Nothing new under the sun: The Human Rights Council’s circular debates about efficiency and rationalisation

by Marc Limon, Executive Director of the Universal Rights Group Blog, Human Rights Council, Human rights institutions and mechanisms, International human rights institutions, mechanisms and processes

For the past decade, the Human Rights Council has, at regular intervals, grappled with the question of how to make its work more efficient, including through the rationalisation of initiatives, mandates, general debates, and panels, and through ‘technical fixes’ such as reducing speaking times. These efficiency drives have tended to come as a consequence of sporadic yet growing concern that the Council’s programme of work is becoming unmanageable, especially for smaller delegations (as well as for conference services). During this time many proposals have been tabled and debated. Some have been implemented (albeit half-heartedly), others have been shelved, only to be revisited a few years later. Today, UN member States have reached the limit of what can be achieved through technical fixes and/or simply expanding the duration of regular sessions. With the body’s overloaded agenda continuing to cause serious challenges in terms of the effective participation (e.g., in negotiations) of smaller delegations, and with the quality of the Council’s outputs, mandates and mandate-holders continuing to decline, States (guided by the current Council President’s co-facilitators on efficiency, Bolivia and Luxembourg) are faced with a stark choice: either revisit some of the more ‘radical’ structural proposals made in the past, or learn self-restrain in bringing new initiatives to the Council and/or garner the political will to discontinue or merge initiatives/resolutions/mandates.

Nothing new under the sun

When the Human Rights Council was established in 2005-2006, there was already a clear understanding amongst States that putting in place effective methods of work would require the new body to be more efficient than its predecessor, the Commission on Human Rights. This explains, for example, paragraph 6 in General Assembly resolution 60/251 under which the General Assembly:

Decide[d] also that the Council shall assume, review and, where necessary, improve and rationalize all mandates, mechanisms, functions, and responsibilities of the Commission on Human Rights.

From the start, however, the Council has struggled to fulfil this mandate. Already during the institution-building negotiations (2006-2007), the open-ended intergovernmental working group on the review, rationalisation and improvement of mandates failed to reach any kind of meaningful agreement on the issue, and thereafter the number of Special Procedures mandates, resolutions, reports, etc. did not decrease, but rather continued to expand.

During the years, many efforts have been made to raise awareness about the need to increase the efficiency of the Council and to take steps forward in that regard. From 2013, Norway and Turkey, together with a cross-regional group of States, in a series of joint statements, were the first to draw attention to the risks and challenges associated with this continued, uncontrolled expansion. Although at the time there was considerable opposition, amongst States and civil society, to any focus on efficiency, Ambassador Joachim Rücker (Germany), the ninth President of the Council (2015), nonetheless took up the call and made efficiency a key priority of his Presidency. Key to the success of Ambassador Rücker’s efficiency push was that he persuaded States to show restraint with their resolutions/initiatives, in particular by biennialising or triennialising the tabling of thematic texts.

The first presidential statement (PRST) 29/1 on ‘Enhancing the efficiency of the Human Rights Council,’ was adopted in July 2015. This ‘acknowledged that the Human Rights Council should continue to be efficient and effective in fulfilling its mandate, as outlined by the General Assembly in its resolution 60/251.’

For a time, these efforts, supported and continued by subsequent presidencies, succeeded in reducing the number of resolutions tabled each year. For example, Figure 1 below shows a significant drop in the number resolutions adopted during all three Council sessions in both 2018 and 2019 (taking into account the lag time needed for the bilateral efficiency agreements reached 2015-2016 to take effect).

At the end of 2017, the Netherlands, Rwanda, UK, URG, and others convened an informal ‘Human Rights Council strengthening’ conference in Geneva. The conference concluded that:

‘The increasing workload of the Council, and the commensurate decrease in time for genuine dialogue, is undoubtedly undermining the efficiency and effectiveness of the institution. The Council is doing more and more: regular Council sessions in 2017 included 155 meetings […] while the year also saw the adoption of a record number of Council resolutions. Yet because this is all being done with the same resources (financial, human, and overall session time), from the perspective of effectiveness and impact it is clear that the Council risks doing less and less.’

During the conference, a range of proposals were made regarding the Council’s efficiency. Many of these ideas were taken up by subsequent Council Presidencies.

The following year (2018), Ambassador Vojislav Šuc (Slovenia) assumed the Presidency. In April, he launched a process of informal consultations, led by three teams of co-facilitators, to improve the annual programme of work, promote the further rationalization of resolutions and initiatives, and promote the use of modern technology. At the end of Ambassador Šuc’s term, the Council adopted PRST/OS/12/1 on ‘Enhancing the efficiency of the Human Rights Council, including by addressing financial and time constraints.’

