The United Nations Human Rights Council (UN HRC) is an inter-governmental body, within the United Nations, composed of 47 member-states and tasked with the “protection of all human rights across the globe. ” Specifically, the UN HRC addresses human rights violations and makes recommendations regarding such violations. The Council meets in the UN office in Geneva, Switzerland and elects its members for a two-year term.
Even though the UN HRC is supposed to be a protector of human rights, it has failed to do so on multiple occasions. To begin with, the UN HRC is composed, every year since its creation in 2006, by member-states with questionable human rights records. For instance, some of the members for the 14th cycle (January 1 to December 31 2020) include Afghanistan, Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Libya, Pakistan, Somalia, Sudan, Qatar and Venezuela. In the past, nations such as Cuba, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates were also seated on the body. On October 13 the Council will be holding elections for new members with China, Russia, Cuba and Suadi Arabia being top contenders to join the body.
Secondly, the composition of the body has also had an influence on the types of resolutions adopted. The country that has been disproportionality targeted by the UN HRC has been Israel. Specifically, the UN HRC has adopted a total of 90 resolutions condemning Israel, a democratic nation, since 2006. In contrast, the body has adopted only 13 resolutions on North Korea 10 resolutions on Iran, both totalitarian states where the government controls aspects of citizens’ lives, while the body has adopted only 3 resolutions against Venezuela, and 0 resolutions against Russia. These are all authoritarian countries where there is no room for dissent and political opponents are sent to prison.
In fact, the UN HRC has an entire agenda item dedicated just to the criticism of Israel. Agenda Item 7 discusses the “Human rights situation in Palestine and other occupied Arab territories” and instead of addressing the human rights violations of the Palestinian Authority and Hamas which control the Gaza Strip and the West Bank respectively, the Agenda Item singles out Israel as the sole violator of human rights.
In 2017, the delegation from the United States of America called for the Council to be reformed, along with other Western and Democratic Nations such as Australia, the UK and the Netherlands. Specifically, Ambassador Nikki Haley hailed for an end to the anti-Israel bias, an end to human rights abusers winning seats on the Council and a more competitive form of elections of members, with an end to the practice of secret voting.
However, these reforms did not go through, something which led the US to depart from the Council in 2018, citing again the existence of human rights violators on the Council and the endless number of resolutions against Israel. In her memoir With All Due Respect, Defending America with Grit and Grace, Ambassador Haley indicated that while Israel was constantly singled out, Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro was invited to speak at a special gathering of the Council in 2015 in which he received a standing ovation.
When the US decided to leave the body, then UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, indicated that the UK would not be departing from the Council, however, he agreed with the position of the United States that the Council shows particular bias against Israel. Yet to this day, the Council still remains a “safe space” for human rights violators. As efforts to bring real reform to the Council have failed, the best thing western and democratic nations could do would be to delegitimize the body and to point out its hypocritical nature. It would also be wise to create another body aimed at protecting human rights which do not contain member states from nations with poor human-rights records.
If the UK continues to remain on the Council, it must take a leading role in calling out the hypocrisy of the body when it comes to the treatment of Israel and must always vote against the membership of non-democratic nations. However, the UK cannot do this alone.
It will therefore be vital that more countries step up and call for reform or more departures begin to take place, delegitimizing the UN HRC completely and giving the way for the creation of a new body from scratch.