All humans, without exception, are born with fundamental rights which are inherent regardless of their age, ethnicity, origin, language, religion, or any other status. According to the United Nations, the principle of universality of human rights is the cornerstone of international human rights law. This means that we are all equally entitled to our human rights. This principle, as first emphasized in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), is also followed by other core values of human rights, such as indivisibility, interdependency, and inalienability.1 The UDHR, which has been the primary human rights foundation for nations since its adoption in 1948, has laid path to the advancements of humankind to create treaties, conventions, declarations, and later institutions, which are now formally and generally represented by state members in the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC). Unfortunately, the noble effort to uphold the values according to the UDHR, is stained with political interests from many of the member states, in which several of them are currently conducting mass human rights violations.
In a written statement during the forty-fifth session of the United Nations Human Rights Council on August 20th, 2020, several points were made by the UN Watch, a non-governmental organization in special consultative status for the Council. Several current member states of the council are far from the basic standards of democracy and human rights, with 24 of the 47 members being known for committing gross and systematic human rights abuses.2 This is quite concerning, since the Council itself was created by the UN General Assembly in 2006 by Resolution 60/251 to “address situations of violations of human rights, including gross and systematic violations, and make recommendations thereon”.3
Furthermore, UN Watch emphasized the examples of human rights violations by current member states, one of which is Venezuela, a nation that was strongly condemned by the Council in Resolution 42/25 for the government’s “targeted repression and persecution on political grounds”, “excessive use of force during security operations”, and “arbitrary detention, torture, ill-treatment, extrajudicial executions and enforced disappearances.”4 Venezuela is not the only member state with human rights problems. Blameworthy actions are being carried out by many members, including Libya (armed conflict; arbitrary arrests; human trafficking; harsh, even life-threatening prison conditions), Mauritania (nearly 100,000 people are slaves; exercising one’s freedom of religion or expression can be punishable by death), and Sudan (assaults on and murder of human rights advocates and journalists).5
These contradictory positions inside the Human Rights Council stem from the failure of member states to respect the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UNDHR), the initial intention of which was that the horrific atrocities experienced by civilians during the Second World War, in which genocides such as the Holocaust took place, would never occur again.6 However, despite all the treaties, conventions, resolutions, declarations, commissions, and now the Council (all purporting to protect people and individuals), these atrocities continue to occur.
Going back to the examples of questionable member-state actions on protecting human rights, the Human Rights Council seems to be heading in a wrong and purposeless direction. One more important (but often forgotten) aspect of the working mechanism of the Council itself is the geographical quota system. Although it was intended to address the disparities in global representation, this system has laid ground to the contradictions among member states which are clearly visible today. The overwhelming majority of countries outside the West have flawed-to-abysmal domestic human-rights records and policies.7. In addition, many of them are not even democracies, with no real incentive to commit to universal human rights.
Another reason for the criticism of the failures of the UNHRC is the pointless bureaucratic resolutions which originate from “useless” debates by countries that neglect human rights. Such is the view of Ted Bromund, Senior Research Fellow in Anglo-American Relations at the Heritage Foundation. In an article published in 2018, he wrote about his experience attending the UNHRC Conference on its Programme of Action (PoA) to Prevent, Combat, and Eradicate the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in All Its Aspects:8
“I’ve been attending PoA events for years, and sitting here watching the PoA now reminds me of playing bingo. Particular phrases come up over and over again, year after year—all you need is a card to check them off, and the restraint not to yell “bingo” in the conference room when you complete a row.”
Almost every delegation mouths the same phrases: The process must be “transparent and inclusive”. The “special contributions of women and girls” must be acknowledged. The “synergies” between the PoA and things like the Arms Trade Treaty must be included. The need to control ammunition, 3-D printing, and modular firearms must be accepted.”
Instead of focusing on tackling issues on the ground, the Council overresources its headquarters operations in Geneva, Switzerland.
Therefore, it creates questions that beg to be answered. Is the Human Rights Council still relevant? Or at the very least, should the foundational requirements for states’ memberships be reconstructed and reorganized to promote countries which have proven to be leaders in human rights protection, instead of just fulfilling a diverse geographical quota? Every civilian who has experienced severe abuses of human dignity in their country, will much likely answer the second question in a heartbeat. Yes, it can be argued that human rights have vastly improved in many democratic countries since the end of the Second World War. However, when even the most basic human rights are not protected by our leaders and governments, we should ask ourselves, are we really progressing as humans? Evidently, it is going to be a near impossible task to make sure everyone on this planet has equal rights. Enormous changes will be required to even just scratch the surface of problems which are rooted deep in international politics and institutions.
Putu Nugraha is a law student at Universitas Indonesia, who is currently a member of Foreign Policy Community Indonesia Chapter Universitas Indonesia. He previously published an article titled “Immigration-Related Crime and Its Impact on the Rise of Populism in the UK”. The views expressed are his own.
Picture: United States Mission Geneva – Flickr: Human Rights Council Special Session on Cote D’Ivoire, Dec. 23, 2010, CC 表示 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18673586による
- “Universal Declaration of Human Rights.” United Nations. https://www.un.org/en/universal-declaration-human-rights/
- “Countries and Territories.” Freedom House. https://freedomhouse.org/countries/freedom-world/scores
- General Assembly resolution 60/251, Human Rights Council, available from https://undocs.org/en/A/RES/60/251
- General Assembly resolution 42/25, Human Rights Council, available from undocs.org/A/HRC/RES/42/25
- J. Haas, Lawrence. “UN Hypocrisy on Human Rights Continues.” The Hill. The Hill, October 26, 2019. https://thehill.com/opinion/civil-rights/467567-un-hypocrisy-on-human-rights-continues
- Dolinger, Jacob. “The Failure of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.” The University of Miami Inter-American Law Review 47, no. 2 (2016): 164-199.
- Calamur, Krishnadev. “The UN Human Rights Council Is a Deeply Flawed Body.” The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, June 20, 2018. https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2018/06/us-un-human-rights/563276/
- Bromund, Theodore R. “I’m Sitting Through One of the UN’s Most Useless Conferences. Here’s What’s Happening.” The Heritage Foundation, June 23, 2018. https://www.heritage.org/firearms/commentary/im-sitting-through-one-the-uns-most-useless-conferences-heres-whats-happening