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View of the main hall during a special session on the deteriorating human rights situation in Ukraine due to Russian aggression. © UN Photo/Jean Marc Ferré
On 1 January 2023, Belgium will become a member of the UN Human Rights Council for 3 years. But what exactly does the Human Rights Council do? And what will be our country's priorities?
The United Nations (UN) – founded in 1945 just after World War II – is built on 3 pillars that are strongly intertwined: (1) peace and security in the world, (2) sustainable development for all and (3) the protection of human rights.
This was followed in 1948 by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the first document in history to clearly define exactly what is meant by basic human rights. Since then, the UDC has inspired countless international treaties, declarations and other instruments on human rights.
The Universal Declaration expresses an ideal situation, of course. The rights listed in it, such as the right to work, rest, education, a nationality, property, freedom of religion and so on, are not always respected. That is why the UN has bodies tasked with promoting and protecting those human rights.
The UN Human Rights Council (HRC) plays a key role in that regard. The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) fulfils the role of secretariat for the HRC. Both bodies are located in Geneva, Switzerland.
An institution with legitimacy the world over
Since its inception in 2006, the HRC has grown into a robust structure that incorporates various procedures, working groups and committees. A fundamental aspect in that regard is that the operation of the HRC reflects the diversity of the UN itself and each UN Member State is therefore able to endorse the legitimacy of the HRC.
The HRC is made up of 47 Member States elected by simple majority by the UN General Assembly, that is, by all of the other Member States. To ensure geographic distribution, each region was assigned a certain number of seats. The members of the HRC include 13 countries from Africa, 13 from Asia and the Pacific, 8 from Latin America and the Caribbean, 6 from Eastern Europe and 7 from Western Europe and other countries. The latter group also includes countries such as Canada, the U.S. and Australia.
Each member serves a 3-year term. This means that one-third of the members are renewed each year. Belgium has already served 2 terms on the HRC and will begin a third term on 1 January 2023.
Since its inception, 117 UN Member States – out of 193 – have already sat on the HRC, which therefore forms an excellent reflection of the diversity within the UN. In addition, countries that do not have permanent representation in Geneva – the least developed countries and the small island states – receive support in the form of grants and training to enable them to participate in the operation of the HRC.
The executive board – a Bureau – also takes turns. The Bureau consists of a president and 4 vice presidents, each representing one of the 5 regions. They are renewed annually.
Observers can also play an active part in HRC sessions. These can include non-member countries, NGOs, national human rights institutions and intergovernmental organisations.
Tetiana Lomakina (on screen), Advisor to the President of Ukraine, addresses a meeting on the humanitarian and human rights situation in Mariupol, Ukraine, at the 50th session of Human Rights Council (June 2022). © UN Photo/Jean Marc Ferré
The HRC issues resolutions and decisions that are not legally binding, but do nevertheless express strong political commitments. The HRC is also developing legally binding instruments such as a complaints procedure for the Convention on the Rights of the Child. It also draws up international standards on topics such as ‘human rights and private enterprise’.
Furthermore, the HRC checks whether people are able to make use of their rights. It checks what governments are doing to protect human rights in their countries and whether they are implementing what they promised within the UN. As part of that role, the HRC is sometimes required to draw attention to gross violations of human rights. The HRC also ensures that human rights receive sufficient attention within the UN system as a whole.
The HRC can provide countries with technical assistance and help build expertise in those countries to promote human rights on their territory, as was previously done in South Sudan and Libya.
Upholding human rights is a long-term task, but the HRC has certainly already achieved some successes. By sounding the alarm early, HRC can prevent nascent human rights catastrophes and prevent long-term crises from spreading.
The HRC meets at least 10 weeks a year in Geneva, spread over March, June and September. The 4-week session in March will open with a ministerial session.
During a regular session, the annual reports of the HRC and OHCHR are discussed and the situation in the Palestinian territories and the follow-up to the Durban Declaration on discrimination and so on are on the agenda. Technical assistance and building expertise also invariably come into play.
Emergency sessions (or crisis meetings) can be convened at the request of at least one-third of the members. For example, in 2010, following the Arab Spring, emergency sessions were held on the atrocities in Syria and Libya. This year, an emergency session was devoted to Iran.
Regular meetings are the place to discuss resolutions. Resolutions express the vision of the members of the HRC, or a majority of them, on a specific human rights issue. They can be about a country as well as a theme.
The resolutions are not legally binding, but they do have an indirect long-term impact. Indeed, they drive changes in legislation or best practices on a national level. Resolutions also draw the international community's attention to specific issues and can spur other institutions such as the UN Security Council into action.
By 2020, HRC had already passed 1779 resolutions, 80% of them by consensus. About half of those were thematic, addressing issues such as democracy, human trafficking, terrorism, women's rights, migration, persons with disabilities, LGBTQ+ rights and so on.
Universal Periodic Review
With the Universal Periodic Review (UPR), the HRC subjects each UN Member State to an assessment of the country's human rights record on a full equality basis. After all, the UPR is a peer review in which each country is vetted by other countries.
