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How effective is the UN Human Rights Council?

Violations of human rights in Middle Eastern countries are amongst the highest globally, involving various forms of atrocities, including murder, torture, arbitrary detention and the deprivation of liberties. Various international mechanisms have been created over the years to combat such violations and work to promote the effective functioning and mainstreaming of human rights worldwide. Among the most relevant and arguably influential of these is the UN Human Rights Council (HRC); established in 2006, it is the intergovernmental body of 47 states, elected by UN members to protect and monitor human rights around the world.

Al-Sharq Youth, which provides young Arabs with platforms that enable them to become active contributors to the future of the Middle East, invited me to represent a Palestinian human rights NGO in the HRC. I welcomed this opportunity to increase my knowledge of the operations of this well-known institution.

I attended the 33rd council session which was held in the main hall of the Palace of Nations in Geneva. The regular sessions follow a systematic order, discussing the ten agenda items chronologically. During an ordinary session, three different formats of debate may be held, whereby the HRC member states, observer states and accredited NGOs take part.

Interactive dialogue debates begin with a report presented before the session which portrays the situation on the ground; it is intended to stimulate dialogue and allow interventions to be made. This is typically followed by a general debate which is a relatively open-ended form of discussion during which issues related to the items on the agenda can be raised. Panel debates are held occasionally, usually after the adoption of a particular resolution.

In order to evaluate the functionality of the council's framework, I chose to focus on a particular issue; the situation of human rights in Palestine. Palestine is the only country to feature as a permanent item on the order of the day since the HRC was first established, and even before that in the commission of human rights, with agenda "item 7" designated entirely to addressing this issue. I believed that the Palestine issue could provide a benchmark from which I could assess the effectiveness of the HRC.

I attended the general debate on item 7. Statements were made which condemned Israel's violations of fundamental rights and international law; the occupation of the people and their land; the destructive policies and colonial practices; and the crimes against Palestinian culture and history. The list of human rights violations committed by Israel are repeated in every session, I am told. Some violations are replaced with others, but more than 68 years since the state of Israel was created on Palestinian land, the Palestine issue remains on the agenda. Even so, the debate time allocated to item 7 has reduced to a large extent over the years, despite the fact that the problems raised by Israel's human rights violations in Palestine have not.

I asked why there was no interactive dialogue for item 7 and was told that there is no special rapporteur or independent expert able to give a report about the human rights situation on the ground at the moment. The previous rapporteur, Makarim Wibisono, resigned because he was denied access to the Palestinian territories occupied by Israel, which prevented him from being able to carry out his job effectively. His predecessor, Professor Richard Falk, also reported difficulties in accessing Palestinian territory. This prompts questions about how effectively the UN can monitor human rights violations when its own member state denies its officers the chance to gather evidence and thus complete useful reports. It is interesting to note that Israel was one of only four countries to oppose the resolution for the creation of the HRC.

The final days of the council are centred on the adoption of resolutions. When it comes to resolutions related to Palestine in Item 7, most are adopted, as the majority of member states tend to support them, which reflects a principled position from the UN member states who make up the membership of the HRC and indicates that the international community stands with the Palestinian people in their continual struggle.

Considering that many resolutions on Item 7 are passed, why has there been no positive change in the human rights situation in Palestine? The reason is simple: the Human Rights Council is not a law enforcement body and has no means to enforce its resolutions, which are not binding on UN member states, even though they imply strong political commitment. The only body able to make binding resolutions at the UN is the Security Council, whereby a resolution is accepted into chapter 7 of the UN Charter. The decision to adopt resolutions under chapter 7 must be agreed upon by all five permanent member states of the Security Council.

Countries that are primarily concerned with their diplomatic relationships and economic interests are often influenced by them when it comes to voting on UN resolutions of all kinds. This is why the US usually uses its veto as a permanent member of the Security Council on resolutions relating to Israel-Palestine. Washington is Israel's biggest sponsor; it offers political, military and economic protection to defend its aggression and human rights violations. Thus, it is able to maintain strategic control over the region. Consequently, Israel is never held to account for its violations of international laws and conventions.

The double standards applied by the US in this regard are very apparent; it claims to be concerned about human rights but chooses not to implement appropriate policies if they do not serve its interests. I was left wondering whether there was any real benefit to contributing to the HRC when resolutions on Palestine are rarely implemented; my conclusion was that, at the very least, by raising Palestine repeatedly in the presence of member states the issue is kept alive. The only way to enforce resolutions is to work from within to raise awareness about the hypocrisy of certain member states and ensure that there are consequences for their actions.

Furthermore, the positions taken by Arab states and their influence at the HRC should be stronger and more united. By working together, they can put pressure on more member states to participate effectively in the debates relating to Palestine; resolutions will carry more political weight if more member states vote and challenge Israel's policies. This would put increased pressure on the authorities for an effective follow-up and the implementation of the resolutions. Moreover, it would send a stronger message to Israel that the international community stands firmly against its ongoing aggression and violations of the human rights of the Palestinian people.

Al-Sharq and other relevant institutions in the Arab region should put in place a strategy to promote the training of Arab youth by competent NGOs in Geneva, which would enable them to participate at the sessions of the HRC as well as other human rights bodies. This would also ensure that there will be a greater number of individuals who can have a positive influence and make a difference to the future work of these bodies in relation to Palestine and, indeed, the rest of the Arab world.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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ArticleAsia & AmericasHRWInternational OrganisationsIsraelMiddle EastOpinionPalestineUNUS
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