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UN Human Rights Council


What is it?:

The UN Human Rights Council, a body within the United Nations system that works closely with the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, is composed of 47 member states that can be elected for two maximum consecutive three-year terms. The Geneva-based council meets at least three times a year for 10-week sessions, and can call special sessions as well. Along with assessing other human-rights concerns around the globe, members are supposed to commit to upholding high human-rights standards at home. The UN mission states that the council fosters "dialogue and cooperation" on human-rights concerns.


As of the 2009 UN General Assembly, the Human Rights Council members are: Angola, Argentina, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Belgium, Bolivia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Brazil, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chile, China, Cuba, Djibouti, Egypt, France, Gabon, Ghana, Hungary, India, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Jordan, Kyrgyzstan, Madagascar, Mauritius, Mexico, Netherlands, Nicaragua, Nigeria, Norway, Pakistan, Philippines, Qatar, Republic of Korea, Russian Federation, Saudi Arabia, Senegal, Slovakia, Slovenia, South Africa, Ukraine, United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, United States of America, Uruguay, Zambia.

Becoming a member:

Nominees are put forth with regional distribution: 13 from the African Group, 13 from the Asian Group, 6 from the Eastern European Group, 8 from the Latin American and Caribbean Group (GRULAC), and 7 from the Western European and Others Group (WEOG). A country must get the votes of at least 96 of the 191 states of the UN General Assembly to become a member. The council is criticized for its non-competitive elections, with seats usually decided by dealmongering between states in which tradeoffs are made for posts on other UN bodies.


The Human Rights Council was born by a General Assembly resolution on March 15, 2006, after the disintegration of its predecessor, the UN Commission on Human Rights. The Commission, founded on Dec. 10, 1946, served the same stated purpose as its successor and was composed of 53 member states meeting for a six-week session each year. The Commission came under heavy criticism for its membership that included human-rights violators, and the U.S. walked out in 2004 after Sudan won an uncontested seat despite the Darfur genocide. The panel was also criticized for focusing a third of its resolutions on Israel.

The United States and the Council:

President Barack Obama decided to reverse the U.S. position of boycotting the Human Rights Council before the May 15, 2009, council elections. New Zealand withdrew its candidacy for the council to leave the U.S. as one of three nations vying for three open seats reserved for Western nations. Former New Zealand Prime Minster Helen Clark then won the chairmanship of the U.N. Development Program, a powerful post that was expected to return to the U.S. after four years with Turkey at the helm. U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice said the U.S. sought a seat to improve the "flawed body that has not lived up to its potential."

Controversy: Human Rights Violators:

Out of the members serving after the May 15, 2009, council elections, several raise an eyebrow because of their questionable records on human rights, including China, Cuba, Egypt, Russia and Saudi Arabia. Critics contend that such member states simply use their sovereignty as a shield when faced with human-rights concerns ranging from free speech to torture to women's rights. Critics also content that such states should not be in a position to cast judgment on other countries when they have unaddressed problems at home. The General Assembly can suspend a council member for "gross" violations with a two-thirds vote.

Controversy: Free Speech:

On March 26, 2009, the council voted in favor of a non-binding resolution brought by Pakistan that called the defamation of religion a violation of human rights; the text of the resolution places a heavy emphasis on the defamation of Islam and on "Islamophobia." The European bloc voted against the resolution, which passed with 21 in favor, 10 against and 14 abstentions. Critics contend that the document sanctions punishment of free speech for incidents such as the Danish cartoons portraying Mohammad that sparked violent protests in 2006.

Controversy: Israel:

In 2004-05, half of the country censures handed down by the council's predecessor, the Human Rights Commission, dealt with condemning Israel. After the current council came into existence in 2006, all of the country-specific resolutions were levied against Israel in its first full year. Nine of these 10 resolutions were brought by the Arab and/or Islamic groups, usually in conjunction with Cuba. The George W. Bush administration kept the U.S. off the council because of the council's "relentless focus during the year on a single country — Israel." During this focus, other crises in the world have gone largely ignored.
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