Apart from a few notable substantive items – including an intervention from Archbishop Desmond Tutu on the situation in Beit Hanoun, and a report providing a roadmap for addressing human rights violations in Darfur - the fifth session of the UN Human Rights Council focussed on finalising its basic institutional infrastructure. This was achieved by way of a Presidential text, which was dramatically agreed upon just minutes before a midnight deadline on June 18th. The main implications of this text are as follows:
1. Universal Periodic Review (UPR)
The UPR is a mechanism by which individual states’ human rights performances will be assessed once every four years. A Working Group made up of three rapporteurs (selected from among the members of the Council) will consider the human rights situation in a specific state and, after hearing the views of the state concerned, member states and observer states, will submit a report to the Council. The Council, in turn, will decide if and when any specific follow-up will be necessary.
The opportunities for the UPR to enhance the implementation of states’ human rights obligations and commitment are vast, however it is important good practices are developed to strengthen this mechanism and to avoid its over-politicization. Such good practices will include the full participation and consultation of NGOs, faith based groups and other relevant stakeholders and the appointment of independent rapporteurs onto the Working Group. The test for the UPRs will be whether they are able to focus on the key human rights issues in the country under review, and the quality and timeliness of its recommendations.
2. Special Rapporteurs
The Presidential text keeps in place the greatest legacy of the Council’s predecessor – a system of independent experts mandated to monitor and report on specific human rights issues (such as violence against women) and on specific countries (such as North Korea and Burma). The majority of existing Special Rapporteurs have been carried over by the Council. However, apart from minor changes with respect to the appointment, review of mandates and code of conduct for Special Rapporteurs, the most controversial change was the termination of the mandates for the Special Rapporteurs for Belarus and Cuba.
3. Human Rights Council Advisory Committee
Composed of 18 experts the Human Rights Advisory Committee will function as a think-tank to the Council. The Council will elect the members of the Advisory Committee, in a secret ballot, from a prior list of candidates. The process for the submission of candidates to be included on the list will be established at its sixth session, however this fifth session excluded individuals holding decision-making positions in governments.
A new Complaint Procedure will address human rights violations both specifically and more generally, and will operate according to the principles of impartiality, objectivity, efficiency, victim-sensitivity and timeliness. The procedure will retain its confidential nature in order to enhance cooperation with the state concerned and will carry out its work through two distinct working groups. The first group will examine specific complaints, and the second group will identify consistent patterns of gross human rights violations, which will subsequently be examined by the Council.
The Agenda of the Council most notably contains standing items on human rights situations that require the Council's attention as well as on items mentioned above such as the Universal Periodic Review. The most controversial item included on the agenda is that on the human rights situation in Palestine and other occupied Arab territories. Many have criticised this as being contrary to the agreed agenda principles of universality and non-selectiveness.
In general, consensus is that the Presidential text is an acceptable basis for the new Council considering the two years of negotiation that have gone before it. However, there is no doubt that most of the hard work is still ahead of the Council and that its success will depend on the political will of states to effectively address human rights issues around the world. Just like the UPR itself, the Council needs to quickly establish good working practices which are transparent, inclusive and universal, and which do not shy away from key human rights issues for political reasons. With its sixth session scheduled for September, the AUNO will continue to monitor the Council’s progress in this regard.
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