A New Year’s resolution for 2024: Getting serious about Council efficiency, and placing it within the context of a wider self-assessment of the body’s role and impact

by Marc Limon, Executive Director of the Universal Rights Group, Amalia Ordóñez Vahí, Researcher, URG and Lola Sanchez Arcos, Researcher, URG Human rights institutions and mechanisms

In December 2022, upon his election as President of the Human Rights Council, H.E. Václav Bálek outlined his ‘3P’ priorities: ‘prevention, participation, and progress in efficiency.’ He acknowledged the increase in the Council’s workloads over recent years and the strain this had placed on the Council’s capacity to effectively fulfil its mandate. To address the situation, Bálek appointed H.E. Maira Mariela Macdonal Alvarez of Bolivia and H.E. Marc Bichler of Luxembourg as co-facilitators of a year-long consultation process on rationalisation and efficiency. Considering the importance of improving the Council’s efficiency in order to enhance its inclusivity, effectiveness, and impact, and as 2023 retreats in the rear-view mirror, it is instructive to look at what the outgoing President and his co-facilitators were able to achieve.

It is difficult to fault the co-facilitators, who held wide consultations throughout the year, were fully transparent, and eventually presented relatively ambitious proposals. Key to their initial thinking, as they began their work, was something long-argued for by URG: that if Council members and observers are serious about making the body more efficient and thus more effective, they must move beyond the ‘tinkering’ approach to reform adopted in the past (e.g., repeatedly reducing speaking times), and embrace structural reforms (e.g., ‘staggering’ agenda items over the course of the year – something that was the original intention of the first President of the Council and architect of the institution-building package (IBP), Luis Alfonso de Alba – or moving UPR adoptions out of regular sessions of the Council). Unfortunately, as the year neared its end, States were not willing to embrace these necessary structural changes (even though they would be fully in line with the IBP). Therefore, when the co-facilitators eventually published their proposals, many of the more important ‘structural’ reforms were omitted – though some, such as staggering general debates under each agenda item throughout the year, were included. These latter proposals would have seen the convening of three general debates on three different agenda items during each Council regular session, with one additional ‘catch-all’ general debate covering all remaining items (the agenda items to be considered at each session would be determined by drawing lots at the first organisational meeting of the year).

Other proposals that came out of the 2023 consultations included establishing a single three-minute right of reply, reducing the length of annual full-day meetings, exploring incentives to encourage States to present joint statements instead of national statements, making better use of the voluntary calendar of initiatives, consulting with the secretariat when drafting and presenting resolutions, among others. The co-facilitators also raised the possibility of implementing such measures within a one-year ‘pilot test phase.’

Unfortunately, even the somewhat ‘watered down’ steps included in the co-facilitators’ final proposals failed, by and large, to make it into the ultimate outcome of the process – presidential statement OS/17/1 on the ‘Efficiency of the Human Rights Council: addressing financial and time constraints.The PRST, like that adopted at the end of the tenure of the previous President, H.E. Federico Villegas (see below), simply extended previously adopted (technical, rather than structural) efficiency measures, and – once again – encouraged States to take voluntary steps (e.g., to consult more when drafting resolutions with other relevant core groups) to improve efficiency and avoid duplication. It did include one or two new elements, such as exploring the possibility of the limited reclustering of interactive dialogues on overlapping thematic or country-specific issues on a voluntary basis,’ and asking OHCHR to look at the feasibility of developing an integrated digital information tool. However, it is unlikely any of this will lead to rationalisation or greater efficiency.

The frustration of the co-facilitators was evident in their presentations at the organisational meeting at the end of 2023. Ambassador Macdonal Alvarez stressed that efforts to tackle the Council’s increasingly heavy workload must ‘go far beyond a tiny reduction in speaking times and similar [small, technical] measures.Importantly, she linked improved efficiency with improved effectiveness and impact, asking States to reflect on whether they are not too focused on generating ever more reports, resolutions, and debates, and whether this is not undermining the Council’s ‘responsibility to effectively reach people on the ground,’ and drive domestic human rights progress.

Similarly, Ambassador Bichler expressed his regret that the 2023 efficiency process ‘did not allow for more significant progress, and asked States to seriously reflect on three key questions:

1. What level of political capital are we willing to engage to rationalise the work of the Human Rights Council and improve, indeed, its efficiency?
2. How can we incentivise Ambassadors and PRs to take a more active part in the process that we launch every year?
3. Is a Presidential Statement the best adequate form for the outcome and for concrete steps to follow up with?

The long and rather inefficient process to make the Council more efficient

Ambassador Bálek was certainly not the first President to try to confront the Council’s increasingly suffocating workload. Building on an efficiency initiative launched by Norway and Turkey, with support from URG, in 2015 H.E. Joachim Rücker, ninth President of the Council, made efficiency one of his core priorities (and scored some notable successes, such as the biennialisation of resolutions and the voluntary calendar of initiatives). Since then, virtually every President has looked to rationalise the Council’s programme of work, resolutions, and mechanisms – with varying degrees of conviction and success.

Most recently (prior to Ambassador Bálek), the sixteenth President, H.E. Federico Villegas, also focused on efficiency, amongst wider work on improving the Council’s work and functioning, reforming the UPR, strengthening the participation of LDCs and SIDS, and making better use of digital technology. One outcome of those consultations was Council decision 51/101, through which the Council, ‘taking into account the heavy and increasing volume of work of the Human Rights Council and the need to give adequate consideration to all items in its annual programme of work in the most cost-efficient manner possible,’ requested the Secretary-General to provide the Council with the support necessary to be able to meet not less than 14 weeks to fulfil its annual programme of work.’ In other words, the outcome of the negotiations on improving the Council’s efficiency and rationalising its work was to ask the Secretary-General for more resources to extend the length of the body’s three regular sessions to 14 weeks or more (for most of the Council’s history it sat for ten weeks a year). Villegas also managed to steer through a presidential statement before the end of his mandate, although this simply extended previous efficiency measures.

What lies ahead in 2024?

2023 saw one of the highest workloads in the Council’s history, with a total of 161 meetings held across three regular sessions. The Council adopted 106 resolutions – the highest number since 2017, with financial implications of close to $100 million ($97,892,984, to be precise) – by far the highest in history (the previous record – $70 million – was set in 2022), and roughly nine times higher than typical Council ‘spend’ one decade ago.

Very little of this money is directed towards helping improve people’s lives by supporting States, especially developing States (e.g., through capacity-building measures), to better implement UPR, Treaty Body, and Special Procedures recommendations, and thereby better comply with their international human rights obligations.

It is therefore of critical importance both that progress is made in 2024 in getting States to accept the need for structural efficiency reforms, and that those efficiency reforms are placed within the wider context of reorientating the Council’s work away from debating and further clarifying (e.g., through reports) universal human rights norms, and towards supporting the implementation of those norms at the national level, tracking and measuring that implementation, and bringing stories of impact and progress back into Room XX.

Fortunately, the incoming President of the Council, whether that be the ambassador of Morocco or South Africa, has the perfect vehicle for such a process of reflection at his fingertips: namely the General Assembly’s 2021-2026 review of the Council’s status. The incoming President should organise an inclusive process of reflection in Geneva, to seek views on how well the Council is fulfilling its mandate, and what steps might be taken in the future to address shortfalls and improve performance – covering both efficiency and effectiveness.

Image credit: UN Web TV, Human Rights Council Organizational Meeting, 8 December 2023

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