United Nations Human Rights Council – Overview and Function

By | September 25, 2020

This article deals with the origin of Human Rights Council, reformation of commission to council, complaint procedure, functions and its strengthening process.

The Human Rights Council is an inter-governmental body within the United Nations system responsible for strengthening the promotion and protection of human rights around the globe and addressing the situation of human rights violations.

I. Introduction

The United Nations Commission on Human Rights was established in 1946 to weave the international legal fabric that protects our fundamental rights and freedoms. Composed of 53 States members, its brief expanded over time to allow it to respond to the whole range of human rights problems and it set standards to govern the conduct of States. It also acted as a forum where countries large and small, non-governmental groups and human rights defenders from around the world voiced their concerns.

During its regular annual session in Geneva, for which over 3,000 delegates from member and observer States and from non-governmental organizations participated, the Commission adopted about a hundred resolutions, decisions and Chairperson’s statements on matters of relevance to individuals in all regions and circumstances. It was assisted in this work by the Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights, a number of working groups and a network of individual experts, representatives and rapporteurs mandated to report to it on specific issues.[1]

II. Relationship between the UN Commission on Human Rights and the UN Human Rights Council:

The Human Rights Council is an inter-governmental body within the United Nations system responsible for strengthening the promotion and protection of human rights around the globe and for addressing situations of human rights violations and making recommendations on them. It has the ability to discuss all thematic human rights issues and situations that require its attention throughout the year. It meets at the UN Office at Geneva. The Council is made up of 47 United Nations Member States which are elected by the UN General Assembly. The Human Rights Council replaced the former United Nations Commission on Human Rights.

The Human Rights Council was established in 2006 by Resolution 60/251 as a subsidiary body to the UN General Assembly. It replaced the former Commission on Human Rights, which operated from 1946 to 2006.[2]

III. Reforming the Commission to Council

  • In 2001: the USA not elected for the first time
  • In 2003: Libya chairs the Commission
  • In December 2004: High-Level Panel report recommends replacement
  • In March 2005: Secretary General’s report recommends replacement but on a different model
  • In September 2005: World Summit and Summit Outcome Document
  • On 15 March 2006: General Assembly passes resolution to replace Commission with Council
  • On 19 June 2006: First session of the new Council

IV. Meetings

The Human Rights Council holds at least three meetings a year, for a total of at least ten weeks. They take place in March (four weeks), June (three weeks) and September (three weeks). If one-third of the Member States requests so, the Human Rights Council can decide at any time to hold a special session to address human rights violations and emergencies.

V. Composition

The Council is made of 47 Member States, which are elected by the majority of members of the General Assembly of the United Nations through a direct and secret ballot. Africa 13, Asia 13, Eastern Europe 6, GRULAC 8, WEOG 7 totally 47 members. The General Assembly takes into account the candidate States’ contribution to the promotion and protection of human rights, as well as their voluntary pledges and commitments in this regard. Members of the Council serve for a period of three years and are not eligible for immediate re-election after serving two consecutive terms.

VI. Functions

  • The Council serves as a forum for dialogue among States, with input from other stakeholders. As a result of its discussions, the Council may issue resolutions calling on States to take specific actions or uphold certain principles, or it may create mechanisms to investigate or monitor questions of concern.
  • The Human Rights Council has created or renewed the mandates of various “special procedures.” The special procedures are experts appointed to monitor human rights around priority themes or in specific countries with serious human rights problems. The special procedures may be individual experts (“special rapporteurs” or “independent experts”) or working groups.
  • The Council also manages the Universal Periodic Review, a process through which each UN Member State’s overall human rights record is reviewed.
  • In addition, the Council receives complaints alleging patterns of human rights violations, which are considered by the Working Group on Communications and may be referred to the Working Group on Situations. The Working Group on Situations reports substantiated claims of consistent patterns of gross violations to the Council and makes recommendations for action.[3]

VII. Complaint Procedure

The Council maintains a Complaint Procedure that allows individuals and groups to report human rights abuses in a confidential setting. The goal of the procedure is to objectively and efficiently facilitate dialogue and cooperation among the accused State, Council members, and the complainant(s). A Working Group on communications and a Working Group on situations evaluate the complaints and bring them to the attention of the Council.

