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2024 Universal Periodic Review Exposes Concerns Regarding U.N. Human Rights Council Membership

With 2023 having been a tumultuous year for conflict and violent persecution around the world, the U.N. Human Rights Council has faced calls for both increased accountability and radical reformation within its makeup. The council’s failure to remove Iran as a member despite mass protests in the country over the past year concerning the country’s dire human rights record (particularly women’s rights), their failure to condemn Member State Saudi Arabia for its documented human rights violations in the ongoing conflict in Yemen, and, most recently, its failure to commit to any significant action regarding the ongoing Israel-Hamas war has called into question its effectiveness and its role on the global stage. These missteps have exposed the reality that the U.N. Human Rights Council faces systemic problems, not just within its membership but within the structure of the council itself. 

The U.N. Human Rights Council replaced the former U.N. Human Rights Commission (established after World War II) in 2006, in response to systemic issues present within the former Commission. For example, the Council has 47 elected Member States as opposed to the previous 53, and there are no permanent Member States, as each country faces re-election to its seat every three years. While this structure was established in the name of preventing human rights violators from occupying seats on the Council long-term, that goal has unfortunately rarely been met. Today, states such as Iran, Sudan, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, all of whom have been found by various non-governmental organisations and U.N. investigative committees to be consistently committing flagrant violations of human rights, are Member States, thereby implicating them as authorities to enforce around the world the respect of the very rights they are consistently violating.

While these membership concerns are still clearly present, the Council’s reinvented format has contributed to it being a more effective body than its predecessor. It has successfully removed two Member States for violating human rights (Libya in 2011 and Russia in 2022), it has passed many successful condemnations and recommendations of sanctions for countries found to be in violation of human rights and provides resources for developing governments to foster a strong human rights record.

But perhaps the Council’s most notable function, the Universal Periodic Review (UPR), the latest of which just concluded, demonstrates both the Council’s power to act as a genuine force for good in the fight to uphold human rights around the world and its inability to create effective and lasting change due to its membership. The UPR takes place on a four-year cycle over three sessions, with 14 states reviewed at each session, eventually concluding in every U.N. Member State being examined. The goal of the UPR is for the Human Rights Council to examine the human rights situation in every Member State and to recommend actions to remedy any violations that may be occurring. The contents of these reviews, as well as states’ willingness to accept the recommendations, are then used as criteria to determine which states are next elected to the Council.

The most recent UPR session took place from January 22nd to February 2nd, and included a notable examination of the human rights record of China, one of the most powerful states on earth and a member of the U.N. Security Council. Many of the Human Rights Council’s Member States offered strong criticisms of the country’s human rights record, recommending formal condemnations.

Powerful Member States like the United States and Canada called for China to, amongst other reforms, end widespread censorship of dissent, crack down on arbitrary detainment and enforced disappearances, and to end the widely documented practices of internment and family separations in the regions of Xinjiang and Tibet. Many states offered strong condemnations for China’s persistence in upholding these policies, serving as a powerful global statement against the state’s poor human rights situation. However, the power of the session stopped there—a statement. China simply denied all of the allegations of human rights abuses in the state as “misinformation,” implying that they would not take the Council’s recommendations seriously.

While the Member States could vote to formally condemn China, open a formal investigation into human rights abuses in the state, and even revoke its membership, many of China’s allies on the Council, such as Turkey or Bulgaria, could simply veto these actions, leaving the Council with its hands tied. While there is tremendous power in acknowledging a major state like China’s myriad human rights violations on the global community’s biggest stage for human rights, the Council’s failure to take any substantial action against a state that most members agree is violating human rights exposes its most major flaw.

China’s examination during the most recent UPR exposed the reality that if the U.N. Human Rights Council desires to truly be an effective governing body that upholds human rights around the world and punishes those who do not, its membership must be seriously re-evaluated. States who violate human rights continuing to hold membership on the Council ensures that it remains unable to effectively punish other violators, leaving the Council in a permanent contradictory state: issuing recommendations to help uphold respect for human rights around the world, yet unable to ever actually contribute to this process. The events of the most recent UPR have left the UNHCR unable to hide the fact that unless serious membership reforms are undertaken, it will forever be stuck grappling with the reality of its ineffectiveness.

This article is part of a collaboration between the St. Andrews Law Review and United Nations Association St. Andrews.


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