Functioning of the Human Rights Council
The Council was created on the 15th of March 2006, by resolution 60/251 of the UN General Assembly. It replaces the former Commission on Human Rights and aims to continue and deepen the previous work of the Commission. The Council is an organ of the General Assembly.
The Council is composed of 47 member states of the United Nations. Seats are allocated following a geographical distribution – the UN regional groups: 13 seats for African States, 13 for Asian States, 8 for Latin American & Caribbean States, 7 for Western Europe & Other States, 6 for Eastern European States. Member States are elected for a 3 year mandate and are not eligible for immediate re-election after two consecutive terms. Procedural and organizational matters of the Council are facilitated by the Bureau.
For the current composition of the Council and the Bureau see the Council’s web site.
States running for office are elected to the Council if they receive the majority of votes cast by General Assembly members, who vote individually and directly by secret ballot. For this, the other states shall consider how candidates promote and protect human rights, their voluntary pledges and commitments made thereto. A member's membership rights to the Council may be suspended if that member commits gross and systematic violations of human rights and subsequently, the General Assembly may expel that member by a two-thirds majority vote of the members present and voting.
The Bureau addresses procedural and organisational matters. During debates its role remains limited as it intervenes mostly as a facilitator because states are the main actors of the Council. The Bureau is composed of one president and four vice-presidents, each of them representing one of the five regional groups of the United Nations. The presidency rotates every year between members of regional groups. With this system each regional group assumes the presidency once during a five-year cycle. The five members of the Bureau are elected at the beginning of each annual cycle (in June) for a one year mandate. A president or vice-president is not eligible for immediate re-election to the same post after a year of activity in the Bureau.
For the current composition of the Bureau see the Council’s web site.
Regular sessions take place at least three times a year and have to represent at least ten weeks of work. This organisational feature has been established by resolution 60/251 of the General Assembly. The regular sessions tackle a large variety of items and progress following a predefined order, which is called the “Agenda”. This Agenda has been adopted by resolution 5/1 of the Council.
The special sessions are not planned for in the annual calendar of the Council. They take place when a state proposes to hold a special session and that state's initiative is supported by at least one-third of the member states of the Council. They mostly focus on specific situations that can lead to gross violations of human rights. These specific situations can be related to events occurring in a specific country as well as to more global subjects. The 7th special session focused for example on the world food crisis.
The Council is a body of the UN General Assembly and thus reports to it on an annual basis. In doing so, the Council can also issue recommendations to the General Assembly aiming at further developing the framework of international law in the field of human rights.
One cycle represents 12 months of work, from January to December. During a cycle the Council has to undertake at least three regular sessions representing a minimum of ten weeks of work. At the end of each cycle the five members of the Bureau are replaced and the Council has to report to the UN General Assembly on the activities it undertook during the past cycle (Annual reports can be found on the Council's web site).
Universal Periodic Review (UPR)
The Universal Periodic Review (UPR) is a mechanism of the Human Rights Council through which states examine the human rights records of all member states of the UN. The review concerns not only the human rights situation in a state under review, but also its legislative frameworks for the protection of human rights or its ratification of international instruments in the field of human rights.
The UPR is a new mechanism which did not exist during the times of the Commission on Human Rights. In resolution 60/251 (which creates the Human Rights Council) the General Assembly mandated the new Council to undertake a universal periodic review of each state's human rights obligations and commitments. The Council then developed the modalities of this review in resolution 5/1.
The UPR is held during 4 year cycle during which all 192 member states of the UN are reviewed. The states that are serving as members of the Human Rights Council are reviewed during their mandate. A working group on the UPR composed by states meets three times a year under the auspices of the Council. During the sessions of the UPR Working Group states are reviewed by their peers, namely member states of the Human Rights Council, but also observer states. The Working Group reports on this review to the Council, which then adopts a final report during a plenary session.
A “Troika” is a group of three rapporteurs that are chosen randomly from among the members of the Council. The three rapporteurs belong each to a different regional group. The state under review has the possibility to request that one of the rapporteurs belong to its own regional group. It may also ask for one rapporteur to be replaced by another one, yet it may do so only once.
The role of the Troïkas is to facilitate the review of a specific state. They also receive questions and observations from other states which they then forward in writing to the Secretariat of the Council.
For a listing of Troïkas please refer to the UPR website.
NGOs can participate to the UPR process either formally or informally.
