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Failure to establish a Human Rights Council is a cop-out by UN member states

The UN Secretary General’s report 'In Larger Freedom' was ground breaking: it squarely put human rights as one of the three pillars of the United Nations, alongside development and international security. In order to achieve this status, the UN human rights system needs to operate better: it requires more funding, to be made more effective, and, most importantly, to regain the credibility which should have endured since the adoption of UN Charter and the Universal Declaration on Human Rights.

In recent years, the Commission on Human Rights, the political body of members States which meets annually for six weeks in Geneva, has become an embarrassment. As the SG notes: "The Commission's capacity to perform its tasks has been increasingly undermined by its declining credibility and professionalism. In particular, States have sought membership of the Commission not to strengthen human rights but to protect themselves against criticism or to criticize others. As a result, a credibility deficit has developed, which casts a shadow on the reputation of the United Nations system as a whole".

There are other significant weaknesses in the system. The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, established in 1997, has been significantly under-funded and is not sufficiently operational. It only receives 1.8% of the UN regular budget, and has become excessively dependent on the ‘voluntary contributions‘ of bilateral donors. This financial insecurity is constraining its effectiveness.

In addition, technical experts providing country or thematic reports to the Commission, and those sitting on the bodies monitoring member States’ compliance with their legal human rights obligations, are also starved of adequate resources. Their findings are rarely adequately translated into practice.

The SG proposed a new Human Rights Council to replace the Commission. A smaller, standing body with greater credibility derived from having members directly elected by two-thirds of the General Assembly and committed to abiding by the highest human rights standards.

So what's on the table? A Human Rights Council, with very little flesh: it will be responsible for promoting universal respect for the protection of all human rights and fundamental freedoms for all; address situations of violations of human rights, including gross and systematic violations and make recommendations; and promote effective coordination and the mainstreaming of human rights within the UN system. At this stage, this is all that has been agreed, though earlier versions of the draft outcome documents contained interesting innovations.

Details are to be left to negotiations by the President of the General Assembly. There is no reference to dealing promptly with human rights emergencies; peer-reviews of members’ human rights credentials are absent; the consideration that the Council might become a principal, as opposed to subsidiary body, has gone. This could be a recipe for disaster. We may end up with a weaker body.

Not all is lost. There is a commitment to doubling the regular budget resources of the OHCHR, which will enable it to implement its new action plan. Member States have not tried to stop the continuation of mainstreaming of human rights within the UN system, and are committing to improving the effectiveness of the treaty bodies. But these commitments will not mean much if the politicisation of human rights amongst member States continues. A strong Human Rights Council could have reinvigorated the system.

Why does this matter for poverty reduction? The links may not be as obvious as agreements on the Millennium Development Goals or increases in aid. However, if we believe that human rights matter for development and security, we need a credible and effective human rights system, able to take action when necessary, and providing the analysis and political leadership to inform development interventions, so that they do not exacerbate human rights problems, and, at best, contribute to solving them.

ODI’s Rights in Action Programme is currently finalising a synthesis of bilateral and multilateral donors approaches to human rights, commissioned by the Governance Network of the OECD Development Assistance Committee. To see past reports, go to: www.odi.org.uk/rights.