2023 at the UN Human Rights Council: A year in review

by Marc Limon, Executive Director of the Universal Rights Group Human Rights Council reports, yourHRC BORRAR

As 2023 draws to a close, and as thoughts turn to family, holidays and, for some of us, mince pies, Santa Claus, and a glass of sherry or two (well, at least one of those anyway), it is worth reflecting on the year just ending. What were the key political currents that shaped events at the Council? What did the Council achieve and not achieve? What were the main points of contention dividing States? How did the Council’s performance compare with other parts of the UN? And which members of the Council stood out in terms of honouring their commitments and pledges of membership as set out in GA resolution 60/251?

Much of the data for these quantitative and qualitative analyses is taken from the yourHRC.org The Human Rights Council in 2023’ report, published earlier this month by URG, with support from the Permanent Mission of Norway.

Still the UN’s most effective intergovernmental body

2023 saw the Council cement its place as the preeminent intergovernmental body of the United Nations. Partly because the Council is operating relatively well, despite growing polarisation, and partly because other important UN bodies such as the Security Council are not, States from all regional and political groups, especially powerful UN members, continued to prioritise engagement with the UN’s human rights pillar over the course of the year. This is evident, inter alia, from the level of senior political representation at the 52nd session’s high-level segment (which saw the participation of more than 130 world leaders, including three heads or deputy heads of State, eight heads or deputy heads of government, and 117 ministers or vice-ministers), from the large number of thematic and country-specific human rights issues placed on the Council’s agenda during the year (2023 saw the adoption of 110 texts – the third highest in history, with total financial implications of close to US$100 million – by far the highest in the Council’s history), and from the high political value placed by States, again, especially powerful States, on securing and retaining seats on the UN’s apex human rights body.

Notwithstanding, 2023 was not without challenges for the Council and the effective fulfilment of its mandate. Continuing a trend seen over the past five years, polarisation and division continued to grow, especially on country situations, ‘societal issues’ (e.g., those dealing with gender, sexual and reproductive health rights, family), religion and incitement to discrimination and hatred, and long-standing ‘sores’ in inter-State relations such as racism and human rights in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT).

Power shifts at the Council

Generally-speaking, the power balance at the Council continued to see a shift in favour of China, core members of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), such as Egypt, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia, and core members of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) such as Cuba. (Russia continued to be isolated following its invasion of Ukraine), and away from Western States such as the US, EU members, and the UK. This was down to two main factors: a relative increase in power on the part of China, and a relative decrease in US and wider Western influence.

At the start of 2023, China ‘pivoted’ away from the more aggressive style of diplomacy that had characterised its approach over recent times, especially in response to US-led attempts to bring it to book over allegations of gross and systematic human rights violations in the Xinjiang province, and towards a more engaging, constructive, and forward-looking approach, led by a new human rights team at the Permanent Mission of China. This has been extremely successful, and has seen China develop stronger and more cordial relations with Latin American democracies, with many Western States, as well as with OHCHR. 2023 saw China inter alia drop contentious resolutions such as one on ‘colonialism,’ table fewer ‘hostile amendments,’ work with the High Commissioner to help fund more human rights advisors (albeit advisors focused solely on economic, social, and cultural rights), organise a first-ever thematic Council side event (on women’s rights), and secure the adoption, by consensus, of a resolution on inequality.

On the other hand, 2023 saw important countries of the Western European and Others Group (WEOG) continue to adopt positions and pursue strategies that undermined the West’s relationship with important developing country blocs, especially the African Group and the OIC.

Regarding the latter, at the 52nd session in March (HRC52), some Western States again called a vote and voted against important resolutions on the human rights situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT). This included item 7 resolutions on the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination (three Council members voted against – Czechia, UK, and US), and on Israeli settlements in the OPT (incredibly, considering the importance of this issue as a key barrier to peace in the Middle East, four countries voted against, including – again – Czechia, UK, and US); and one item 2 resolution on the obligation to ensure accountability and justice for human rights violations in the OPT (of Western States, only the US voted against).

