The United Nations Human Rights Council and its Universal Periodic Review

Student thesis: Master-after-master


In March 2006, the UN Commission on Human Rights was replaced by the UN Human Rights Council as the most important intergovernmental body responsible for human rights within the UN system. The replacement of the once so successful Commission was deemed necessary, because the body had been increasingly under fire for several reasons. Commission membership was one of the most criticized topics. Several well-known human rights violators had been elected to the Council, mainly because of the lack of membership criteria and because there was no competition between candidates since regional groups often elected the same number of candidates as there were seats available for that group. Moreover, there were no limits to re-election. The Commission was also accused of applying double standards and of being selective in scrutinizing States on their human rights records, since it failed to investigate and condemn some of the most abusive regimes in the world as a result of block voting by different groups. Additionally, the Commission suffered from the increase of work volume resulting from the numerous special procedures mandates. It had problems to cope with the incoming complaints and information and it failed to properly follow-up the implementation of recommendations made. The failure of the Commission was also due to the lack of cooperation and efforts from States, who thereby violated their pledge to the UN to cooperate in order to promote universal respect for human rights.
When the Human Rights Council was established, it was decided to put limits to re-election, to organize elections on an individual basis with an absolute majority requirement and to introduce limited membership criteria. Now candidates are also motivated to make voluntary pledges and commitments. A provision on suspension of membership was introduced, even though it will probably only serve a symbolic function to scare off human rights violators. After three years, it seems however that the new rules missed their aim to a large extent, because no big change in quality of members can be noted. The Council meets more than the Commission did and it is made easier to call for special sessions, which improves its ability to respond to human rights more effectively, provided of course that it does not focus too much on one issue, such as the Israeli-Palestine situation. The Advisory Committee was not given the tools to be truly effective, and its experts serve mainly as advisors. The reformers also missed a great opportunity to streamline, innovate and enhance the system of special procedures that was transferred from the Commission to the Council. As a consequence, the excessive workload was not eliminated, nor overlaps between different mandates. The selection process for the mandate-holders does provide for greater transparency, while the newly introduced code of conduct is acceptable but not ideal because it allows for misuse by States to undermine and attack the work of special procedures mandate-holders. On the other hand, the confidential complaint procedure was enhanced by introducing information and justification requirements. However, it still requires the prior exhaustion of national remedies and it cannot provide interim relief or remedies for victims. The participation of NGOs was unfortunately not strengthened in the Council, while their work is of key importance its success. The newly introduced universal periodic review is basically the hope of the Council. Every UN member State must be reviewed every four years, which not only opens new windows of opportunities of dialogue and enhanced cooperation, but it also brings with it a comprehensive body of information regarding the human rights situation in every State. So far, most states have been cooperative and open to this new mechanism, but the effect of recommendations made at the review may not be overstated. A lot will depend on the follow-up mechanisms that must be set up to control the implementation of recommendations. The mechanism however has the possibility to evolve in the future.
Only three years after the establishment of the Council, it is too early to make final conclusions. It is however clear that the success of the Council will depend mostly upon the further practice established by the universal periodic review. The Council has the potential of being more than simply a cosmetic change of the Commission, but only if States allow it to be.
Date of Award30 Jun 2009
Original languageEnglish
SupervisorKoen De Feyter (Promotor)


  • United Naties
  • Universal Periodic Review
  • Human Rights Council

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