2018: the start of a meaningful process of Human Rights Council strengthening and reform?

by Charlotte Marres Blog, International human rights institutions, mechanisms and processes

There is a growing recognition that as the Human Rights Council approaches its twelfth anniversary there is a need to undertake an inclusive, cross regional and structured dialogue to review how States might strengthen the fulfilment of the Council’s mandate and purpose, as set down in GA resolution 60/251. Following an important event organised by the Netherlands, UK, Latvia, Rwanda and Mexico on 1 December 2017, designed to kick start talks on the objectives and process of reform, 2018 is expected to be a key year for the Council and the wider UN human rights pillar.

Calls for reform have grown steadily over the past four years. In 2015, H.E. Mr Joachim Rücker (Germany), ninth President of the Human Rights Council, decided to respond to repeated concerns, raised in annual Norway-Turkey led joint statements to the Council, that the Body’s increasing workload and output meant it risked collapsing under its own weight. Ambassador Rücker thus announced his intention to drive a one-year effort to improve the Council’s efficiency and effectiveness. Indeed, especially at the level of efficiency, he made some modest but important progress. Through regular consultations with States (especially on the biennialisation of their resolutions), a Council member retreat in Berlin, and a Council Presidential Statement on ‘enhancing the efficiency of the Council’ (PRST 29/1), the President oversaw a rare drop in the number of resolutions passed annually by the Council.

Unfortunately, efforts by subsequent Council Presidents and Bureaus to build on those reforms largely failed to address the increasingly serious challenges facing the Body. The scale of those challenges was brought into sharp relief by an August 2016 letter from the Director-General of UNOG, Mr Michael Møller, sent to the presidency, in which he drew the Council’s attention to the unsustainable growth in the Council’s work and meeting time, and made clear that UNOG could no longer service the increasing number of Council meetings. He stated that a maximum of 135 meetings could be serviced in 2017, and a 130 in 2018. As things stand, that means, the Council will not be able to complete its 2018 programme of work.

While the Administration of US President Donald Trump did not initiate discussions on Council reform and strengthening, there is no doubt that the de facto ultimatum given to the Body by his Ambassador to the UN, H.E. Ms Nikki Haley, in June last year, did succeed in sharpening States’ attention on the issue, and widening the focus of the reform debate to also cover Council membership and elections, and the Council’s agenda.

Discussions during and the outcomes of the past three Glion Human Rights Dialogues, organised by Norway and Switzerland with the support of the URG, helped make the case that Council reforms should not only look at making the Body more efficient, but also more effective. In that regard, the Glion Dialogues drew attention to the importance of strengthened implementation, a concerted focus on prevention, and reform of the Council’s delivery of technical assistance and capacity-building support (agenda item 10), for the effective fulfilment of the Council’s mandate.

Finally, civil society, centrally involved in the construction of the Human Rights Council, and in subsequent review and reform discussions, has continued to push for further and deepener improvements. For example, a group of Geneva-based NGOs published important proposals in the context of the Council’s five-year review, and its tenth anniversary.

The 1 December conference on Human Rights Council strengthening succeeded in bringing these different strands together in one place – and also in providing a forum for a wide range of interested States and NGOs to offer their thoughts and ideas. The event explicitly began with the premise that the Council is not fundamentally failing, and thus root and branch reform is unnecessary. Rather, what is needed is evidence-based improvements in a number of specific areas – areas where the experience of the past twelve years suggests the Council could do better.

Examples of such areas include: 1) working methods; 2) the agenda and the programme of work; 3) the effective delivery of capacity-building and technical support; 4) membership – in particular supporting inclusivity and accessibility for a more diverse membership, and improved compliance with the principles and criteria set down in GA resolution 60/251; 5) support for domestic implementation; 6) safeguarding access for (including by responding to reprisals) and enhancing the effective participation of civil society actors; 7) strengthening coordination and communication between ‘Geneva’ and ‘New York’; and 8) securing a shift in how the Council considers and deals with situations of human rights violations – from reaction to prevention.

At the beginning of the meeting, the basic notion that the Council is, overall, functioning well – certainly better than other important Bodies of the UN – was supported by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, H.E. Mr Zeid Ra’ad al Hussein. Notwithstanding, he also urged States and NGOs to drive improvements in certain key areas: in changing mind-sets and breaking the cyclical way in which the Council tends to address situations of violations; in improving the visibility of the Council and strengthening communication of its work and impact; and of robustly and effectively addressing reprisals against human rights defenders who seek cooperation with the UN.

At the end of the meeting, the incoming Council President, H.E. Mr Vojislav Šuc (Slovenia), noted the importance of continuing the positive, cooperative atmosphere and nature of discussions in 2018, and to make progress across all of the areas covered – while recognising that ‘each cluster’ has its own dynamics and timeframe. He pledged that doing so would be a key priority for his Bureau in 2018.


The full report of the one-day conference on Human Rights Council strengthening, including a list of proposals for each of the main topics discussed, will be published shortly.

Featured photo: Opening plenary – Human Rights Council strengthening conference, 1st December 2017. URG, licensed under CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0.

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