Formally, they have the possibility to provide the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) with information about a State under review. This information is taken up in the so-called “summary of stakeholders’ information”. This is a 10 pages summary of the information received from NGOs and it is compiled by the OHCHR. This “summary of stakeholders’ information” is one of the three documents that serve as a basis for the review of a particular State. NGOs can assist to the sessions of the UPR Working Group, yet they cannot make statements during this session. In return, they can assist to and take the floor during plenary sessions of the Council when the report of the UPR Working Group is examined and the final report on the State under review is adopted.
In addition to this formal participation, NGOs have several more informal possibilities to participate in the UPR. Firstly, they may participate in the elaboration of the “national report” of the State that will be reviewed (this “national report” is one of the three documents forming the basis of the review, together with the aforementioned “summary of stakeholders’ information” and the “compilation of UN information”). Secondly, NGOs may lobby States in order to have them ask specific questions during the UPR Working Group’s session. For this purpose they may approach State delegates and diplomatic missions in Geneva or embassies located in the State that will be reviewed. NGOs should remember that a state delegate may not be able to decide directly weather to ask a specific question or not, but that he may have to check with his capital first. Therefore, lobbying efforts should be started well in advance of a session of the UPR working group. In order to get an idea about which states may be inclined to accept to ask a certain question, you may want to check the thematic tables provided by UPR-info.org. Thirdly, NGOs have the possibility to organise side events during the sessions of the Council at the Palais des Nations. Fourthly, NGOs may wish to organise events and panel discussions in the country that is being reviewed, for example by organising live video-retransmission of the sessions through the Council’s webcast. Fifthly, NGOs have an important role to play in the follow-up of the review. They may for instance disseminate to the population of their countries the report of the review, the commitments made by the State under review and the recommendations that have been addressed to the State under review. NGOs may also want to remind the State that has been reviewed of its commitments at a later stage.
On the official website of the UPR, select the SuR, click on "GO", then on footnote number 3 just above "Summary of Stakeholders Submissions".
Special procedures mandates can be held by a single person (called "Special Rapporteur", "Special Representative of the Secretary General", "Representative of the Secretary General" or "Independent Expert"), or by a working group which usually is composed of five members (one per region). Special procedures mandate holders are independent experts who examine, supervise, give advice and report publicly on human rights situations. The mandates can be thematic, concentrating on the implementation of a specific human right in all countries of the world (example: mandate on contemporary forms of slavery), or country-based, focussing on all human rights in a given country. For more information see the web site of the special Procedures.
For a complete listing of Working Groups click here.
For details on how to submit information, please read carefully the relevant information provided by the OHCHR.
Should you have questions about how to submit information to Special Procedures, please contact the OHCHR’s Civil Society Unit.
For a complete listing of Special Rapporteurs click here.
Other mechanisms of the Human Rights Council
The complaint procedure of the Human Rights Council addresses consistent patterns of gross and reliably attested violations of all human rights occurring in any part of the world and under any circumstances. It generally deals with situations in a country as a whole rather than with individuals. Nevertheless, any individual or group claiming to be the victim of such human rights violations may submit a complaint, as may any other person or group with direct and reliable knowledge of such violations. The whole Complaint Procedure remains confidential, and at no time is the public informed of the progress unless the Council decides otherwise. This Complaint Procedure has replaced the former "1503 Procedure" of the Commission on Human Rights.
More information on the Complaint Procedure is available on the website of the Council.
A complaint has to pass three stages: the Working Group (WG) on Communication, the WG on Situations and the Human Rights Council (HRC).
The WG on Communications is composed of five independent experts who are elected from among the Advisory Committee's members. This group examines the admissibility of a communication before transmitting it to the state concerned. Once it has received the state’s comments, it decides on the admissibility of the case and assesses its merits. In doing so, it also considers whether the communication – alone or in combination with other communications – reveals a consistent pattern of gross and reliably attested violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms. If so, the WG on Communications passes the case on to the WG on Situations.
The WG on Situations is composed of five representatives of member States of the Council. According to the information it has received from the WG on Communications, it decides whether to dismiss the case or to pass it on to the Council, the latter in the form of a report containing consistent patterns of gross and reliably attested violations of human rights as well as recommendations on action to be taken by the Council.
The Council may then decide on any of the following actions: to keep the situation under review and request further information from the concerned state, to appoint a highly qualified independent expert to monitor the situation and report back to the Council, to request the OHCHR to provide technical cooperation to the concerned state, to take up public consideration of the situation or to discontinue considering it.
