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Monday, November 28, 2011

The United Nations Human Rights Council: Issues for Congress

Luisa Blanchfield
Specialist in International Relations

On March 15, 2006, the U.N. General Assembly passed a resolution replacing the Commission on Human Rights with a new Human Rights Council (the Council). The U.N. Secretariat and some governments, including the United States, viewed the establishment of the Council as a key component of comprehensive U.N. reform. The Council was designed to be an improvement over the Commission, which was widely criticized for the composition of its membership when perceived human rights abusers were elected as members. The General Assembly resolution creating the Council, among other things, increased the number of meetings per year and introduced a “universal periodic review” process to assess each member state’s fulfillment of its human rights obligations.

One hundred seventy countries voted in favor of the resolution to create the Council. The United States, under the George W. Bush Administration, was one of four countries to vote against the resolution. The Administration maintained that the Council structure was no better than the Commission and that it lacked mechanisms for maintaining credible membership. During the Council’s first two years, the Bush Administration expressed concern with the Council’s focus on Israel and lack of attention to other human rights situations. In April 2008, it announced that the United States would withhold a portion of its contributions to the 2008 U.N. regular budget equivalent to the U.S. share of the Human Rights Council budget. In June 2008, it further stated that the United States would engage with the Council “only in matters of deep national interest.”

In March 2009, the Barack Obama Administration announced that it would run for a seat on the Council. The United States was elected as a Council member by the U.N. General Assembly on May 12, 2009, and its term began on June 19, 2009. The Administration stated that it furthers the United States’ interest “if we are part of the conversation and present at the Council’s proceedings.” At the same time, however, it called the Council’s trajectory “disturbing,” particularly its “repeated and unbalanced” criticisms of Israel. On November 5, 2010, the United States underwent the Council’s universal periodic review process for the first time.

Since its establishment, the Council has held 18 regular sessions and 17 special sessions. The regular sessions addressed a combination of specific human rights abuses and procedural and structural issues. Six of the 17 special sessions addressed the human rights situation in the Occupied Palestinian territories and in Lebanon. Other special sessions focused on the human rights situations in Burma (Myanmar), Cote d’Ivoire, Darfur, Haiti, Libya, Sri Lanka, and Syria. The Council held a five-year review of its work in March 2011. Some participants, including the United States, felt the review did not sufficiently address the Council’s weaknesses, particularly its focus on Israel and lack of mechanisms for ensuring credible membership.

Congress maintains an ongoing interest in the credibility and effectiveness of the Council in the context of both human rights and broader U.N. reform. In the Omnibus Appropriations Act, 2009 (Division H, the Department of State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs Appropriations Act, 2009, of P.L. 111-8), for example, it prohibited U.S. contributions to support the Council unless (1) the Secretary of State certified to Congress that funding the Council is “in the national interest of the United States” or (2) the United States was a member of the Council. Because the Council is funded through assessed contributions to the U.N. regular budget, withholding funds in this manner would likely be a symbolic policy action because such contributions finance the entire U.N. regular budget and not specific parts of it. More recently, in the Omnibus Appropriations Act, 2010 (Division F, the Department of State Foreign Operations, and Relations Appropriations Act, 2010, of P.L. 111-117), Congress required that the Secretary of State report to Congress on resolutions adopted by the Council.

Date of Report: November 1
5, 2011
Number of Pages:
Order Number: RL33
Price: $29.95

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