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Human Rights Council

The Human Rights Council was established by the UN General Assembly on March 15, 2006 to replace the  Commission on Human Rights. Since its establishment, the Council has served as the primary global intergovernmental human rights body. According to the UN resolution establishing the Human Rights Council, the Council’s responsibilities include:

  • Promoting universal respect for the protection of all human rights and fundamental freedoms for all, without discrimination of any kind and in a fair and equal manner;
  • Addressing gross and systemic violations of human rights; and
  • Promoting the effective coordination and mainstreaming of human rights within the UN system.

One of the Human Rights Council’s functions is to coordinate the work of independent human rights experts, known as the UN special procedures, appointed to examine thematic or country-specific human rights issues. In addition, the Council conducts the Universal Periodic Review, a recurrent review of each UN member state’s implementation of its human rights obligations. The Human Rights Council holds three regular sessions per year, in March, June, and September. Special sessions can also be held at any time to address human rights emergencies at the request of one third of the member states.

The Human Rights Council is composed of 47 member states. Seats are allotted to achieve equitable geographic distribution, with 13 seats reserved for African states, 13 seats for Asia-Pacific states, eight seats for Latin American and Caribbean states, seven seats for Western European and other states (which include Canada, Australia, and the United States), and six seats for Eastern European States.

Within these allotments, members of the Council are selected by the General Assembly through secret ballot. Members serve for a period of three years and are not eligible for immediate re-election after serving two consecutive terms. In voting for members of the Council, states are instructed to consider the candidates’ contribution to the promotion of human rights, as well as their voluntary pledges and commitments. According to the establishing resolution, members elected and serving on the Council “shall uphold the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights and cooperate fully with its mechanisms.” In fact, a state’s membership may be suspended if a two-thirds majority of Council members finds that a state commits gross and systematic violations of human rights while serving as a Council member.

China was most recently elected to the Human Rights Council in 2013, and will serve until 2016. For its candidacy, China presented the following voluntary pledges:

  • to exert efforts to improve the livelihood of its people, ensuring their economic, social, and cultural rights;
  • to continue to strengthen the development of democracy and the rule of law, improve institutions for democracy, push forward the reform of the judicial system, and further protect civil and political rights;
  • to further protect the rights and interests of minority ethnic groups, women, children, and persons with disabilities; and
  • to continue to take an active part in the work of the Human Rights Council and the Social, Humanitarian and Cultural Affairs Committee of the General Assembly (commonly referred to as the Third Committee), and encourage the United Nations human rights agencies to deal with human rights issues in a fair, objective, and non-selective manner.

Related Resources
  • (Video) “What is the Human Rights Council?”: EN
  • Webpage by Universal Rights Group on China’s Human Rights Council engagement: EN