VIII. Special procedures of the UN Human Rights Council

  • The United Nations (UN) Human Rights Council serves several functions, one of which is to promote and monitor human rights worldwide through the establishment of special procedures. Special procedures are individual independent human rights experts, or groups of such experts, who report and advise on human rights issues. They are called by many names, including Special Rapporteurs, Special Representatives, Working Groups, and Independent Experts.
  • Special procedures have either thematic or country-specific mandates. As of September 2017, the Human Rights Council oversees 44 thematic mandates and 12 country-specific mandates. The combined work of the special rapporteurs is broad enough to encompass civil, political, economic, social, and cultural rights.
  • Special procedures mandate holders to serve in their personal capacities, meaning they are not UN staff, are not paid a salary for their work, and do not represent their countries of citizenship. Each mandate holder may serve for a maximum of six years. This independent status is intended to allow these experts to carry out their functions with impartiality.
  • After the special procedures mandate holders assess a specific human rights situation, they may report their findings or thematic studies to the Human Rights Council or the UN General Assembly and release public statements to the media.
  • As of January 2018, 170 States have been visited by at least one special procedure mandate holder, while 23 States have never been visited. Over 100 countries have extended-standing invitations to all thematic special procedures.
  • Special procedures mandate holders report to the Human Rights Council annually. Most special procedures also report to the UN General Assembly. The Human Rights Council reviews country-specific mandates annually and thematic mandates every three years.[4]

IX. Human Rights Council strengthening process

In 2015, H.E. Mr Joachim Rücker (Germany), ninth President of the Human Rights Council, initiated a push for greater efficiency and effectiveness by announcing a one-year effort to strengthen the Human Rights Council. The process was officialised through the adoption of a Presidential Statement entitled “Enhancing the efficiency of the Human Rights Council” deciding notably to improve the yearly calendar for thematic resolutions. The document laid the groundwork for discussions on improving the efficiency and effectiveness of the Council by subsequent Council Presidents and Bureaus.

Despite these efforts, the Council’s agenda kept inflating, as the increase of topics addressed by the Council was not matched by an increase in time and resources allocated to the Body.[5] As such it became clear that concrete and sustainable reforms were urgently needed. Discussions between States, notably through the Glion Human Rights Dialogues, and civil society’s effort to push for further improvements culminated in a one-day conference on 1 December 2017 on Human Rights Council Strengthening, organised by the Permanent Missions of the Netherlands, United Kingdom, Rwanda, Mexico and Latvia. The event brought together more than 130 representatives of States, civil society, and OHCHR to debate and present proposals to further strengthen the Council.

At the end of the conference and on the occasion of his appointment, then-Council President-elect, H.E. Mr Vojislav Šuc (Slovenia) ensured that the strengthening of the Council would be one of the Bureau’s key priorities for 2018. As such, H.E. Mr Šuc initiated a process of informal open-ended consultations, guided by three sets of co-facilitators (Spain, Philippines, Rwanda, Chile, Fiji and Latvia), seeking to identify and secure agreement on a set of long-term measures to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the Council. The process focused on three aspects: improving the annual programme of work of the Council, the rationalization of resolutions and initiatives, and the use of modern technology.

The Bureau-led negotiations ended in the adoption of a modest Presidential Statement (PRST) entitled “Enhancing the efficiency of the Human Rights Council, including addressing financial and time constraints” on 3 December 2018, which contains nonetheless a number of positive steps, including moving from a one-year to a three-year programme of work (to strengthen transparency and predictability) and restructuring the annual programmes of work (to reduce the number of repetitive general debates).

Current Council President H.E. Coly Seck (Senegal) has ensured that he would continue the efforts made by his predecessors and take all necessary actions to implement the Presidential Statement. In February 2019 the President appointed five co-facilitators to carry out consultations on the implementation of the PRST and held a meeting in mid-June 2019 to discuss the outcome of the facilitation process.[6]

X. Conclusion

Protecting Human rights is a vital role for every individual in society. The Human rights staff workers work hard in order to comply with Human rights laws. The Human rights Council also works for the public to gain a better understanding regarding the Human rights laws and the importance of protecting every people from violation of human rights.


[1] United Nations Human Rights Council, OHCHR.org, Available Here

[2] United Nations Human Rights Council, Available Here

[3] International Justice Resource Centre, Human rights council, Available Here

[4] International Justice Resource Centre, Special procedures of the UN Human Rights Council, Available Here

[5] Details can be seen in the letter of Michael Møller (former Director-General of the United Nations Office at Geneva) addressed to the Human Rights Council’s Bureau (August 2016). Available here

[6] Universal Rights Group Geneva, A rough guide to the human rights council, Available Here


  1. Human Rights
Author: M. Preetha

Student: Saveetha School of Law

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