After ‘noting the […] Council’s increasing workload and challenges, particularly budgetary constraints, reported by the United Nations Office at Geneva in providing services on a continuing basis for all the meetings of the Council throughout the year, and reaffirming its willingness to consider measures aimed at making its work more efficient and effective,’ the Council decided inter alia to continue to discuss the structure and duration of the general debates; to consider further measures ‘with a view to addressing the challenges faced by small delegations, particularly those of small island developing States and least developed countries; to continue the practice of limiting to two hours the duration of panel discussions held during regular sessions; and to encourage the further rationalisation of initiatives, ‘including, but not limited to, through biennialisation and triennialisation,’ etc.

This work was continued by the 13th President of the Council, Coly Sek (Senegal). At the end of his term, in December 2019, the Council adopted PRST/OS/13/1 on ‘Efficiency of the Human Rights Council – addressing financial and time constraints.’

With the PRST, the Council acknowledged recent progress in improving the Council’s efficiency, but nonetheless ‘recognized the need for introducing additional measures in line with its institution-building package to enhance its efficiency by addressing financial and time constraints.’ It therefore decided to continue to reflect on the issue of UPR adoptions; to reduce speaking time limits during interactive dialogues to one and a half minutes; and to convene general debates during its March and September sessions on all agenda items but that no general debates will take place during its June sessions.

The last provision was particularly contentious (and still is, particularly among civil society organisations). This provision was the (modest) outcome of a year of consultations led by Iceland and Rwanda which tried to replace the hitherto largely ad hoc and technocratic approach to rationalisation with a more structural approach, while remaining within the contours of the IBP. In particular, the co-facilitators aimed to take forward an idea from the 2017 Human Rights Council strengthening conference to stagger the consideration of agenda items over the course of the year rather than considering every agenda item at every session.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the Council was one of the UN’s best performers in terms of continuing to fulfil its mandate and, where possible, continuing to meet in person. Notwithstanding, the reorganisation of work that this entailed meant the body necessarily broke with its long-standing practice of holding ten weeks of regular sessions per year (four in March, three in June, and three in September). Previously, the Council had sought to compensate for its increased workload by starting earlier, continuing over lunch, or continuing into the night (for voting). At the end of the health crisis, the Council decided to continue with the practice of longer regular sessions. One consequence of this was financial/administrative – i.e., how to find the extra resources needed to support these extra weeks?

In October 2022, Ambassador Federico Villegas, the Council’s 16th President (2022), presented decision 51/101 on ‘Appropriate support for the Human Rights Council,’ to address this situation. With the text it was decided, ‘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,’ to request ‘the Secretary-General to provide the Human Rights Council with the support necessary to be able to meet not less than 14 weeks to fulfil its annual programme of work,’ and at the same time to ‘continue to make every effort to organize its work in the most efficient manner.’

It is clear from the above overview that rationalisation and efficiency have been discussed and debated many times by Council delegations and in various formats. Some of the ideas from those discussions (e.g., biennialising resolutions, reducing the duration of panel discussions, reducing speaking times) have been implemented, oftentimes with positive (if at times short-lived) benefits for the efficient work of the Council. Notwithstanding, it is likely that the Council has reached the limits of what these ‘tweaks’ to the Council’s methods of work can achieve.

What next?

Going forward, if States agree that if there is a continued need to rationalise and improve the Council’s methods of work and mandates, and make the body yet more efficient (and thereby effective), delegations will need to either:

  Look again at more ‘structural’ reforms (within/consistent with the IBP) such as moving UPR adoptions out of regular Council sessions, or ‘staggering’ or ‘sharing’ the consideration of agenda items over the three annual sessions.

  Take responsibility themselves by lowering the number of resolutions, thereby lowering the number of interactive dialogues, reports, panels, intersessional meetings, etc., and/or agree to give meaningful consideration to the rationalisation of Special Procedures mandates. Without such individual national restraint (and, related to this, greater trust and cooperation between delegations) it will remain difficult for any President to ensure the efficiency and ultimately the functionality of the Council.

Fortunately, thanks to the many discussions had over the past ten years regarding efficiency, improvement and rationalisation, there are already many ideas out there in terms of steps that States might take (across both the above areas). Many of those ideas could, and perhaps should, be revisited.


Photo credit: General view of the 1st session of the Human Rights Council. 2006 UN Photo / Jean Marc Ferré

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