United Nations Human Rights Council

The UN Human Rights Council is responsible for promoting universal respect for human rights, addressing situations where human rights are violated and making recommendations to UN member states.

The UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) was established in 2006 following a resolution by the UN General Assembly. At the same time, the UN closed the former Commission on Human Rights. The UNHRC meets a number of times each year and is able to deal with emergency situations where human rights are being violated as they arise.

The UNHRC has retained certain parts of the regulatory framework from the Commission on Human Rights, for example the ability to appoint independent special rapporteurs as well as the working groups for different countries and thematic human rights issues. At present, there are special rapporteurs for eight countries: Cambodia, Korea, Haiti, Iran, Myanmar, the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967, Somalia and Sudan. The 33 thematic rapporteurs handle issues such as freedom of expression, freedom of religion, torture, violence against women, the right to education and extrajudicial executions.

The UNHRC also regularly reviews the situation for human rights in all UN member states via the Universal Periodic Review (UPR). Every year, 48 countries are reviewed. This means that each state is reviewed every four years. Countries that are members of the UNHRC are reviewed at some point during their term of membership.

In addition to monitoring and regular reviews, the UNHRC also offers help and support to improve the situation for human rights in different countries.

UNHRC members
The UNHRC has 47 members elected for a term of three years. All UN member states can be candidates to the UNHRC. Election to the UNHRC requires a majority vote by the UN General Assembly. When electing members, particular importance is attached to how the candidates have contributed to the promotion and respect of human rights and whether they have taken on special commitments in the area of human rights. 

The seats are shared between the five regional groups in the UN. Sweden and the other Nordic countries have agreed on a Nordic rotation, which means that one Nordic country stands as a candidate at a time. The Nordic countries are included in the Western European and Other States Group, which has a total of seven seats on the Council.

UNHRC meetings
UNHRC meetings are held in Geneva. Under a General Assembly resolution, the council is to meet for no fewer than three sessions per year, for a total of no less than ten weeks. In addition, the Council may be convened at short notice to deal with emergency situations where human rights are being violated if a UNHRC member so requests and at least one third of the members believe it to be necessary.

Status of the UNHRC
The UNHRC is a subsidiary organ of the UN General Assembly. The UNHRC thus reports directly to the General Assembly.

How can countries that are known for not respecting human rights be elected to the Council?
UN member states have agreed to prioritise candidates that contribute to the promotion and respect of human rights. This is also the EU position. In its resolution to establish the UNHRC, the General Assembly drew up criteria for membership. Under the General Assembly resolution, the member states are to observe human rights and cooperate with international mechanisms in the area. It is the responsibility of the UN member states to ensure that these criteria are followed when electing new members.

At the same time, one should bear in mind that under the rules of the UNHRC, members must fully cooperate with the UNHRC and are subject to review during their term of membership. In other words, it is hoped that membership of the UNHRC will contribute to positive change in those countries which violate human rights.

If a country, during its term of UNHRC membership, engages in gross and systematic violations of human rights, the General Assembly can exclude the country from the UNHRC. For this to happen, two thirds of the members present in the General Assembly must support the proposal on suspension. Libya was suspended from the UNHRC in March 2011, but the suspension ended in November the same year.