The Practical Guide to Humanitarian Law

« Calling things by the wrong name adds to the affliction of the world. » Albert Camus.

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United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCHR)/Human Rights Council

The system for the promotion and protection of human rights put in place by the United Nations is based on permanent institutions that reinforce the guarantees provided in the different international conventions on human rights. The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights is the cornerstone of this system. It includes the Human Rights Council, which replaced the Commission on Human Rights in 2006, an evolution that aimed at ensuring a better functioning of these institutions and limits their politicization.

Mandate of the High Commissioner for Human Rights

The position of a UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCHR) was established pursuant to UN General Assembly Resolution 48/181 of 20 December 1993, which followed the recommendations of the Vienna Declaration and Program of Action adopted on 25 June 1993, at the UN World Conference on Human Rights. In 1997, the Office of the UNHCHR and the preexisting UN Center for Human Rights were consolidated into one office, located in Geneva.

The UNHCHR’s mission is to “ensure the universal enjoyment of all human rights by giving practical effect to the will and resolve of the world community as expressed by the UN.” Its mandate is based on several of the UN Charter’s articles, including Article 55, which reaffirms the organization’s aim to create the “conditions of stability and well-being which are necessary for peaceful and friendly relations among nations based on respect for the principles of equal rights and self-determination of peoples,” and its commitment to promote universal respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms for all, without distinction.

Structure of the UNHCHR

The Office is divided into organizational units, headed by the High Commissioner, who holds the rank of UN Under-Secretary-General, a four-year mandate. Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein has held this position since 1 September 2014. He is assisted by a Deputy High Commissioner, a staff, and an administrative section. A small New York office represents the High Commissioner at UN headquarters.

In addition to the Executive Office of the High Commissioner and a number of units that report to the Deputy High Commissioner, the Office of the High Commissioner has four divisions, which are the Special Procedures Division, the Field Operations and Technical Cooperation Division, the Research and Right to Development Division, and the Human Rights Council and Treaties Division. Its budget for 2010–2011 was $151.6 million ($40.5 million from the UN regular budget; $111.1 million from States’ voluntary contributions and international organizations in 2011). The level of voluntary funding increased strongly between 2005 and 2009, with a noticeable decrease in 2010 (from $118 million in 2009 to $109 million in 2010).

Means of the UNHCHR

UNHCHR promotes international cooperation for human rights, in particular by coordinating actions and stimulating policies throughout the UN system. Its functions to this effect include the following:

  • Promoting universal ratification and implementation of international conventions and other standards, and assisting in the development of new norms. ▸ Human rightsInternational law
  • Managing the information services of the UN human rights program, including the documentation center and library, and providing policy analysis, studies, and advice, on issues including the practice of UN organs and other substantive procedures.
  • Promoting the establishment of national human rights infrastructures, including through field activities and operations. It undertakes field activities and operations and provides education, information advisory services, and technical assistance on the issue of human rights, at the request of governments, and manages voluntary funds for human rights field missions.
  • Providing support to human rights fact-finding and investigative mechanisms, such as Special Rapporteurs and working groups mandated by the UN Human Rights Council (HRC, formerly the Commission) or other UN bodies. ▸ Special Rapporteurs
  • Supporting international human rights organs and treaty-monitoring bodies. It plans, prepares, and runs the meetings of the UN Human Rights Council and provides technical and substantive support to the HRC regular and special sessions, as well as for the Universal Periodic Review mechanism (see below).

In situations of emergency, UNHCHR works with the relevant organs in the UN system. It participates in the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC), run by the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). It especially works with OCHA to develop approaches within the UN system (namely, with regard to humanitarian action) that take human rights issues into consideration, especially during the post-conflict peace-building phase.

Commission and Human Rights Council

The Commission on Human Rights was established in 1946 by the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) pursuant to Article 68 of the UN Charter. The Commission was entrusted with the promotion of Human Rights and had jurisdiction over all Member States of the UN, whether or not they have ratified international human rights conventions.

When ECOSOC defined the Commission’s Statute, in Resolutions 5.1 and 9.2 (of 16 February 1946 and 21 June 1946, respectively), it included the protection of human rights in addition to the promotion mandate of the Commission.

On 15 March 2006, as part of the reform of the United Nations system, the General Assembly adopted Resolution 60/251 establishing a Human Rights Council (HRC) in replacement of the former Commission on Human Rights. The purpose of this reform was to reinforce the authority and the reliability of the action of the United Nations with regard to human rights, while preventing the new organ from becoming too politicized.

Composition and Structure of the Human Rights Council

Contrarily to the Commission, which was dependent on the ECOSOC, the Human Rights Council is a subsidiary organ of the General Assembly. Members of the Commission and of the current Human Rights Council are not independent experts but diplomats, despite the modification of the designation mode.

