Does the Human Rights Council ever criticise the West? 

In June 2020 the Human Rights Council adopted a resolution on systemic racism and police brutality in the wake of the George Floyd killing, but the US was not specifically named. Numerous resolutions have, however "named and shamed" developing countries, particularly in Africa. Keystone / Fabrice Coffrini

Some developing countries feel they are unfairly targeted at the United Nations Human Rights Council. As the Council meets from Monday for its latest session in Geneva, we look at whether there really is an imbalance in its human rights work. 

This content was published on February 25, 2022 minutes

The vast majority of resolutions against individual states by the Human Rights Council (HRC) and its predecessor, the UN Commission on Human Rights, have targeted developing countries, particularly in Africa, while richer, more powerful countries have not been “named and shamed”. For example, there were never any resolutions pointing the finger directly at the US or the UK for abuses in Iraq or Afghanistan, nor against the US for police brutality and racism. Most resolutions are also drafted by Western countries, with the notable exception of those on Israel, regularly brought by the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation.  

New HRC president Federico Villegas of Argentina sees “politicisation” of the Council as a challenge. “We all agree that this is a growing phenomenon, and are concerned that it could lead to a polarisation that risks reducing the body’s effectiveness and, potentially, paralysing its work,” he wrote on the website of independent think tank Universal Rights GroupExternal link

“The debate is sometimes very polarised,” Villegas told SWI “And of course, my main challenge is to recover a platform of dialogue and common understanding.” 

US-China face-off 

This may be easier said than done. The Human Rights Council has been mired for years in US-China rivalry, while the Russia-Ukraine crisis is also likely to divide positions.  

Universal Rights Group director Marc Limon thinks the return of the US, which quit the Council under Donald Trump and is now back as a full member, could signal further polarisation between two blocs: Washington and its Western allies on the one hand; so-called like-minded developing countriesExternal link led by China on the other.  

“Part of the reason the Council is so politicised at the moment is because the US made it clear that they were coming back principally to go after China,” Limon said. “And China is fighting back.” This, he said, is “basically sucking the oxygen from the rest of the Council’s work, including all the issues that are of importance to middle-power countries and small countries”. 

Naming and shaming 

China hit back notably with a resolution on the “negative impact of the legacies of colonialism on human rights”, which is a “thinly veiled attack against the Western European states, Canada and the US”, according to Limon. But China does not support “naming and shaming” – no doubt at least partly because of Western criticism on Hong Kong and China’s abuses against minority Muslim Uyghur people in Xinjiang province.  

When asked about apparent imbalances in Council resolutions, Villegas points out that many deal with issues in developed countries. “Last year we had 175 resolutions and many of the issues we addressed touch on human rights in developed countries. We have issues of racism, the legacy of colonialism, toxic waste, discrimination, treatment of migrants. And many of those problems are worse in developed nations.” 

It is true that countries were not criticised by name, but he says it was clear to everyone that the trigger for a resolution in June 2020 on systemic racism and police brutality was the police killing of George Floyd in the US. Indeed, Floyd’s brother gave a video address to the urgent debate in the Human Rights Council.  

Felix Kirchmeier, director of the Geneva Human Rights PlatformExternal link, sees it not so much as “the West against the rest” but “the powerful against the not so powerful”. He recognises that the Human Rights Council is a political body. “So of course, it’s about friends and who criticises whom, which leads to a number of countries being pretty much shielded from criticism,” he said.  

Independent input 

Indeed, the Human Rights Council is an eminently political body. It is made up of 47 member states elected by the UN General Assembly on an absolute majority, usually after much lobbying by other member states. But it also appoints independent experts as Special Rapporteurs and on commissions of inquiry.  

The Special Rapporteurs do criticise Western countries, as well as others. For example, Switzerland has recently been criticised for its treatment of Brian K, a violent repeat-offender kept in solitary confinement for long periods, and for its handling of an environmental sit-inExternal link last year.  

Special Rapporteurs have also expressed concern about child poverty in the US and UK, freedom of religious expression and the situation of Muslims in France and Switzerland. As Limon points out, the Special Rapporteurs are independent experts, so not subject to the politics of the Human Rights Council. But the Council acts based on information supplied by the Special Rapporteurs, commissions of inquiry and fact-finding missions, deciding if and how to follow it up.  

Other mechanisms also feed into the work of the Human Rights Council, such as the Universal Periodic ReviewExternal link, which every UN member country must undergo, usually every four years. The review is conducted by a group of other member states and involves consultations with not only human rights groups and civil society but also the government. It usually results in recommendations for improvement.  

Then there are the commissions monitoring international human rights conventions (the “treaty bodiesExternal link”) that member states have signed and are therefore supposed to respect. One of the treaty bodies, the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD), recently expressed serious concerns about rising racism in Switzerland.  

“None of this is unusual,” says Swiss Ambassador to the UN in Geneva Jürg Lauber. “The Special Rapporteurs or expert groups visit Member States, look at what happens, give feedback, offer criticism and make suggestions. Switzerland, like every country under review, looks at these recommendations. We may disagree on the way things are described, or we could indeed note that there is room for improvement and address it accordingly.” 

‘We are all equal’ 

Human Rights Council President Villegas says he does not think there is a deliberate bias in the Council’s work against developing countries. He stresses that every member of the Council has the right to put forward an issue. “This is an important difference from the [UN] Security Council,” he said. “The permanent members of the Security Council [US, UK, France, Russia, China] do not have a veto here. In the Council we are all equal.” 

For Lauber, “what is important for the Council, and I think it’s one of its strengths, is that countries bring up their priorities; then members have a discussion and find common solutions to progress on all human rights”. 

“Of course, it’s a political arena and we may disagree sometimes. But to obtain a result, we need to come to an agreement. In general, that works fairly well. I don’t see this as one group punishing another group.” 

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