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At the launch of the yourHRC.org Guide to the 2020 Human Rights Council elections

Remarks by Ilze Brands Kehris,
Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights
8 October 2020


Colleagues and friends,

I’m delighted to join this timely event – convened on the eve of the just concluded 45th session of the Human Rights Council and less than a week away from the elections of 15 States that will take up their seats on the Council for the next three years. I thank the Universal Rights Group and the Permanent Mission of Norway for this important initiative. 

The issue of membership of the Organization’s primary body in charge of human rights has always been at the forefront of discussions of its effectiveness, credibility and legitimacy.  

Membership was at the heart of the reform process of the Commission on Human Rights that led to the establishment of the Council in 2006.

The Commission’s membership rules and obligations were contributing factors to its declining credibility, marked by politicization, bloc voting and selectivity. Its successor’s smaller membership, reduced from 53 to 47 to enable a more agile and responsive body, was an important founding principle of the Human Rights Council.

Additionally, the members of the Human Rights Council were elected by the entire membership of the General Assembly by an absolute majority of votes1  - as opposed to only the members of the Economic and Social Council as was the case of the Commission.  This is aimed, as we know, at preventing countries responsible for egregious human rights violations from becoming members of the Council.

The fact that candidate states’ own human rights record, their voluntary pledges and commitments are now considered by the universal membership of the Organization is an important aspect of today’s Human Rights Council elections.

In this regard,  the Human Rights Council’s pledging event for the 2020 elections, organized by the International Service for Human Rights and Amnesty International last month, provided a critical opportunity for candidate states to present their vision for membership and to participate in an open dialogue between states, civil society and the United Nations on the responsibility of membership on the Council.

I was encouraged by the frank exchange and the willingness of those candidates who chose to participate to engage and respond to questions from their peers as well as from civil society representatives.

Today’s launch of the Election Guide yourHRC.org is an important continuation and component of this healthy exercise of scrutiny, transparency and accountability  ahead of elections to the Human Rights Council. Civil society is the driving force in this evolving process. Discussions on how to refine and improve membership conditions are still to take place in the Council itself.

Membership at the Human Rights Council must entail human rights leadership. This is implied in General Assembly resolution 60/251, which sets out that its “member States shall uphold the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights”.

Such leadership – embodied in “the highest standards” – is even more important ahead of Council elections held in a year when the Organization faces multiple grave challenges. As the Secretary-General has made clear, the COVID-19 pandemic is not only a health, economic or social crisis. It is a human rights crisis.  

Today’s human rights crisis is marked by entrenched and widening inequalities, a spread of authoritarianism, shrinking civic space, a global climate crisis and continued challenges to multilateralism. That is why leadership, and thus membership, is at the heart of the matter of the Human Rights Council.

To effectively respond to these global human rights challenges there needs to be broad and representative membership that must be truly global. While membership “shall be open to all States Members of the United Nations”, in reality 76 out of 193 states have never held a seat on the Council.

There has been some progress. From 2018-2019, ten states were elected to the Council for the first time. However, much more work is needed to ensure a broader membership base, especially among Least Developed Countries and Small Island Developing States.

While the overall trend in terms of membership is positive, the Council also faces criticism that countries with questionable human rights records continue to be elected, limiting its ability to deal with human rights abuses in many countries.

Even in the absence of clear applicable criteria for membership eligibility, transparency and open deliberations serve an essential function of scrutiny.  We can also hope that the fact that countries with mixed human rights records may join the Council as members could, and should, serve to encourage them to address more robustly the human rights problems they face.

What has repeatedly been raised as an issue is the frequency of so-called ‘clean slate’ elections, a situation where there is no open competition for vacant seats.  Pre-election, intra-group negotiations that identify candidates clearly do not promote transparency regarding what criteria are taken into account.

Whether and how the issue of membership will be considered during the General Assembly’s review on the status of the Council to be held between 2021-2026 remains to be seen. What we know is that the central part of the process will take place in New York, with the General Assembly deciding what kind of review it will conduct, and what part of it, if any, it would entrust to the Council.

The outcome of any review may affect the way the Council will operate in the future. It makes sense for the main actor to be involved in consultations on its own future.

What can be said with certainty is that the Human Rights Council has again this year reaffirmed its relevance, agility and ability to address and respond to critical human rights questions and situations – despite the constraints and challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Secretary General’s launch of the Call to Action for Human Rights at the Council in February provides a way to translate a transformative vision of human rights into concrete solutions to the identified key global challenges.  This is a common endeavor. As the Organization’s principal human rights body, our Office looks forward to continuing supporting and working closely with the Council and all its members, in close cooperation with civil society, whose pro-active participation in essential, to undertake our common responsibility to advance human rights protection for all.

Thank you.

1 I.e. minimum of 96 votes.