Challenges and opportunities for the Human Rights Council in 2015

by Ambassador Joachim Ruecker, President of the Human Rights Council Blog, International human rights institutions, mechanisms and processes

RueckerThe work of the Human Rights Council is definitely underestimated. This point immediately struck me when I was elected President of the Council for the year 2015, and international and German media representatives approached me for interviews. “Isn’t the Council a tiger without teeth?” “What can the Council achieve without being able to impose sanctions like the Security Council?” “Looking at the Council’s diverse composition, is it possible to find a common line?” These were some of the questions I was asked. My reply was simple and reflects a deep personal conviction: no, the Council is not a toothless tiger; its work has a real and tangible impact on people’s lives.

I have seen civil society representatives cry happy tears at the adoption of important resolutions. I have seen colleagues bravely stand up to protect civil society’s right to speak and to shield human rights defenders from intimidation and harassment. I have seen highly qualified experts gather new information on unspeakable human rights violations under the most difficult of conditions. More often than not, I have seen members of the Human Rights Council stand united to present the common will of the international community on key human rights issues such as violations committed by the so-called Islamic State. As I outlined these achievements, as I explained to colleagues in the media the many ways in which the Council has changed people’s lives, I was pleased to note a growing understanding, recognition and appreciation of what the Council does and why its work is so important.

For Germany, human rights hold particular importance also as a historical responsibility. Two generations ago, Nazi Germany began a war of aggression against its neighbours and committed unprecedented crimes. The sense of ‘never again,’ which we derive from our past, is one of the strongest motivations for me personally and for Germans to promote and protect human rights. With this in mind, I was not greatly surprised by the results of a recent survey by the German Körber foundation, which found that a majority of Germans consider human rights protection to be the most important task of German foreign policy. This year’s Presidency of the Human Rights Council is one way of meeting this challenge and underlining our commitment.

It is true that, unlike the Security Council, the Human Rights Council does not have the power to impose sanctions. Yet it is equally true that, unlike the Security Council, no member of the Human Rights Council has a right of veto, making it easier to reach decisions and take action. Besides, there are many other international organisations that cannot impose sanctions and which are nevertheless highly effective. Sanctions, after all, are not the only means of promoting compliance.

The Human Rights Council, in particular, has a leverage that is sometimes underestimated: the public. Each and every country in the world is sensitive to shifts in public opinion. Each cares about its international reputation. No country wishes to be perceived, either at home or abroad, as a human rights violator. The reasons for this may differ, but what is important is that all countries do take the Human Rights Council seriously. They do so because it is a body with the capacity to detect and raise international awareness about human rights violations wherever they occur. In the more severe cases, it has the power to put in place strong and independent monitoring mechanisms. Such mechanisms are harmful for public opinion vis-à-vis the concerned state – and the only way out is to demonstrate a substantial and credible improvement in its human rights record.

Let me also mention the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) mechanism, one of the great successes of the Human Rights Council. Since I arrived in Geneva, I have not seen a single country that passed this review unnoticed, that approached the review unprepared or that has not accepted (and implemented) a significant number of recommendations. And I believe states cannot get away with cosmetics: they have to bring verifiable evidence of real improvement. If they do not, they know that other states, civil society and the press will notice.

From my conversations with state representatives and other stakeholders in Geneva, it is clear that there are many pressing questions: How can we strengthen the human rights pillar of the UN, in Geneva, in New York and in the field? How can we improve synergies between Geneva and New York and make the best use of scarce resources? How can we best deal with the exponential growth of initiatives?

Those conversations made clear to me that the Council is in many ways the victim of its own success. However, to keep its mechanisms efficient, we must remind ourselves that less is sometimes more.  We should revive our thoughts on efforts towards the multi-annualisation of initiatives, clustering etc. At the same time, we should strive to further improve the Council’s effectiveness. How can we encourage states to implement recommendations from the UPR and Special Procedures? To what extent are we contributing to the prevention of human rights violations and to prompt responses to human rights emergencies?

I will not be able to find answers to any of these questions on my own. Progress will only be possible if we all work together – states, independent experts, OHCHR, and civil society. Regarding the latter, I firmly believe that civil society must be a central participant in human rights debates, given its extensive experience, its knowledge and its critical but also refreshing perspective. To engage with civil society is indeed at the core of human rights, and at the core of our work in the Council. Accordingly, I am firmly convinced that it was, is and will continue to be in the common interest of all member and observer states of the Human Rights Council to promote a culture of cooperation in which civil society, human rights defenders and victims can engage with the UN human rights system without fear of reprisal or intimidation.

In meeting the challenges ahead of us, I remain deeply grateful for all the support I have received so far from my predecessor as President, Ambassador Ndong Ella of Gabon, from member and observer states of the Council, and from civil society, including the Universal Rights Group. Together with the Human Rights Council Vice-Presidents, I will look to build on this support in the months ahead, to make sure that we continue to have what matters most to the victims of human rights violations and abuses: real impact.

H.E. Ambassador Joachim Ruecker is Permanent Representative of Germany and the 9th President of the Human Rights Council.

Image “Human Rights Council  – 27th session” by UN Geneva, licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

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