To submit communications to the Complaint Procedure of the Human Rights Council, please consult the criteria of acceptance and the contact details available on the Complaint Procedure page of the Council's website.
The Advisory Committee was created by resolution 5/1 of the Human Rights Council and replaced the former Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights. The Advisory Committee is composed of 18 experts and works under the Council’s direction. The Council may ask the Committee to undertake studies on thematic questions. The Committe can produce expert opinions (but no resolutions or decisions). NGOs have the possibility to attend the Advisory Committee sessions. The Committee takes place twice a year for a maximum of 10 days of work. Nevertheless Ad hoc sessions can be called in with the agreement of the Council.
For more information see the website of the Advisory Committee.
The Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples was created by the Council to continue the work of the Working Group on Indigenous Populations (an organ of the former Commission on Human Rights). The Expert Mechanism is composed by five experts. It held its first session at the Palais de Nations, Geneva, from the 1st to the 3rd of October 2008.
For more information please check the website of the Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
Originally the Social Forum was an initiative of the Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights (an organ of the former Commission on Human Rights). The Social Forum has been maintained when the Council was created in 2006. Its objective is to promote social cohesion based on the principles of social justice, equity and solidarity. For that purpose it works on creating a space for interactive dialogue between the United Nations human rights machinery and various stakeholders, including grass-roots organisations. NGOs with ECOSOC consultative status as well as grass-roots organisations without ECOSOC status and the private sector can participate to the Social Forum.
For more information see the Social Forum’s website.
The Forum on Minority Issues was created by the resolution 6/15 of the Council on the 28th of September 2007. It provides a platform for promoting dialogue and cooperation on issues pertaining to national or ethnic, religious and linguistic minorities, which shall provide thematic contributions and expertise to the work of the Independent Expert on minority issues. The Forum takes place twice a year during two days. NGOs with ECOSOC consultative status as well as those without ECOSOC status but whose objectives are in conformity with the spirit, purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations (according to ECOSOC resolution 1996/31) can participate in the Forum. For more information please check the website of the Forum on Minority Issues.
The Human Rights Council decided by the resolution 17/4 to establish the Forum on Business and Human Rights in 2011. It provides a platform for the promotion and implementation of the Guiding Principles under the direction of the UN Working group on Business and Human Rights which is responsible for examining the trends and challenges of the application of Guiding Principles and promoting dialogue and cooperation on issues related to business and human rights. The Forum takes place each year for 2 days and NGO’s with ECOSOC consultative status can participate. For more information see the website of the Forum 2013.
Relations between the Council and other institutions
The post of the High Commissioner for Human Rights was called for by the World Conference on Human Rights in its Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action of 1993 and has subsequently been created. The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) emanated from the strengthening of the former Centre for Human Rights of the UN Secretariat. The OHCHR is an institution which is independent from the Human Rights Council and depends directly from the UN Secretary-General. It is the Secretary General that proposes the nomination of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, which has then to be approved by the General Assembly.
With regard to the Council, the OHCHR acts as a secretariat and accomplishes tasks such as handling accreditation and drafting documents. The OHCHR also assists the Special Procedures (the special rapporteurs’ assistants being part of the OHCHR staff), the UPR and other mechanisms of the Council.
For more information see the website of the OHCHR.
Treaty bodies such as the Human Rights Committee or the Committee on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination for instance, have been created by different human rights treaties, as for example the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights or the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. These treaties establish reporting procedures where States parties have to report regularly to the concerned treaty body on the human rights situation in their country. Some treaty bodies also have established optional quasi-juridictional mechanisms by which different actors can submit complaints about violations of human rights. Treaty bodies are thus instances that monitor the implementation of a given human rights treaty.
The Human Rights Council is a institution which is completely distinct from treaty bodies. While the latter are composed by independant experts, the Human Rights Council is a political organ composed by States (represented by their diplomats). Nevertheless the Human Rights Council also possesses a complaint mechanism to address consistent patterns of gross and reliably attested violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms (see the above question on the Complaint Procedure). This Complaint Procedure should not be confused with the optional mechanisms for individual complaints of the treaty bodies.
In their relations with the Council, treaty bodies provide information on countries that are reviewed by the Universal Periodic Review process. This information is integrated in one of the three main documents on which the review is based, namely the “Compilation of UN Information”. Special Rapporteurs and Working Groups of the Council can refer to information provided by treaties’ organs to accomplish their mandates.