The Human Right Council in 2023: on its journey to adulthood

by Geneva Blog, Blog, By invitation, By invitation, International human rights institutions, mechanisms and processes

A message from the 17th President of the Human Rights Council, H.E. Ambassador Václav Bálek (Czech Republic) 

The most ratified human rights treaty in the world, the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, stipulates that adulthood begins at the age of eighteen. During the Czech Presidency, the Human Rights Council enters its 17th year. Therefore, in the spirit of the Convention, the year 2023 should be the Council’s last full year on its journey to adulthood. This is both a great opportunity as well as a great responsibility. In my country, we have a saying: ‘What you learn in your youth will be your foundation when you’re older.’ So, what is it that we can learn this year before the Council reaches adulthood in March next year?

In my inaugural speech in December 2022, I presented three main priorities for my Presidency – prevention, participation and progress on efficiency. It is my hope that these priorities can help us draw some lessons for the Council’s future.

The Council’s preventive mandate is what sets it apart from other UN bodies and I am determined to support that mandate as much as possible. As a UN body where no member State has a veto power, all member States share an equal responsibility. Over the years, the Council’s initiatives have led to the establishment of numerous Special Procedures mandates and accountability mechanisms whose expertise and early warnings have, in several cases, preceded human rights crises. At a recent ECOSOC special meeting on preventing genocide, for example, I talked about the International Commission of Inquiry on Syria, which reported in 2016 that genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes were being committed by the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham against the Yazidis. At the same time, the Council and its mechanisms work hard on technical cooperation, and although the Universal Periodic Reviews (UPR) may appear somewhat ‘dry’ to anyone watching in person or online, its value outside of Geneva should not be underestimated.

The Council’s work can only be meaningful if it goes beyond our ‘Geneva bubble.’ With that in mind, I will continue the excellent work done by previous Presidents to ensure that the Council remains inclusive and provides a safe space for everyone, including all States, national human rights institutions, civil society, and other important stakeholders. Last year, the Council became the most closely followed intergovernmental body of the UN on social media. Through the use of modern technology, we are bringing the Council closer to people outside of Geneva. The Council belongs to everyone, not just to a lucky few. We need to keep pace with the rest of the world and make the best use of new technologies. Our task this year will be to build upon the good progress already made on digital participation, in close cooperation with the UN Office at Geneva. Throughout the year ahead, my door will remain open to the media, and perhaps this blog post can be counted among such initiatives – if you are still reading. In my capacity as President, I will also work to encourage the participation of women and girls, young persons and persons belonging to vulnerable groups. The Council’s Task Force on Accessibility will continue removing barriers for persons with disabilities. Every effort that can make participation at the Council easier is worth it.

My third priority is progress on efficiency. In 2023, we are facing the longest year in the Council’s history in terms of the duration of its sessions. Something has to change. This is especially important in the year of the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the 30th anniversary of the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action. Wouldn’t it be nice to find an agreement on how to deal with the overloaded agenda of the Council? We will make no progress without the cooperation of member States. We need all stakeholders on board and Council members to take the lead on driving the changes. Without their support, all proposals for efficiency will remain just that: proposals.

With each year the Council has been learning by doing. With every new initiative under its preventive mandate, it becomes more effective in addressing human rights situations around the world. With more diverse voices participating in the Council, it becomes more relevant to persons who are the focus of Council’s attention. With more efficient work, it can focus on improving human rights standards that matter instead of counting each second of allocated meeting time.

I am glad that with four excellent Vice-Presidents from Bolivia, Gambia, Luxembourg and Maldives, the Council members and observers, members of civil society, the Council’s Special Procedures and other mechanisms, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, and many more, we can work on this together. It is our common goal to make sure that this year will be remembered as a positive lesson for the Council.

Photo credit: MFA CZ Archive

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