Blog | U.N. Human Rights Council: The Center's Role, New Body's Mandate in Expert Q&A

A new Human Rights Council for the United Nations was adopted March 15 by the U.N. General Assembly, replacing the Commission on Human Rights, originally established in 1946. In this Q&A, Karin Ryan, senior advisor, Human Rights Program, discusses the Center’s key role in the Council’s passage and what the Council means for global human rights. The new Council plans to elect its first 47 members May 9 and hold its first meeting June 19, after the Commission is disbanded June 16.

Why create a new human rights body for the United Nations?

There is a great need for strong global human rights institutions that can effectively pressure all governments to improve their human rights practices. This is especially true now that the credibility of the United States as the main promoter and champion of human rights has been eroded.

A number of problems plagued the Commission on Human Rights, the body the Council will replace, though it must be remembered that the body accomplished a great deal over its 60 years.

The Commission had become mired in political struggles, leading many countries to be suspicious of the United States and other major powers. Unfortunately, it is the victims of human rights violations and vulnerable populations who have suffered as a result of these struggles.

It is also true that governments took shelter behind this cloud of distrust to shield themselves from criticism on human rights issues.

So, the Human Rights Council represents a new beginning and a chance to construct a more productive global human rights body. Whether it succeeds depends on the willingness of all governments, big and small, to face human rights challenges within their own societies.

Should we be concerned that the Council could be mired in some of those same pitfalls

Governments should resolve to prevent the politics of the outgoing Commission from disrupting this new body. This will take a new willingness to engage in honest and transparent dialogue about a range of human rights problems.

Also, the “universal review” process included in the new agreement offers a way for all governments to be measured by the same yardstick. This will help overcome the distrust between the most and least powerful countries that exists in the current Commission.

What has been the Carter Center’s role in achieving the creation of the new Council?

President Carter hosted a dinner in December 2005, bringing together 17 ambassadors from a wide spectrum of nations, to begin a high-level discussion about the key obstacles to an agreement on the proposed Human Rights Council.

As a result of this productive dialogue, The Carter Center initiated meetings between delegations and Center staff and President Carter intervened through phone calls and personal letters to senior leaders. These ongoing efforts took place until March 15, when the resolution was finally adopted in the General Assembly.

President Carter also issued public statements and authored opinion articles, including a joint statement with other Nobel Peace Prize Laureates, which was published in The New York Times on March 5. Co-signed by Desmond Tutu, Kim Dae-jung, Oscar Arias and Iranian human rights lawyer Shirin Ebadi, the opinion piece was cited by many government delegations as especially influential in the debate – particularly as the position of the United States hardened against the agreement. The support from the Nobel group, and President Carter in particular, was referenced in hundreds of news stories throughout those critical days and weeks while governments were deciding whether or not to embrace the agreement.

What should the Council do to address concerns of some member countries, including the United States, about its ability to function successfully?

The first test of this new body must be based on whether it is capable of addressing real human rights violations in real time. Governments joining the Council should put the rights of the vulnerable first.

The Carter Center has long asserted that, because of the difficulty of addressing such grave crises once they have erupted, earlier action is required. For this reason, the Center has worked over the years to generate support for the Commission’s fact-finding mechanisms that can identify emerging problems and possible solutions as well. For example, the Commission’s Special Rapporteur on Summary Executions produced a report in 1993 predicting the Rwandan genocide. He offered, nine months before the tragedy, a list of non-military measures, like disrupting hate radio transmissions that might have helped reverse the tide of violence.

What should be among the first human rights issues the new Council will tackle?

Terrible tragedies unfolding in places like Darfur, Burma, Zimbabwe, and Eastern Congo should be considered the highest priorities. Because of the acute nature of these situations, the Council should identify areas of cooperation to be taken up by bodies with more action authority, like the Security Council, or regional bodies like the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, in the case of Burma.

Additionally, the Council should address chronic human rights situations or those that represent an erosion of human rights protection and principles. Situations in Nigeria’s Delta region, discrimination against the Roma of Europe, crackdowns on human rights and political activists in Russia and Cuba, as well as the treatment and legal status of detainees in U.S. custody could be examined in this context.

How will The Carter Center interface with the new U.N. Human Rights Council, and what are the next steps now that the reform has been approved?

The Carter Center will continue to support the development of the new Council through convening high-level discussions, speaking out about key developments and issues, and networking with other nongovernmental organizations that are equally committed to building a strong human rights system within the United Nations.

The first goal is to ensure that, on May 9, governments with a positive record on the advancement of human rights are elected to the Council. Next, we will work with a wide spectrum of nations to ensure that the new body avoids, or at least diminishes, the destructive politics of the Commission. The Carter Center will initiate these discussions in New York with delegations and Secretary-General Kofi Annan on March 30.

Facts: United Nations Human Rights Council

The U.N. General Assembly voted overwhelmingly March 15 to establish a new Human Rights Council to replace the discredited Geneva-based Human Rights Commission. (Source: Reuters)

Following are highlights:

  • The Human Rights Council is to have 47 seats compared with 53 in the current Human Rights Commission.
  • It will be a subsidiary body of the 191-member General Assembly rather than the 54-nation Economic and Social Council.
  • Members will be elected by secret ballot in the General Assembly by a majority vote of all members, not just those present and voting. Currently, members are approved in the Economic and Social Council according to a slate by regional groups.
  • Members are elected for three-year terms. After serving six years, they cannot be re-elected immediately.
  • The new council will meet a minimum of 10 weeks a year but can be called into session in case of emergency. The current commission meets six weeks a year.
  • The new council is to conduct periodic reviews of the human rights records of all U.N. members, beginning with those elected to the council. A systematic violator of human rights could be suspended from the council by a two-thirds vote of the General Assembly. There is no such review now.
  • The seats would be distributed among regional groups: 13 for Africa, 13 for Asia, six for Eastern Europe, eight for Latin America and the Caribbean and seven for a block of mainly Western countries, including the United States and Canada.

Related Resources

Read President Carter’s Statement: New U.N. Human Rights Council Raises Hope Worldwide »

Read New York Times Op-Ed: Principles Defeat Politics at the United Nations, signed by Nobel Peace Prize Laureates, including Jimmy Carter »

Learn more about the Carter Center’s Human Rights Initiatives »

Learn about the Center’s Human Rights Defenders Conference »

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