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Explained: What is the UN Human Rights Council, whose membership Russia may lose after the Bucha massacre?

The Human Rights Council is an inter-governmental body within the United Nations system, which is responsible for strengthening the promotion and protection of human rights around the world.

A general view during a session of the Human Rights Council at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland.

The United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) was scheduled to vote on Thursday (April 7) on a draft resolution to suspend Russia from the United Nations Human Rights Council as part of the global response to the alleged war crimes in Bucha, a town outside Kyiv, where more than 300 bodies of civilians have been found after the withdrawal of the Russian forces.

Human Rights Council

The Human Rights Council is an inter-governmental body within the United Nations system, which is responsible for strengthening the promotion and protection of human rights around the world. It also addresses and makes recommendations on situations of human rights violations, and can discuss all thematic human rights issues and situations.

Working of the Council

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The Human Rights Council replaced the former UN Commission on Human Rights. It was created by the UNGA on March 15, 2006, and the body met in its first session from June 19-30, 2006.

In 2007, the Council adopted an “institution-building package” to set up its procedures and mechanisms. Among these were the mechanism of Universal Periodic Review to assess the human rights situations in all UN Member States, the Advisory Committee that serves as the Council’s think tank providing it with expertise and advice on thematic human rights issues, and the Complaint Procedure, which allows individuals and organisations to bring human rights violations to the Council’s attention.

The Council also works with the UN Special Procedures established by the former Commission on Human Rights, consisting of special rapporteurs, special representatives, independent experts, and working groups that monitor, examine, advise and report on thematic issues or human rights situations in specific countries.

Membership of the Council

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The Council, which meets at the UN Office in Geneva, Switzerland, is made up of 47 UN Member States who are elected by majority vote through a direct and secret ballot at the UNGA. According to the Council’s website, the UNGA 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.

The membership of the Council is based on equitable geographical distribution. African and Asia-Pacific states have 13 seats each, Latin American and Caribbean states have 8 seats, Western European and other states 7 seats, and Eastern European states 6 seats.

The members serve for three years and are not eligible for immediate re-election after serving two consecutive terms.

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“With membership on the Council comes a responsibility to uphold high human rights standards. This is a criteria insisted on by States themselves when they adopted resolution 60/251 in March 2006 to create the Human Rights Council,” says the Council.

It is this responsibility that Russia is alleged to have wilfully violated in Ukraine. Russia’s three-year term as member of the Council began on January 1, 2021.

Leadership of the Council

The Council has a five-person Bureau, consisting of a president and four vice-presidents, each representing one of the five regional groups. They serve for a year each, in accordance with the Council’s annual cycle.

The Human Rights Council President of the 16th Cycle (2022) is Federico Villegas, who is the Permanent Representative of Argentina to the UN and other international organisations in Geneva. He was elected president of the Human Rights Council for 2022 in December 2021.

Meetings of the Council

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The Human Rights Council holds no fewer than three regular sessions a year, for a total of at least 10 weeks. These sessions take place in March (4 weeks), June (3 weeks) and September (3 weeks). The Council met in its latest (49th) regular session from February 28 to April 1, 2022

If a third of the Member states requests, the Council can decide at any time to hold a special session to address human rights violations and emergencies. Under the presidency of Nazhat S Khan of Fiji, the Council held a record five special sessions in 2021 — on Myanmar, the Occupied Palestinian Territory and Israel, Afghanistan, Sudan, and Ethiopia.

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First published on: 07-04-2022 at 14:27 IST
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