The United Nations Human Rights Council: a Success or a Hoax?
Written by Vaidehi Meharia
Research Associate at Law & Order
St. Xaviers College, Kolkata
Disclaimer: Please note that the views expressed below represent the opinions of the article's author. The following does not necessarily represent the views of Law & Order.
The United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) was set up under the leadership of UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, in 2006 to overcome the drawbacks of the previously active United Nations Commission for Human Rights (UNCHR). The UNCHR faced a steady decline in credibility due to its ineffectiveness, as its membership often included nations who themselves were perpetrators of human rights violations (Rahmani-Ocor, 2006). Thus, the reforms initiated by Kofi Annan were to upgrade the status of the commission to that of a ‘council’ and put the issues of human rights at par with those of security and development (Rahmani-Ocor, 2006). With the procedure of Universal Periodic Review in place and the election of the 47 members to the Council by the General Assembly, the Human Rights Council has the potential to emerge as a significant organ of the United Nations and adapt itself to the changing needs in the sphere of human rights.
However, the UNHRC faces several challenges that have not been dealt with adequately in the ten years of its existence. Among them is the election of those nations which do not have a clean record of adhering to the human rights of their citizens.
Not only has this hampered the justice system of the Council but has also led to the Council digressing away from the human rights violations in these countries themselves (Desk, 2020).
Challenges Faced by the UN Human Rights Council
The United Nations Resolution that founded the Council envisioned a system of elections, wherein states with the best human rights records would be elected to the Council. Presently, the Human Rights Council is not an example of the election of such countries. States with records of abuses like torture, extrajudicial killings, political violence have faced few repercussions in getting elected and further re-elected to the Council (Desk, 2020).
The New York Times in 2006 even went on to classify the Human Rights Council as “the shame of the United Nations” because it had countries such as China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan as members (Sarwar, 2007).
Simultaneously, the election of such nations has jeopardized the spirit of cooperation of the Council, consequently contributing to its ineffectiveness. While the elected states are meant to cooperate with the Council in the improvement of human rights by maintaining excellent records on human rights themselves, gross violations are still carried out by other member states of the Council (Sarwar, 2007). The latest re-election of Pakistan and China to the Council seems to add weight to this claim.
China at the Human Rights Council
This is not the first time human rights violators have been elected to the Human Rights Council by the General Assembly. Burundi, considered to be one of the worst violators of human rights served on the Council for three years between 2015 and 2018; and during its time on the Council, it blocked every resolution adopted against itself (Desk, 2020). A similar situation has also been seen with the case of China, which has served on the Council as a board member multiple times in the past fourteen years. In its time as a member, it has passed resolutions that prioritized development over safeguarding human rights, and also moved a resolution promoting “mutually beneficial cooperation in the field of human rights” which would put a stop to the practice of naming and shaming countries for human rights violations (Desk, 2020). China has also voted against the resolutions drafted on the gross violation of human rights in countries like Syria, Yemen, and Myanmar (Desk, 2020). The re-election of the state to the Council in October 2020, raises the question of the purpose of its plea to get elected amidst the world community condemning its activities in Xinjiang. Keeping China's activities in the Council in mind, it would only be natural for the country to halt any resolution which the Council would wish to pass in favor of preserving the rights of the Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang.
Pakistan at the Human Rights Council
As a country with one of the highest rates of human rights abuse within its own borders and outside (namely Pakistan Occupied Kashmir POK) (HRW), Pakistan has much to gain from its re-election to the Council. Not only does it take its place as an ally to the Chinese cause in the Council, but it also strengthens its own resolve at shifting the global focus from the happenings in Balochistan and the oppression of the Shia Muslims in Pakistan. The sectarian persecution of Shia Muslims in Pakistan has been a long-running issue within the country and has been continuously exacerbated by the proxy wars being fought on Pakistani soil (Baloch, 2020). Violation of rights have also been noted by Officer of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, wherein, people living on the other side of the Line of Control and in Gilgit-Baltistan are deprived of several fundamental rights, particularly their freedoms of expression, peaceful assembly, and association (OHCHR, n.d.). While the Pakistani government has done little to address these issues, the re-election to the Council would only help them divert the attention from these issues and shift the focus to other problems, such as the violation of human rights which it claims comes with the implementation of the Citizenship Amendment Act in India in 2019.
The re-election of China and Pakistan to the UNHRC, even in the midst of opposition from a coalition of the countries of the West, has once again raised several doubts about the legitimacy and efficacy of the Council in delivering justice. The past few years have seen severe violations of human rights and the persecution of minorities in both these countries, for which they have also come under significant international scrutiny. Their consequent indifference to the international outrage truly questions their objectives to have claimed re-election in the first place, since their activities in no way, comply with the goals and objectives of the Council. It is apparent that the election of China and Pakistan would once again hinder the work of the Human Rights Council. The UNCHR was abandoned for this very reason that countries with a high level of international crime were member states, and now with the successive terms of membership being granted to countries like China and Pakistan, it would be fair to say that this goes against everything that Kofi Annan’s vision for the reformation of the international human rights system stood for.
1. Baloch, S. M. (2020). Pakistani Shias live in terror as sectarian violence increases. The Guardian.
2. Desk, G. (2020). Why do chronic violators of human rights like China & Pak want a seat at the UNHRC? WION News.
3. Rahmani-Ocor, L. (2006). Giving the Emperor Real Clothes: The UN Human Rights Council. Global Insights.
4. Sarwar, N. (2007). Evolution of the UN Human RIghts Council. JStor.
HRW. (n.d.). Human Rights Watch. https://www.hrw.org/asia/pakistan
5. OHCHR. (n.d.). Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees. https://www.ohchr.org/en/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=24799&LangID=E