rights Council has condemned what it calls "widespread and systematic violations of human rights" by the Syrian government, and reiterated the "urgent" need to address the humanitarian situation in the country. At a session Thursday in Geneva, the council adopted a resolution calling on President Bashar al-Assad's government to immediately halt "all human rights violations" and attacks against civilians. It highlighted the recent deaths of Syrian and foreign journalists, as well as interference in people getting access to medical care.
15 Countries Join UN Human Rights Council (May 2011)
UN investigates Libya human rights violations (April 2011)
UN: Rights Body Should Investigate Syrian Crackdown (April 2011)
Kiai named UN rapporteur on freedom of assembly (March 2011)
Human Rights Council concludes sixteenth session (March 2011)