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The United Nations was founded in 1945 with the triple objective:
- maintaining peace and security;
- ensuring development;
- promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms.
Within the United Nations, various bodies focus on the promotion and protection of human rights. These bodies can be divided into two pillars:
- the institutions based on the United Nations Charter;
- the bodies set up by human rights treaties.
The institutions based on the Charter derive their legitimacy and mandate directly from the human rights provisions of the United Nations Charter itself.
The General Assembly was established as the main consultative body of the United Nations. It functions as a unique, universal forum for multilateral discussions on all international issues falling within the scope of the Charter. To effectively manage its activities, the General Assembly has organised itself into 6 main committees. The Third Committee, which addresses social, humanitarian, and cultural issues, deals with human rights issues. It does so through a thematic or country approach.
The main activity of the General Assembly consists of drafting and adopting resolutions, which are not binding or enforceable, but which are politically important. In addition, the General Assembly approves new UN treaties which must then be ratified by the Member States. Unlike the Human Rights Council, where only elected Member States have a seat, all UN Member States have a seat - and therefore voting rights, on the Third Committee. Belgium participates actively, in the framework of the EU, in the annual sessions of the Third Committee.
Human Rights Council
The Human Rights Council was established in 2006 as the successor to the former Commission on Human Rights. The Council monitors respect for and promotion of human rights by UN Member States. The Human Rights Council is composed of 47 Member States who convene in Geneva for at least 10 weeks, spread over three sessions per year (March, June, and September). At the request of one third of its members, the Human Rights Council can also organise special or urgent sessions to respond to a crisis.
Belgium has been a member of the Human Rights Council twice to date, the first time from June 2009 to the end of 2012 and the second time from 2016 to 2018. In the context of these candidacies, Belgium entered voluntary pledges and commitments (2009; 2016). But Belgium also actively participates as an observer in the sessions of the Council. It does so both at EU level and by making declarations, proposing resolutions, and organising side events.
In the context of its activities, the Human Rights Council may decide to appoint Special Rapporteurs. These rapporteurs are the Council's in-house monitoring mechanisms. They are independent experts who are appointed to analyse and report on the human rights situation in a given country or on a particular theme. They also carry out country visits. Since 2001, Belgium has issued a standing invitation to the thematic special rapporteurs, which implies that they are a priori welcome to visit our country. Various special rapporteurs have visited Belgium.
Within the framework of the Human Rights Council, the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) also takes place. The UPR is a unique mechanism that puts all States on an equal footing: the human rights situation in each Member State of the United Nations is examined during a recurring four-year cycle. This is an intergovernmental process in the form of a peer review mechanism, in which States ask each other questions and formulate recommendations about their human rights situation. This is done based on three reports:
- a national report of the State in question;
- a compilation of information available with the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights;
- a compilation of information submitted by stakeholders.
During three sessions every year, 14 states are reviewed r each session. Belgium actively participates in this mechanism by formulating questions and recommendations to a large number of States. Belgium has itself been under review twice, in 2011 and 2016. Our country also submitted a voluntary interim report each time. The FPS Foreign Affairs, Foreign Trade and Development Cooperation is responsible for coordinating this exercise.
Within the United Nations, 9 fundamental human rights treaties and 9 optional protocols have been drawn up over the years:
- the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (1965);
- the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966);
- the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1966);
- the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (1979);
- the International Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (1984);
- the International Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989);
- the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of Migrant Workers and Members of their Families (1990);
- the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance (2006);
- the International Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (2006).
The provisions of these treaties and protocols are only binding on the Member States which are parties to them. Belgium has ratified 8 conventions and 8 optional protocols.
The monitoring of compliance with these treaties has been entrusted to monitoring bodies set up specifically for this purpose. These treaty bodies or committees are made up of independent experts. There are nine such committees, each of which monitors compliance with a given treaty. In addition, the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment provides for the establishment of a sub-committee to exercise a preventive mandate through visits to detention sites.
All these treaties stipulate a periodic reporting obligation for the States parties. Together with information from civil society organisations, independent institutions, and other stakeholders, these periodic reports from the States parties form the basis for a constructive dialogue between the committee in question and the State party in question. The Committee concludes these constructive dialogues with the adoption of concluding observations, in which it makes recommendations to the State Party concerned. The FPS Foreign Affairs, Foreign Trade and Development Cooperation is responsible for the general coordination of the Belgian reporting cycle.
Furthermore, the treaties or optional protocols provide for an individual right of complaint. That is an optional right of complaint. It means that a complaint can only be handled by the competent committee if the accused State has declared that it recognises the authority of this committee in this matter. Belgium has recognised the individual right of complaint under each of the treaties it has ratified.
Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights
The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) is the leading UN human rights body. It is part of the UN Secretariat. The General Assembly has entrusted both the High Commissioner and her Office with a unique mandate to promote and protect all human rights for all people. The United Nations human rights programme aims to ensure that the protection and enjoyment of human rights becomes a reality in the lives of all people. The Office also plays a crucial role in ensuring the integrity of the three interrelated pillars of the United Nations - peace and security, development, and human rights. It also assists in the form of technical expertise and capacity building to support the implementation of international human rights standards on the ground. The Office helps governments, which have primary responsibility for the protection of human rights, to fulfil their obligations and supports individuals in demanding their rights. Finally, the Office speaks out objectively regarding human rights violations.
Belgium supports the High Commissioner and her Office in the performance of their mandate, and is an advocate for their independence and impartiality, which are essential for the fulfilment of their mission. The FPS Foreign Affairs, Foreign Trade and Development Cooperation also provide financial support to the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. Belgium is one of the 20 leading donors.