The year 2011 marked a substantial step forward in the work of the UN for the advancement of human rights. For the first time since its inception in 2006, the UN Human Rights Council embraced a much more active role responding to many human rights issues of the day. It called for special sessions on Libya and Syria to implement bold steps in response to human rights crises; It appointed a new Special Rapporteur to Iran and established a Commission of Inquiry and an Independent Expert to Cote d’Ivoire; It incorporated new, controversial norms into its agenda, such as sexual orientation and gender identity, and elected its first female president, Ambassador Dupuy Lasserre of Uruguay.

The Council’s overall satisfactory performance in 2011 is the result of a more positive engagement of its members States and the unrelenting efforts of civil society organisations. States have started working collaboratively and the Council’s detrimental ‘group’ dynamic, that sees groups of States joining forces to block resolutions, is dwindling. This has had remarkably encouraging effects on addressing selected country situations.  Following this trend, Human Rights Council member States can, and must, do more to show promptness and cohesiveness in tackling human rights violations in specific countries as soon as they occur.

The Council’s action onLibyawas the first of several steps in response to human rights crises across the globe as it adopted a hard-hitting resolution recommending the suspension ofLibyafrom the Council. The HRC equally did not shy away from taking action on the situation in theSyrianArabRepublic. In the second half of 2011, however, progress in addressing country specific mandates relented. At its September session the Council failed to establish an independent international investigation onYemen. Similarly feeble were the resolutions it adopted onBurundi,Sudan, andSouth Sudan. In general, the failure to discuss forceful suppression of peaceful demonstrations inBahrainand to take action, yet again, onSri Lankaremains a serious flaw in the Council’s performance.

2011 marked the end of the first cycle of the Universal Periodic Review (UPR), a non-political mechanism that scrutinizes all States at the same level: a great majority of States shows serious commitment to improving their human rights record in view of the next cycle to begin in May 2012. The UPR has contributed to levelling out differences amongst member States and addressing double standards. It has had a positive effect on convincing all member States of the necessity to fully engage with all UN human rights mechanisms, and has added credibility and impartiality to the work of the Council on which it is now crucial to build.

A more balanced approach to the situation in theMiddle Eastwould further increase the Council’s credibility and effectiveness in tackling country situations. While fully acknowledging the merits of the Palestinian plight, the disproportionate attention that continues to be paid to the situation in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories with an agenda item still fully dedicated to discussing this topic, and over 20 resolutions adopted in the last three years on this topic alone is detrimental to the balanced approach the Council should have in considering human rights violations in all countries where they occur.

States active within the Council must commit fully to their responsibility to address and prevent violations as well as to respond promptly to crisis situations. They must be objective in their assessment and leave aside political interests and machinations. Preventing human rights violations should not be used as a bargaining tool but felt as a high call by all States elected to the Council.

Improvement in the performance of the Council is largely due to the painstaking advocacy work of civil society organisations in approaching member States and facilitating positive contributions and engagement in discussions and negotiations. By highlighting needs, contributing to developing international human rights standards and ensuring that they are fully realized, civil society has become a driving force in pushing forward the human rights agenda.

Civil society organisations are a transformative agent in the global human rights movement. They advocate and scrutinize  implementation of human rights, campaign for the development of new human rights standards, share information, assist victims of human rights abuses, and report violations. Amongst these organisations are a great number of United Nations Associations (UNAs) affiliated to the World Federation of United Nations Associations (WFUNA), a global non-profit organisation working for a stronger and more effective United Nations. These organisations constantly strive for justice and equality for all and work alongside the United Nations to ensure implementation of human rights standards by bringing the UN and its mission a step closer to the peoples it serves.  Their advocacy ensures that human rights issues are kept on the agenda and that their governments contribute positively in negotiations at the UN. They follow up on decisions taken in international forums and work to ensure that they are translated on the ground in national laws and policies. They inform citizens and raise awareness about important human rights issues at the national level and abroad.

Continued support to civil society organisations is crucial to the advancement of human rights worldwide. Efforts, both at the national and international level, must continue to ensure sustained productive outcomes in the work of the UN for human rights.  As the Council prepares for its main session in March 2012, the unrelenting engagement of civil society actors and governments alike will be crucial to ensure that the Human Rights Council’s output lives up to the standards we have experienced in the first half of 2011, allowing the United Nations to ceaselessly improve the provision of human rights for all.

This editorial is co-signed by:

Bonian Golmohammadi

Secretary-General of the World Federation of United Nations Associations, a global non-profit organization representing and coordinating a membership of over 100 national associations and their thousands of constituents.

  • Lucia Alberti, President, United Nations Association of Argentina
  • Axel Wustenhagen, Member of the Board, United Nations Association of Austria
  •  Koumba Hubert Aimé, President, United Nations Association of Gabon
  • Mihaly Simai, President, United Nations Association of Hungary
  • Suresh Srivastava, Secretary-General, Indian Federation of United Nations Associations
  • Yvonne Donders, Chair, United Nations Association of the Netherlands
  • Alexei Borisov, Vice-Chairman and Secretary-General, United Nations Association of Russia
  • Ambassador Sun Joun-yung, Vice-President & CEO, United Nations Association of the Republic of Korea
  • Fancy Nkhui, Secretary-General, United Nations Association of Tanzania
  • George Muwanguzi, President, United Nations Association of Uganda