To their credit, other Western States, notably Belgium, Finland, France, Germany, and Luxembourg, voted in favour of all three texts. However, broadly speaking, the issue of human rights in the OPT continues to be an open sore in terms of the West’s relations with members of the OIC, including more ‘moderate’ members, and indeed, with large parts of the global South. Moreover, the failure of some Western States to engage seriously on the matter of decades of serious human rights abuses in the OPT significantly undermines their ability to mediate between Israel and the Palestinians/OIC, a point placed in stark relief recently, following Hamas’ terrorist attacks against Israel, and Israel’s subsequent invasion of Gaza. It will be crucial in 2024 for trusted partners in the West, such as those that voted in favour of resolutions on the OPT this year, as well as countries such as Norway, to engage with the Palestinian delegation and take steps to ensure that the Council addresses the situation of human rights in the OPT on its merits. That should include, as a key first step, completing the movement of relevant resolutions from item 7 to item 2, where they should then be given a ‘fair hearing’ – including by the UK and the US.

The second issue that served to drive a wedge between the West and the OIC, including ‘moderate’ OIC members, in 2023, was the former’s response to the spate of ‘Quran burnings’ in northern Europe, especially in Sweden. This is unquestionably a complex issue from the perspective of international human rights law, involving differing interpretations of the threshold between legitimate free expression on the one hand, and incitement to religious discrimination, hatred, and violence on the other. Western allegations of hypocrisy against some OIC members that routinely fail to protect the rights of religious minorities in their countries are also justified. Even so, the strategy of Sweden, the EU delegation, the US, and others to avoid debate and instead try to divide the OIC, and the failure of the EU as a whole to speak out against the ‘Quran burnings,’ served to further inflame Muslim opinion, in Europe and around the world.

As a result, on 11 July, during the Council’s 53rd session, the OIC called an urgent debate to ‘discuss the alarming rise in premeditated and public acts of religious hatred as manifested by recurrent desecration of the Holy Quran in some European and other countries.’  Following the debate, Pakistan, on behalf of the OIC, tabled a draft resolution on countering religious hatred constituting incitement to discrimination, hostility, or violence. Despite Western efforts to push back against the return of this ‘defamation of religions’ approach, the OIC comfortably won the vote on the draft resolution, which was adopted by 28 in favour, 12 against, and 7 abstentions.

Turning to Western relations with the African Group, again, two issues in particular served to undermine ties in 2023: a UK-led special session on the human rights situation in Sudan; and – more importantly – the baffling decision, on the part of some Western States, to continue to call a vote on the Africa Group’s resolutions on combatting racism.

Regarding the former, on 11 May the Council held a 36th special session on ‘the human rights impact of the ongoing conflict in the Sudan.’ The session was requested via an official letter signed by the Permanent Representative of the UK, on behalf of the UK, the US, Norway, and Germany. While the terrible human rights consequences of the ongoing civil conflict in Sudan clearly merit attention by the Council, the UK failed to secure any African support for the convening of the special session, and in the vote on the outcome resolution at the end of the session all African States either voted against (including The Gambia) or abstained (including Malawi).

Regarding racism, before and during HRC54, the African Group, under South Africa’s leadership, went to great lengths to amend the text of its annual resolution on ‘From rhetoric to reality: a global call for concrete action against racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance,’ to try to secure consensus. This resolution is – understandably – of immense importance to the countries of the African Group, yet the sad reality is that of the 13 resolutions on the subject tabled by the African Group since 2006, only four had been adopted by consensus (in 2009, 2010, 2017, and 2019). On nine occasions a Western State (usually the US) had called a vote, and in most years when a vote was called, a significant majority of Western members of the Council, plus EU member States from the Eastern European Group, voted against.

The reason for Western opposition to Africa’s resolutions on racism is centred on spurious Israeli claims that the main UN framework for combatting racial discrimination, the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action (DDPA), is somehow linked with anti-Semitism (in reality, the DDPA is designed inter alia to fight anti-Semitism and all forms of racial discrimination and hatred). Notwithstanding the unsubstantiated nature of such claims, ahead of and during HRC54 South Africa went to great lengths to amend the draft text to respond to Israeli/Western concerns. Indeed, for a while it looked as though those efforts would pay dividends. Consensus looked possible until the 7 October terrorist attacks by Hamas against Israel, after which Western and Eastern European Group (EU) members fell back on their long-standing support for Israel’s position on the DDPA. The resolution was ultimately adopted with 33 votes in favour, 7 abstentions, and 7 against (all WEOG and EEG States, plus Nepal). This caused a great deal of anger and ill-feeling on the part of members of the African Group.

Emerging thematic human rights concerns

Notwithstanding the increasing polarisation at the Council, the body continued to be ‘ahead of the curve’ in 2023 in addressing new and emerging human rights concerns, such as digital technology and human rights, the right to a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment, democracy, and inequality (all relevant Council resolutions adopted by consensus).

