Explainer: What is the UN Human Rights Council?

Explainer: What is the UN Human Rights Council?

War crimes, racism, arbitrary detention and rape as a weapon of war: these just a few of the pressing international issues over which the UN Human Rights Council deliberates.

Its new session beginning on Monday is the longest ever, running until April, and promises a packed agenda, with ongoing wars in Gaza, Sudan and Ukraine, the situation of human rights defenders worldwide and more than 50 national human rights records under scrutiny.

But, what does the Human Rights Council do and why does its work matter?

While the 47-member body has been the subject of controversy since its creation in 2006 – including the temporary withdrawal of the United States in 2018 – UN Secretary-General António Guterres has highlighted the crucial role the Council plays in the UN’s human rights architecture, which is “the bedrock of peace”.

What does the Human Rights Council actually do?

In a nutshell, the Geneva-based Council is a multilateral forum for the international community to discuss anything relating to human rights issues around the world.

In addition to launching fact-finding missions and establishing commissions of inquiry into specific situations of concern, it meets three times a year at the Palais des Nations in Switzerland to discuss a wide range of political, civil, economic, social and cultural rights with UN officials, independent experts and investigators, Member States and civil society organizations.

This video explains it all:

How does it work?

The most innovative feature of the Human Rights Council is the universal periodic review. This unique mechanism involves examining the human rights records of all 193 UN Member States once every four years. It’s like a national human rights report card.

The review is a cooperative, State-driven process under the auspices of the Council, which provides the opportunity for each country to present measures taken and challenges to be met to improve the human rights situation at home and to meet their international obligations.

The Council also forms investigative panels to probe violations in specific countries and thematic areas, for instance, the expert mechanism to advance racial justice and equality in law enforcement.

To examine and monitor violations, the Council appoints independent experts including Special Rapporteurs, who act in their individual capacity and do not get any remuneration from the UN for their work. They are sometimes called “the eyes and ears” of the Council.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights says everyone has a right to education.
© UNICEF/Ahmed Haleem
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights says everyone has a right to education.

How does the HRC make a difference for human rights worldwide?

Although human rights have always been a very sensitive matter for Member States, the Human Rights Council remains an essential part of the UN’s human rights architecture.

The Council has the power to adopt resolutions, launch fact-finding missions and investigations and establish commissions of inquiry. In particular, the Council can appoint independent experts on specific issues. For instance, in 2023, the Council appointed the first ever Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Russia and in 2021, it recognized for the first time the right to a clean and safe environment as a human right.

All these mechanisms allow for grave violations to be highlighted and brought on the global stage for examination, discussion and, whenever feasible, action. Such action can change the course of events.

A delegate casts her country's ballot during elections in the General Assembly Hall for new members of the UN Human Rights Council. (file)
UN Photo/Manuel Elías
A delegate casts her country's ballot during elections in the General Assembly Hall for new members of the UN Human Rights Council. (file)

Who gets to serve on the Human Rights Council?

Elections to the Council take place annually by secret ballot. Countries serve for three years on a rotational basis, as some of the seats expire on 31 December every year. There are 47 seats, equitably distributed according to five regional divisions.

As it is understood that the Council can only be as effective as its Member States, its election process was placed directly in the hands of the General Assembly, the only UN organ where every one of the 193 countries has equal voting weight.

The geographical group divisions and seat allocations are meant to prevent disproportionate focus on just a handful of regions and countries and ensure that every country is fairly assessed.

It is up to Member States themselves to choose the countries which serve, through election, as opposed to consideration of any individual State’s own human rights record.

Who serves now?

By secret ballot on 10 October 2023, the UN General Assembly elected Albania, Brazil, Bulgaria, Burundi, China, Côte d’Ivoire, Cuba, Dominican Republic, France, Ghana, Indonesia, Japan, Kuwait, Malawi and the Netherlands.

As of 1 January, 15 newly-elected States began serving three-year terms.

Michelle Bachelet, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, speaks at the Human Rights Council in 2018. (file)
UN Photo/Jean-Marc Ferré
Michelle Bachelet, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, speaks at the Human Rights Council in 2018. (file)

Here’s what’s happening at the Human Rights Council now

The HRC’s 55th session opens on Monday and runs through 5 April. Steered by president Omar Zniber, it will be attended by the UN Secretary-General, General Assembly president Dennis Francis and High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk alongside top officials from Member States during its high-level segment.

Here’s what you need to know:

  • On 4 March, the High Commissioner will deliver his global update, focusing on the human rights situation in various countries, with particular attention to critical regions.
  • Throughout the session, delegates will discuss numerous thematic and country reports.
  • Topics of discussions will address the situation in Ukraine and violations caused by Russia’s military invasion.
  • Also under the spotlight are Venezuela, Iran, Colombia, and the situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territory.

With the session promising robust discussions and actions aimed at addressing pressing human rights concerns globally, follow UN News coverage of the Human Rights Council’s deliberations here.

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