ECOSOC used to select fifty-four States members of the former Commission. Each selected State then nominated its representative after consultation with the UN Secretary-General. The present Council consists of forty-seven Member States, which are elected directly and individually by secret ballot by the majority of the members of the General Assembly. The membership is based on equitable geographical distribution, and seats are distributed as follows among regional groups: African Group, thirteen; Asian Group, thirteen; Eastern European Group, six; Latin American and Caribbean Group, eight; and Western European and Others Group, seven. The members of the Council shall serve for a period of three years and shall not be eligible for immediate reelection after two consecutive terms. Finally, the General Assembly, by a two-thirds majority of the members present and voting, may suspend the rights of membership in the Council of a member of the Council that commits gross and systematic violations of human rights. The Council used this new prerogative for the first time in March 2011, when it suspended Libya’s rights of membership following the human rights violations perpetrated by the Kaddafi regime against its protestors.

Contrary to the Commission, which held a yearly session, the Human Rights Council meets regularly throughout the year and schedules not fewer than three sessions per year. Usually, it meets for one three-week session in May and September and for one four-week session in March. Besides, if one third of the Member States so request, the Council can meet for special sessions in order to discuss human rights issues that require the urgent attention of the Council. It did fourteen times since 2006, for example in February 2011 to discuss the human rights situation in the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya or in June 2012 to discuss the deteriorating human rights situation in the Syrian Arab Republic.

The former Commission had the authority to create subsidiary organs. In 1947, it created an expert advisory mechanism, the Sub-commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities. In 1999, ECOSOC renamed this body the UN Sub-commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights. This Sub-commission, which consisted of twenty-six members, has been replaced by the Human Rights Council Advisory Committee, which consists of eighteen members elected in secret ballot by the Council on the basis of equitable geographic distribution (African States: five; Asian States: five; Eastern European States: two; Latin American and Caribbean States: three; Western European and other States: three).

The Advisory Committee works as a think tank for the Council and participates in the reviewing of individual communications concerning human rights violations under the special procedures. Nonetheless, it cannot give advice on issues that do not pertain to the mandate of the Council and does not have the mandate to adopt resolutions, but it may propose recommendations and propositions, notably research proposals.

While the Sub-commission met only once a year, the Advisory Committee can convene up to two sessions for a maximum of ten working days per year. The Committee held its first session in Geneva from 4 to 15 August 2008. From August 2008 to August 2013, it has held eleven sessions.

Member States and observers, including States that are not members of the Council, UN specialized agencies, other intergovernmental organizations, and national human rights institutions, as well as nongovernmental organizations, can participate in the work of the Advisory Committee, on a different basis, including Economic and Social Council Resolution 1996/31 and former practices.

All NGOs can refer matters to the Council, but only those that have consultative status recognized by ECOSOC can participate in the Council and Advisory Committees’ sessions, as observers. They can make written and oral presentations.

Mandate of the Human Rights Council

The mandate of the Council remains similar to the mandate of the previous Commission, and the system of special procedures is maintained. Moreover, new procedures have been created.

Human Rights Promotion

The Council’s main vocation is the formulation of international legal texts. The Commission was originally created to draft an international Bill of Rights and is thus at the origin of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the two 1966 International Covenants, on Civil and Political Rights and on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights. Currently, the Council is, inter alia, thinking about the possibility to elaborate an international regulatory framework that would regulate, monitor, and oversee the activities of private military and security companies. Moreover, the Advisory Committee has drafted a United Declaration on Human Rights Education and Training. The Council also elaborated an Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child that provides a communications procedure from NGOs or individuals complementary to the State reporting procedure under the Convention. This Optional Protocol was opened to signature on 28 February 2012 and entered into force on 14 February 2014.

The Council’s mandate therefore includes carrying out studies, making recommendations, and preparing drafts of human rights conventions. It also develops technical assistance programs by nominating independent experts to carry out country studies on legal issues and to suggest means of assistance.

Human Rights Protection

From 1946 to 1967, the Commission did not really respond to human rights violations, mainly because it lacked the mechanisms to do so. The mandate of the Commission was broadened in 1967 and 1970, when ECOSOC adopted Resolutions 1235 (6 June 1967) and 1503 (27 May 1970), which established two special procedures (known under the names of the resolutions that adopted them) to examine human rights situations. The philosophy of the Commission was not to sanction any State or try to obtain reparation for violations committed, but rather to put international pressure on the governments concerned during the examination of the human rights situations in their countries.

These procedures were transformed when the Council was created in 2006, and new procedures have been created. Indeed, one year after its first meeting, on 18 June 2007, the Human Rights Council adopted its “Institution-Building Package,” a resolution that explains the mandates, procedures, and organs of the Council, namely the Universal Periodic Review Mechanism, the Special Procedures Mechanism, the Human Rights Advisory Committee, and the Complaint Procedure, as well as provides the Rules and Procedures of the Council.