Regarding the latter, the Council’s last session of the year saw the issue of inequality rise to the top of the body’s agenda. At the start of the session, in his opening address, the High Commissioner for Human Rights made inequality his primary thematic focus, calling on the UN human rights system to play a far more important role in confronting one of the key challenges of our time. Then, during the session, China presented a resolution on ‘Promoting and protecting economic, social and cultural rights within the context of addressing inequalities,’ which inter alia calls for a scaling-up of general budget-funded posts at OHCHR to work on economic and social rights/inequality. The eventual adoption of the resolution by consensus is also a positive development, showing China’s willingness to be flexible in light of Western concerns about the drawing too close a link between human rights and development, and a willingness on the part of States that usually vote against China-led texts to judge the resolution and the issue on its merits.

One thematic area of continued disagreement, however, was the Council’s work on ‘societal issues,’ especially issues touching upon ‘gender.’ For example, June sessions of the Council traditionally see a large number of resolutions focused on issues of gender, and women’s and girl’s rights. Over recent years, those texts have increasingly attracted hostile amendments from socially conservative States, especially Russia and members of the OIC. The Council’s 53rd session was no different. Two resolutions in particular were the focus of attention during the session: a Canada-led text on accelerating efforts to eliminate all forms of violence against women and girls: preventing and responding to all forms of violence against women and girls in criminal justice detention, and a draft resolution led by a cross-regional core group on child, early and forced marriage: ending and preventing forced marriage.

Three amendments were introduced to the Canada-led text on violence against women and girls, one by the Russian Federation, one by Iraq and Saudi Arabia, and one by Egypt. The Russian amendment sought to remove ‘disputed’ terms such as ‘comprehensive sexuality education,’ ‘gender-responsive’ and ‘the right to sexual and reproductive health.’ The Iraq-Saudi Arabia amendment likewise sought to delete what they consider to be ‘controversial’ or ‘disputed’ language, such as ‘reproductive rights’ and ‘bodily autonomy,’ while Egypt’s amendment rejected the inclusion of language on ‘comprehensive sexuality education’ arguing that this ‘highly controversial language’ would risk making children ‘sexualized’ and make it harder to ‘maintain stable families.’ Egypt’s amendment also rejected the term ‘safe abortion.’ All three amendments were called to a vote, and all were rejected.

In the end, the unamended resolution was adopted by consensus, although China disassociated itself from consensus, and Pakistan disassociated itself from the paragraphs referring to SRHR and bodily autonomy.

Six amendments were tabled to the draft resolution on child, early and forced marriage:

  • One, presented by Nigeria and Saudi Arabia seeking to add ‘with appropriate direction from their parents or legal guardians, with the best interests of the child as their basic concern,’ when referring to the provision of information on sexual and reproductive health to adolescent girls and boys and young women and men. The amendment was rejected by vote.
  • One presented by Iraq seeking to eliminate language on ‘bodily integrity, autonomy and agency of women and girls,’ ‘reproductive rights,’ ‘bodily integrity and autonomy’ (to be replaced with ‘personal integrity and autonomy’). The amendment was rejected by vote.
  • Two introduced by Egypt, one seeking to include additional language after ‘domestic violence and intimate partner violence’ to clarify that this is only relevant ‘where [they are] addressed separately in different legal systems’ (the amendment was rejected by vote), and one with language differentiating the rights of women to have control over their sexuality and SRHR from the rights of girls (the amendment was also rejected by vote).
  • Two introduced by Russia, one of which was rejected by vote, and one which was eventually withdrawn.

In the end, the unamended resolution was also adopted by consensus.

Situations of violations

In 2023, the Council continued to take robust action on situations of serious human rights violations in countries including Afghanistan, Belarus, Burundi, DPRK, Eritrea, Myanmar, Nicaragua, Syria, Sudan, and Russia (both in the context of its domestic human rights situation and its war against Ukraine). Regarding the latter two, for example, at its 54th session the Council renewed the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in Russia and created an Independent Fact-Finding Mission on Sudan.

The resolution on human rights in the Russian Federation was adopted with 18 votes in favour, 22 abstentions, and 7 votes against. Although this represents a slight decrease in support compared to the previous resolution (adopted with 17 votes in favour, 24 abstentions, and 6 against), it nonetheless represents an important statement of intent to continue to hold Russia – a powerful State and permanent member of the Security Council – to account. This sense was subsequently reinforced in October when Russia was comprehensively defeated in its attempt to win election to the Council following its suspension last year.

