Simulating the Human Rights Council: Five Neat Solutions to Try

by Emily on February 6, 2013

This guest article has been provided by Ryan Kaminski, the United Nations Association of the United States of America Leo Nevas Human Rights Fellow.

Ryan Kaminski, the UNA-USA Leo Nevas Human Rights Fellow, at the WFUNA Civil Society in Action for Human Rights Workshop

When I participated in Model UN in high school and college, my favorite committees to simulate by far were the Human Rights Commission—now defunct—and the (then) new UN Human Rights Council, established in 2006. From my perspective, these simulations tended to be the most timely, likely to produce constructive debate, and frankly the most interesting.

My current role as the United Nations Association of the USA (UNA-USA) Leo Nevas Human Rights Fellow actually focuses significantly on the work of the Council. This, for instance, includes researching and tracking developments related to the body, as well as advancing constructive U.S. leadership and engagement within the Human Rights Council. Drawing from this experience, I believe delegates as well as committee staff should consider five traditionally underappreciated or underutilized actions when simulating the UN’s premier human rights body. Adopting one or more of these tactics could help energize debate, produce stronger resolutions, and lead to a better overall understanding of the UN human rights system in the real world.

1. Establish a Commission of Inquiry

Commissions of inquiry (COIs), typically composed of a handful of leading human rights experts, are powerful tools to ensure  accountability for potential human rights violations in a given area—including the possibility of crimes against humanity—as well as keep international attention on a given human rights situation. In many cases, COIs are instituted to study the most egregious cases of potential rights violations. A COI, for example, was established in August 2011 to examine the human rights situation in Syria. That COI has not only documented alleged cases of rights violations and crimes against humanity; it has also submitted names of individuals who may be responsible for crimes against humanity to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. A COI was also created in February 2011 to address the crisis in Libya.  Recently, some have called upon the Human Rights Council to establish a COI to focus on potential crimes against humanity in North Korea.

A potential downside of attempting to establish a COI is that could alienate certain delegations who may believe the commissions are too “politicized” in investigating the human rights records of individual countries.

2. Create a Mandate for a Special Procedure

Special Procedures are not special processes but rather individuals or working groups that investigate and report back to the HRC and other UN organs about pressing country specific and thematic human right issues—think of them as the UN’s Geek Squad.  Special procedures are called special rapporteurs, independent experts, or working groups. There is, for instance, a “Special rapporteur on the situation of Human Rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran”, “Independent Expert on the Situation of Human Rights in Somalia,” and “Working Group on Arbitrary Detention.” There is even a “Special Rapporteur on the implications for human rights of the environmentally sound management and disposal of hazardous substances and wastes.” Currently, there are 48 special procedures: 12 country-specific and 36 thematic.

Probably the best thing about special procedures in terms of Model UN is that they basically work for free to ensure their independent and impartial status. A simulated Human Rights Council then could create a new mandate for a special procedure to study a certain issue or even task an existing special procedure with addressing a certain issue or country-situation more carefully.

Even without pay, however, these special procedures can carry a real punch. The Brookings Institution’s Ted Piccone, analyzes just how impactful special procedures have been over the years through conducting country-visits, issuing emergency appeals to countries, and submitting reports to the UN in his book, Catalysts for Change. In fact, former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan called special procedures the “crown jewel” of the UN human rights system.

3. Call for a Special Report or Study

Sometimes HRC members admit they do not have all the answers and respectfully request bodies like the HRC Advisory Committee (the HRC’s “think tank”) and the High Commissioner for Human Rights to analyze a particular problem and report back to the Council. Studies can also be helpful to lay the groundwork for a resolution on an otherwise controversial topic.

An excellent example of the HRC taking this action was its groundbreaking June 2011 resolution “Human Rights, Sexual Orientation, and Gender Identity.” The resolution tasked the High Commissioner for Human Rights for overseeing a study concerning discrimination and violence based on gender identity and sexual orientation globally. The study, released by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in December 2011, provided a comprehensive overview of the problem noting that “in all regions, people experience violence and discrimination because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.”  The HRC is expected to consider the findings of the study in its sessions this year and possibly draft a follow-up resolution on the topic.

To be effective, study requests should be clearly delineated and accompanied by an appropriate follow-up action for the Council to take. Delegates should also be cognizant of potential resource and logistical limitations of UN organs as well as the time needed to complete the study.

4. Consider holding a Special Session

The HRC is empowered to meet outside of its regular three annual sessions to consider certain major issues in special sessions if one-third of Human Rights Council members vote to do so. The Council, for instance, has had special sessions related to the situation in Darfur; recovery efforts in Haiti; Israel and Palestine; and even more thematic human rights issues like the impact of the global financial crisis on human rights. The HRC has also had several special sessions related to the ongoing crisis in Syria.

While in Model UN it is usually the UN Security Council committees that have crises and “unexpected” midnight sessions at conferences, offering HRC delegates the chance to vote on special sessions offers a real-world and pragmatic opportunity for conference organizers to integrate crises—which many delegates find both exhilarating and educational—on committees other than just the Security Council.

5. Recommend the Suspension of an HRC Member

According to the April 2006 General Assembly resolution establishing the Human Rights Council, members should “uphold the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights.” While the HRC cannot suspend its members, the General Assembly can do so through a two-thirds majority vote in cases of a state “committing gross and systematic violations of human rights.” Nevertheless, the HRC can still vote to recommend the suspension of a particular member. This actually happened in February 2011 when the Human Rights Council took the unprecedented move of adopting a resolution by consensus recommending the suspension of Libya from the Council. Libya, however, was eventually reinstated to the HRC by a vote of the General Assembly following the collapse of Muammar al-Qaddafi’s regime.

It is important to understand however, that this is an especially extraordinary measure that has only been employed by the HRC once. Delegates should also be careful to word operative clauses in such a way that the HRC itself is not suspending a delegation—it is not in its jurisdiction—but is merely recommending the General Assembly take action. Of course, the target country is unlikely to support the measure!

Overall, some of these tactics may be more appropriate than others depending on a given committee’s topic, the conference, as well as the delegation. Nonetheless, such tools offer a window into the complex real-world working methods that are part of the world’s leading intergovernmental human rights body. With any luck, they can also be emulated with one of Model UN’s most engaging and fascinating committees, the Human Rights Council.

For more information about Model UN programs organized by UNA-USA, click here.


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  • Dhanush

    Are there any more point to be considered in UNHRC, more that just these five? However, great article, regardless.

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