Update: 21.06.2007

One year after: the UN Human Rights Council built its foundation

The fifth session of the Human Rights Council was held in Geneva from 11 to 18 June 2007. During this crucial session, a series of reforms of the new UN institution were formally but ‘in extremis’ adopted on 19 June 2007. «The final document [prepared by Council President Luis Alfonso de Alba] is a balanced text and is the result of concessions made by all of us,» commented Blaise Godet, Switzerland's ambassador to the UN.

Summary of the institution-building

«The presidential text entitled "UN Human Rights Council: Institution-Building" lays out the basic structure for the Council's new institutional machinery, including the Universal Periodic Review Mechanism, the Special Procedures, the Human Rights Council Advisory Committee (which replaces the Sub-Commission for the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights), and the Complaint Procedure (which replaces the confidential 1503 Procedure). It also sets out an agenda and framework for a programme of work, and lays down the Rules of Procedure for the Council.» (UN Press release)

Greatest innovation: the UPR

The Universal Periodic Review (UPR) Mechanism will provide an opportunity for addressing human rights abuse wherever they occur. Among its objectives are the improvement of  the human rights situation on the ground and the enhancement of the State’s capacity and technical assistance. All States are targetted, but the initial members of the Council will be reviewed first. The first review cycle will be concluded in four years. In considering the outcome of a Universal Periodic Review, the Council will decide if and when any specific follow-up will be necessary.

Compromise: the Special Procedures

The biggest concession by the de Alba package is related to the choice of rapporteurs. Now the Council must confirm who will continue his or her work to the end of his mandate - a decision which before was held exclusively by the president. Thematic mandates will be initiated for three years and country mandates for one year (they can be prolonged, but for no more than six years in total). Decisions to create a review or discontinue country mandates should also take into account the principles of cooperation and genuine dialogue aimed at strengthening the capacity of Member States to comply with their human rights obligations.

Switzerland satisfied – NGOs frustrated

The Swiss representatives welcomed an «acceptable compromise», but it expressed reservations. Ambassador Godet said he regretted that the support of independent experts to the «universal periodic reviews» – under which all countries will have their rights record examined regularly – was not in the final text. He also said Switzerland had reservations about the code of conduct imposed on the special rapporteurs but said Bern had finally accepted it. He added that he now wished council members to respond rapidly and effectively to human rights violations around the world.

For Human Rights Watch (HRW), the Council’s institution building exercise provided a foundation, albeit a weak one, for the body’s future works. «The council has left key questions unanswered, which gives leeway to countries that seek to weaken human rights protections» said Peggy Hicks, global advocacy director at HRW. The International Federation of the Human Rights Leagues identifies a series of potential dangers, for which it gives recommendations.

Other issues: Reports, Resolutions, Elections

A new Council President was elected on 19 June, as well as one third of the Council. Earlier, the Council heard the thematic reports on the independence of judges and lawyers; racism; the right to food; illicit dumping of toxic and dangerous products; adequate housing; and extreme poverty, as well as the country reports on the situation of human rights in Belarus, Cuba, Cambodia, Haiti and Somalia. Three resolutions on Lebanon, the occupied Palestinian territory and Darfur were also adopted during the fifth session. The next session will be held from 10 to 28 September 2007.

On 20 June, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights announced that there would be a ‘Human Rights Room’ at the Palais des Nations in Geneva which should serve as the Council’s headquarters.

Further information

 

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