The resolution on ‘Responding to the human rights and humanitarian crisis caused by the ongoing armed conflict in the Sudan was adopted with 19 votes in favour, 12 abstentions, and 16 against. With the text, the Council decided to establish a fact-finding mission to avoid the growing sense of impunity amongst military and political leaders in the country. The text is significant in that it builds on resolution S-36/1 adopted at the conclusion of the special session on Sudan in May 2023, at which time the main sponsors, led by the UK, did not have the support to create an accountability mechanism.

Notwithstanding these important steps, as a general rule it became more difficult in 2023 for the main sponsors of country-specific resolutions under items 2 and 4 (usually Western States) to win votes and secure the adoption of the texts. This was seen in the context of the close votes on Sudan (at both the special session and the 54th regular session) and the EU’s decision not to table a resolution (also at HRC54) extending the mandate of the International Commission of Human Rights Experts on Ethiopia (established in December 2021 and renewed in October 2022) for a further year.

Technical assistance and capacity-building

In a positive development during 2023, there was an increased focus during the year on seeking to improve countries’ human rights situations through dialogue, cooperation, technical assistance, and capacity-building (e.g., a resolution on technical assistance to Colombia, adopted at HRC53).

To take one session as an example, HRC54 saw the adoption of no fewer than seven country-specific (or – in an important first for the Council – region-specific) resolutions under item 10. These were focused on Cambodia, Yemen, Honduras, Central African Republic, Somalia, the Caribbean, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Three of these were tabled at the initiative of the country/region concerned (the Caribbean, Honduras, and Somalia), and – showing the willingness of States to innovate – two broke important new ground. The text focused on Honduras is a rare hybrid text, aiming to strengthen the enjoyment of human rights of persons deprived of liberty in the penitentiary system in the country, while the text on the Caribbean calls for the establishment of a regional office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights for the Caribbean Community.

75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

10 December marked the 75th Anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, an anniversary that the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Volker Turk, and his Office have been promoting throughout the year, culminating in a two-day high-level event held on 11 and 12 December at the Palais des Nations. As part of the very successful high-level event (continuing Turk’s strong start as High Commissioner), OHCHR convened a pledging meeting in which member States, civil society, NHRIs, local and regional authorities, as well as businesses, were encouraged to make pledges around specific action to promote and protect human rights.

At the end of the pledging event, URG analysed the content of 130 statements made by State representatives and 26 speeches made by non-State representatives, to identify the main areas of focus of those pledges. The full results are presented in this blog. Notwithstanding, some key findings are presented below:

  • URG’s analysis identified a total of 105 thematic topics covered by the almost 300 pledges made by States.
  • Many pledges focused on drafting national human rights policies and plans, on the creation and strengthening of national human rights institutions (NHRIs), and on the establishment and strengthening of national mechanisms for implementation, reporting, and follow-up (NMIRFs). Around 15% of the pledges dealt with these issues.
  • Another popular topic covered by pledges was to further strengthen cooperation with OHCHR. 19% of intervening States made pledges on this issue, while an additional 3% referred to cooperation with the UN more broadly.
  • Women’s rights and gender equality, as well as commitments to end violence and discrimination against women and girls, were also among the most recurring themes raised in State pledges. Around 16% of pledges focuses on these themes.
  • Children and youth rights also featured prominently (around 10% of all State pledges), with some representatives alluding to the importance of the rights of future generations and of ensuring youth participation and involvement in decision-making, to ensure that no child is left behind.
  • States also placed a significant emphasis on climate change and the environment (around 8% of all pledges made), with many pledging to adopt policies to implement the right to a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment, and to strengthen environmental protection.
  • Around 7% of pledges focused on the rights of persons with disabilities, with several States making commitments to adopt the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, and/or to strengthen access to public services, such as education.

Thank you for listening

On behalf of the Board of Trustees and staff of the Universal Rights Group, I would like to thank all our friends and partners for their support and cooperation in 2023. URG aims to work with States and other stakeholders from all regions, and all political viewpoints, to help make the Council the best that it can be. It is our firm belief (backed up by empirical research) that the Council and its mechanisms, in concert with the wider UN system, continues to have a real and measurable impact in promoting and protecting human rights around the world. That said, it can and must do better, and URG looks forward to working with you all to that end in 2024.

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