The Complaint Procedure

This 1503 procedure, established by Resolution 1503 of 27 May 1970, has served as a basis for the establishment of the new Complaint Procedure established pursuant to the creation of the Council. This new procedure has a similar mandate to the previous one, which is to address communications that reveal consistent patterns of gross violations of all human rights and fundamental freedoms.

In order to address those allegations of human rights violations, two working groups have been established, the Working Group on Communications and the Working Group on Situations, with the mandate to examine the communications and to bring to the attention of the Council consistent patterns of gross and reliably attested violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms.

The Working Group on Communications (WGC) is designated by the Advisory Committee from among its members for a period of three years and consists of five independent experts who are geographically representative of the five regional groups. The Working Group meets twice a year for a period of five working days to assess the admissibility and merits of a communication. Indeed, for a communication to be admissible, some criteria must be met: it must not be driven by political motivations, it must not be anonymous or abusive, all available means at the national level must have been resorted to and exhausted, and the situation must not be being dealt with under other international procedures. When assessing the admissibility of a communication, the information is anonymously given to the State concerned to enable it to respond. This confidentiality is paramount in order to preserve the security of the victims and the author of the communication. Nonetheless, this is not an absolute guarantee of anonymity.

All admissible communications and recommendations, which come for the most part from NGOs, are thereon transmitted to the Working Group on Situations.

The Working Group on Situations (WGS) consists of five members appointed by the regional groups from among the Member States of the Council for a period of one year. It meets twice a year for a period of five working days in order to examine the communications transferred to it by the Working Group on Communications, including the replies of States, as well as the situations that the Council is already seized of under the complaint procedure. The Working Group on Situations, on the basis of the information and recommendations provided by the Working Group on Communications, presents the Council with a report on consistent patterns of gross and reliably attested violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms and makes recommendations to the Council on the course of action that could be taken.

Subsequently, the Council takes decisions concerning each situation brought to its attention. Four possible options are open to the Council; it can decide to (1) suspend the review of the situation, (2) keep the situation under review and request the State concerned to provide further information, (3) appoint an independent expert to monitor the situation and report back to the Council, or (4) if the State shows a lack of goodwill and the violations are serious, the Council may render the situation public.

Communications under this procedure may be submitted by individuals or groups at the following address: .

Universal Periodic Review (UPR)

Among the main changes is the creation of the Universal Periodic Review, a mechanism that assesses on a four-year basis the human rights situations in all 193 UN Member States.

The UPR is a State-driven process that gives the opportunity for States to expose the legislative measures and actions they have taken to improve the human rights situations in their countries and to fulfill their human rights obligations.

Every four years, all UN Member States and Observer States are reviewed; the order of the countries is decided on the basis of equitable geographic distribution.

The review of each State is based on several documents:

  • Information prepared by the State concerned, usually in the form of a national report.
  • A compilation prepared by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights of the information contained in the reports of treaty bodies (Expert Committees); special procedures (Special Rapporteurs and Working Groups), including observations and comments by the State concerned; and other relevant official United Nations documents, notably from UNICEF.
  • Additional, credible, and reliable information provided by other relevant stakeholders: other international organizations, non-governmental organizations, national human rights institutions, and the like.

The review is conducted in a working group chaired by the president of the Council and in the presence of the forty-seven Member States of the Council. Each Member State decides on the composition of its delegation and is assisted by a group of three States, known as “troikas,” which serve as Rapporteurs. The selection of troikas for each State is done through a drawing of lots following elections for the Council membership in the General Assembly. All Member States, even Observer States, can participate in the review, including in the interactive dialogue that takes place after the exposé by the State under review of its report. Other observers, such as international organizations or nongovernmental organizations, can also attend the review. The duration of the review is approximately three hours for each country. Ultimately, the Council adopts an outcome of the review, which is a report consisting of a summary of the proceedings of the review process, conclusions and recommendations, and the voluntary commitments of the State concerned. This outcome document, as a cooperative mechanism, should be implemented primarily by the State concerned and, as appropriate, by other relevant stakeholders, although States are sometimes reluctant to implement the recommendations.

ChildrenCommittee against TortureCommittee on Economic, Social, and Cultural RightsCommittee on the Elimination of Discrimination against WomenCommittee on the Elimination of Racial DiscriminationCommittee on the Rights of the ChildDiscriminationHuman rightsHuman Rights CommitteeIndividual recourseWomen

Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR)

52 rue Paquis

1202 Geneva, Switzerland

Tel.: (41) 22 917 92 39

Fax: (41) 22 917 90 12

@ http://

For Additional Information: Bassiouni, M. Cherif, and William A. Schabas. New Challenges for the UN Human Rights Machinery . Cambridge: Intersentia, 2011.

Mertus, Julie. The United Nations and Human Rights: A Guide for a New Era . 2nd ed. London: Routledge, 2009.

Ramcharan, Bertrand. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law . Program on Humanitarian Policy and Conflict Research. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University, 2005. Available at .

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