The Human Right Council in 2022: Vision, challenges and a call for action

by H.E. Federico Villegas, 16th President of the UN Human Rights Council, Permanent Representative of Argentina to the United Nations Office and other international organizations in Geneva By invitation, Human rights institutions and mechanisms

Challenges for the coming year

As Permanent Representative of Argentina, I am grateful and honoured for having been elected to preside over the Human Rights Council for 2022. 2021 was very challenging, but my predecessor, Ambassador Khan, guided us through the year and kept the Council functioning during an unprecedented pandemic.

The year ahead will also present particular challenges for the Council, and we will need to work collectively to overcome them.

The first challenge is to reflect together on the responsibility of the Council from a historical perspective. Originally, from the time of the emergence of the nation-state as we know it today to the Second World War, international law was not designed or intended to focus on the welfare of individual people. After the tragedy of the Holocaust, and with the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 as well as the norms and standards of protection that followed, we changed that paradigm. We recognised that each and every person has rights that we must all collectively protect, irrespective of whether someone is a national of one or another State (or even where they are not subject to the jurisdiction of any state).

Notwithstanding these momentous events, it is important to remember that this new paradigm, which we know today as international human rights law, is still only 76 years old. Therefore, while we have come a long way, from a relative historical perspective, we have only just begun our journey – only uncovered the tip of the iceberg. Seen against the backdrop of this broad sweep of history, the Council has, in my opinion, driven enormous progress in its relatively short life. To understand this, one only has to look at the human rights concerns now being addressed by the Council: climate change, discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, violence and gender equality, business and human rights, human rights in the digital age, the rights of persons with disabilities and of older persons, to give just a few examples. Notwithstanding this progress, much work undoubtedly remains to be done.

In that context, a second challenge is the politicisation of the Council. We all agree that this is a growing phenomenon, and are concerned that it could lead to polarisation that risks reducing the body’s effectiveness and, potentially, paralysing its work – as happened with the Commission on Human Rights. We must accept that human rights issues are part of the domestic and international political agenda. Yet, we must collectively ensure that human rights are not held hostage to geopolitical tensions, regardless of the reordering of global power relations. During the Cold War, human rights were violated on many occasions at the global level, under a biased vision of a supposed hierarchy among categories of rights. In 1993, in Vienna, we decided that all human rights – civil, political, social, economic and cultural – are universal, interdependent, indivisible and mutually reinforcing. This post-Cold War commitment is about to turn 30 years old in 2023, but we have not yet been able to put it fully into practice.

Additionally, we have to make an utmost effort, if the epidemiological situation allows, to return to in-person meetings for the Council’s sessions in 2022 – resorting to virtual modalities only in unavoidable cases or when we have found it to be a valuable tool for our work. We also need to return to in-person meetings for informal consultations to be able to properly exchange views, ideas and proposals, and to better understand each other’s positions. Virtual meetings make it difficult to go through the three stages of any successful negotiation: expressing our wishes, communicating our positions, and reaching a consensus on our common interests.

Proposals for action

During the year ahead, it is my intention to seek the engagement of Council members on some proposals for action, bearing in mind the sense of collective responsibility that should always guide our work. For each of these actions, I intend to convene brainstorming sessions in an informal setting and under the Chatham House rule, to exchange views and ideas:

  1. Let’s generate in the Council a stable platform to increase dialogue and deepen the understanding of our commonalities and differences about human rights.

Each country faces human rights challenges and develops a vision of the international system of promotion and protection according to its own historical, political and cultural context. Nevertheless, it is the people living under the jurisdiction of each of our States who are the holders of the rights that we are all collectively obliged to protect. It is not for us, the States, to interpret these rights: they exist beyond nationalities, cultures, religions or forms of political, social or economic organisation.

In that regard, it is my desire that all Council members expand their knowledge and mutual understanding of their national realities. Leaving aside prejudice, paternalism, stigmatisation or isolation, attitudes that in the end do not resolve human rights situations on the ground, no matter how serious they may be. We need to strengthen the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) to make it a fundamental tool in this regard.

  1. Let’s learn more about the multiple roles that civil society organisations can play in improving the situation of human rights, both at a global level and in each of our countries. The vast majority of NGOs and human rights defenders represent the victims who have no voice. Let’s exchange experiences on how to achieve a mutually beneficial and collaborative relationship between States and NGOs. Not only do they demand from us as States the fulfilment of our international human rights obligations, they also have an important role in collaborating with us in developing public policies, norms, and standards, as well as in the implementation of the human rights recommendations.
  2. Let’s generate a systemic reflection in the Council in 2022 that strengthens the contribution of the body in conflict prevention and post-conflict reconstruction. The Security Council is the main body of the multilateral system that ensures international peace and security. However, before and after the intervention of the Security Council, human rights play a key role both in crisis/conflict prevention and in post-conflict reconstruction of a State’s social and institutional fabric. Respect for human rights in a society emerging from a collective trauma of violence and, in some cases, atrocity, is the best guarantee of non-repetition. The year 2022 could be an opportunity to increase the contribution of the mechanisms of the Human Rights Council in this regard.
  3. Finally, let us strengthen cooperation to incorporate a human rights perspective in a cross-cutting manner in our public policies, in coordination with UN agencies and programmes, and building from the recommendations of the UPR, Treaty Bodies and Special Procedures. The Council can play a key role as a catalyst for sharing the experiences of States in human rights policy-making, which will in-turn help boost progress towards achieving the goals and targets of the 2030 Agenda. Moreover, this approach can help mobilise a maximum of human and financial resources in a country towards human rights implementation.

These are my proposals for the year ahead. Yet I count on – and welcome – the ideas of all stakeholders as to how, together, we can strengthen the role and delivery of the Council to achieve the full enjoyment of human rights throughout the world as an essential precondition for maintaining international peace and security, and for achieving sustainable and inclusive development.

H.E. Federico Villegas is the 16th President of the UN Human Rights Council and Permanent Representative of Argentina to the United Nations Office and other international organizations in Geneva

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