The end of the road for ‘piecemeal’ reform of the Human Rights Council?

by the URG team Blog, International human rights institutions, mechanisms and processes

On 20th October 2017, the President of the Human Rights Council, H.E. Mr Joaquín Alexander Maza Martelli, Ambassador of El Salvador, called an extraordinary organisational meeting to try to agree a series of modest changes to the Council’s methods of work and, in turn, to agree on a request to the General Assembly (GA) for more resources and meeting time. This was the latest in a series of ultimately unsuccessful attempts by successive Council Presidents and members of the Bureau to agree and realise modifications to the body’s work in order to make it more efficient, increase space for meaningful dialogue, and strengthen impact and credibility.

Acknowledgment that the on-going expansion of the Council’s workload – in terms of the number of resolutions, the number of mandates, and the number of panels etc. – is unsustainable is not new. Nor is an understanding of the consequences (for example, the number of Council meetings has risen from 128 a year in 2012 to 154 in 2016, and the speaking time afforded to States has dropped drastically since the body’s creation). In fact, acknowledgment of the problem goes back to the very foundation of the Council in 2006, when States were supposed, for example, to ‘review, rationalise, and improve’ the mechanisms inherited from the former Commission on Human Rights. The 2011 Council review outcome also called for greater efficiency, emphasising, for instance, that resolution sponsors should consider biennialising or triennialising their initiatives.

Unfortunately, until 2015 acknowledgment of the problem failed to translate into any meaningful effort to reign in the expansion in the Council’s work.

That began to change in 2013 when Norway and Turkey, with support from the Universal Rights Group, began to lead on annual joint statements calling for more efficient working methods. In 2015 this call was picked up by the new President of the Council, H.E. Ambassador Joachim Rücker of Germany, who made securing efficiencies in the Council’s work the number one priority for his term in Office. Indeed, Ambassador Rücker scored a number of successes in this regard, including securing agreement on an expanded annual calendar of initiatives to improve transparency, planning, and predictability, quiet advocacy in support of biennialisation, and the adoption of a Council Presidential statement (PRST 29/1) on ‘Enhancing the efficiency of the Human Rights Council.’ Through PRST 29/1, the Council, inter alia, encouraged States ‘to consider voluntary biennialisation and triennialisation of their initiatives.’

Ambassador Rücker’s reforms were, temporarily at least, successful – after years of proliferation, 2015 saw a welcome drop in the number of resolutions to 95 texts – from 112 texts in 2015.

Unfortunately the Presidents and Bureaus since then have been unable to maintain this momentum. While the Presidency of H.E. Ambassador Choi Kyonglim (Republic of Korea) did attempt to continue Ambassador Rücker’s efficiency drive, organising an informal Council retreat on methods of work in Evian-les-Bains in September 2016, and assigning one of his Bureau members (H.E. Ambassador Janis Karklins of Latvia) to draw up (rather technical) reform proposals; his efforts were not enough to prevent a renewed expansion of the Council’s output and workload.

The ‘consolidated list of proposals for reducing the number of meetings of the HRC’, put forward by Ambassador Choi Kyonglim included some useful ideas, including: reducing panel discussions from three to two hours, and capping the number of panels per session; reduce the time allotted to UPR adoptions during Council plenaries; and introduce sunset clauses into Special Procedures mandates, and consider merging similar mandates. However, no Council Decision was taken to implement these proposals, with a number of delegations complaining that they had been compiled without inclusive consultations with all States.

Against this background, in August 2016, the Director-General of the UN Office in Geneva , H.E. Mr Michael Møller, wrote to Ambassador Choi Kyonglim (in his capacity of President) to express his concern at: ‘the growing dichotomy between the workload entailed in servicing the Human Rights Council and the resources allocated to the United Nations Office at Geneva.’ He concluded by stating that, unless additional resources were made available, the number of meetings serviced by UNOG would have to be reduced to 135 for the year 2017 and to 130 serviced meetings per year for the biennium 2018-2019.

Fourteen months after this letter, in October 2017, the new President of the Council, Ambassador Martelli, convened his organisational meeting. His hope was to present a series of efficiency reforms to the Council’s working methods and programme of work, drawn up over the preceding six months by a ‘Joint Task Force on the Workload of the Human Rights Council’ (that he had established), that would aim to, inter alia, save meeting time and demonstrate the Council’s ability to exercise self-discipline and bring the expansion of its workload under control. In return (the Ambassador and his Bureau hoped), the Council would be in a position to request – and secure – additional resources from the GA.

Unfortunately, after a series of informal consultations with States (both open and bilateral), Ambassador Martelli decided that the only ‘reform’ that could potentially command consensus among States was to reduce the time allotted to Council panel debates from three to two hours. Notwithstanding, this would still be, in his view, enough to demonstrate the Council’s ‘reformist credentials’ and thus be in a position to request additional resources from the GA. This request – basically for the GA to provide necessary support for an additional 20 fully serviced meetings for 2018 (though, somewhat bizarrely, the Council would promise to try not to use those extra resources) – was set out in a draft Decision presented to States on 20 October.

Thus an effort to rationalise and bring greater efficiency to the Council’s work had been transformed into a simple demand for more money.

Unsurprisingly, States were not impressed.

China, speaking on behalf of a group of States[1], including Cuba, Ecuador, Indonesia, Pakistan, the Russian Federation, and Saudi Arabia, stated that they could not support the draft Decision. Their main point was that the Council’s first response to problems around its workload and the proliferation of initiatives and mandates should be to reform and improve its methods of work and secure greater efficiency – it should not be to simply request more resources and meeting time. Moreover, those reforms should be agreed through broad and considered consultations, and should take a holistic approach (i.e. covering panels, UPR, Special Procedures, general debates, the agenda, speaking time, etc.) This and other interventions (both during the organisational meeting and in the form of Notes Verbales, for example by Peru), contained implicit criticisms of the reform processes undertaken by Presidents Choi Kyonglim and Martelli, suggesting that they had been too piecemeal and based on very narrow consultations with States.

Building on this statement, the Russian Federation acknowledged the need for reform of working methods, but said that those reforms should lead to durable long-term solutions, rather than stopgaps. The Russian Federation also reiterated that reforms should be drawn up following open and inclusive consultations, perhaps guided by one or more facilitators, who would then present proposals to the Council.

Even those States that nominally supported the draft Decision (e.g. Albania), recognised that it was a very limited and short-term response to an increasingly important problem.

Looking ahead, the Council’s decision not to endorse the President’s proposals has two consequences. First, in the short term, it means that Council will struggle to fit its planned programme of work for 2018 into the conference service limitations set by the UN Director-General. Some estimate a likely shortfall of 18 meetings. Second, in the longer term, the experience of the past three years demonstrates that the reforms and improvements that are now urgently needed cannot be secured by ad hoc or piecemeal ‘technical’ exercises by individual Presidents. Rather they must flow from an inclusive and holistic process of institutional review and reflection, premised on securing agreement of urgent reforms, but also on feeding into the next Council review at the GA, due to begin in 2021.


[1] Belarus, Bolivia (Plurinational State of), China, Cuba, Ecuador, Indonesia, Malaysia, Nicaragua, Pakistan, Russian Federation, Saudi-Arabia, Turkmenistan, Venezuela (Bolivarian Republic of).

Feature photoA general view of participants at the 16th Session of the Human Rights Council, Switzerland, 21 March 2011, UN Photo/Jean-Marc Ferré licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.