Over the course of a 4.5-year period, all UN Member States are evaluated, meaning that 42 countries are reviewed each year. The UPR is conducted by a working group in which all 47 members of the HRC are represented. Of these, 3 countries, the so-called ‘troika’, provide the rapporteurs. Non-member countries may also serve as observers.
The UPR begins with a general assessment of the human rights situation in a country. The country then has a period of 4.5 years to implement the recommendations to improve the situation. Once that period is over, the extent to which the situation has actually improved is assessed.
The final assessment is based on three reports. First of all, the country being evaluated draws up a report itself. In addition, the working group compiles any information on that country that the UN is able to access via its own agencies, such as the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) or treaty monitoring bodies. Information supplied by civil society is also pooled. This includes input from NGOs, academic institutions, human rights advocates, national human rights institutions and so on.
On average, a country receives some 180 recommendations, some of which it can reject. About 75% of the recommendations are accepted.
For Belgium, a UPR is always an important exercise. Last year, our country completed its third cycle. It was able to present improvements such as the decrease in prison overcrowding and the ratification of the Istanbul Convention on Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence.
What is unique about the UPR is that every country is treated equally and the investigation is conducted seriously and with an open mind. In doing so, each country recognises that the human rights situation is not perfect anywhere and that there is always room for improvement. It is not always easy for a country to correctly assess that itself. The view observed by other countries during the UPR is therefore very instructive.
The UPR has already led to notable improvements in various countries: new laws and practices around human rights, better protection for victims, strengthening the rule of law and justice and accountability for abuses.
The Belgian Olivier De Schutter, Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, briefs reporters at UN Headquarters (October 2022). © UN Photo/Loey Felipe
The term UN special rapporteurs is one we hear regularly, for example, with regard to the right to education, the right to freedom of speech, the right to food and so on, but also about countries such as Belarus, Cambodia and Afghanistan. Currently, the Belgian, Olivier De Schutter, is Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights.
These rapporteurs are unpaid and independent and are experts appointed by the HRC to investigate a theme in greater depth. They are the eyes and ears of the HRC and can conduct site visits and denounce human rights violations. That way, they can contribute to new standards around human rights, raise public awareness and advise on technical assistance. Thematic rapporteurs have a mandate of 3 years, while country rapporteurs are evaluated every year.
There are also working groups in which 5 experts – one per region – sit. For example, there are working groups devoted to people of African descent, multinational corporations and discrimination against girls and women.
Finally, the HRC sometimes appoints independent investigative committees and international fact-finding missions. These are mandated to investigate specific events, such as war crimes or crimes against humanity. Seven are currently active, focusing on Myanmar, Venezuela and Yemen, amongst other topics.
The advisory committee is the HRC's ‘reflection group‘, a kind of think tank that conducts studies and formulates opinions at the request of the HRC. Its members consist of 18 independent experts, divided equally according to regions. Up to now, they have been considering topics such as post-conflict situations, the right to food, the rights of albinos and the like.
Individuals, groups and organisations can file complaints about gross and proven violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms. However, the complaint must be filed by more than one person or entity and all legal proceedings must have been exhausted in the country concerned.
The complaint procedure is the only universal procedure that spans all human rights and fundamental freedoms in all UN Member States. About 4,000 complaints are filed annually.
Various forums, mechanisms and working groups
Finally, there is an additional range of diverse bodies working on specific topics. For example, there is an ‘expert mechanism’ dedicated to the rights of indigenous peoples and another to the right to development. Koen De Feyter from Belgium sits on the latter.
In addition, there are forums on minorities, on business & human rights, and on human rights, democracy & the rule of law. Once a year, the social forum meets to debate a particular topic. It provides a unique venue for open dialogue between civil society, representatives of the Member States and intergovernmental organisations. Past topics have included the impact of the economic and financial crisis on human rights, in addition to rights of elders and so on.
Finally, there are a number of working groups dedicated to racial discrimination, education and training, the right to peace and so on.
Belgium's priorities during its membership
Human rights form a cornerstone of Belgium's foreign policy. After all, they are an essential condition to enable peace, security and development. Human rights are not a favour on the part of each state, but an obligation, for everyone and always. Our country will therefore be fully engaged during its membership from 2023 to 2025.
For Belgium, all human rights are equally important, civil and political rights as well as economic, social and cultural rights, in their indivisibility and with their interdependence. However, special attention will be paid to the rule of law and the fight against impunity, the abolition of the death penalty, the protection of civil space and defenders of human rights, and, of course, gender equality and the fight against discrimination, with a particular focus on women and girls. As a loyal EU Member State and supporter of joint action among EU Member States, our country will also continue to work for the implementation of a European diplomacy on human rights.
The UN Human Rights Council has developed into a robust body that protects and defends a cornerstone of the UN. Without respect for human rights, we cannot possibly achieve a safe world in which everyone can live a dignified life. It is an arduous road, but the HRC has effective mechanisms to move forward very gradually in a way that is of benefit to all countries and everyone, in a spirit of equality and openness. As far as Belgium itself is concerned, the HRC is a crucial institution to which it is fully committed.