This blog post was published under the 2015 to 2024 Conservative government

Julian Braithwaite

Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the UN and other international organisations in Geneva

12th September 2017 Geneva, Switzerland

The Power Of The Human Rights Council

The Human Rights Council of the United Nations is just a political forum, powerless to do anything to stop the worst human rights violations around the world.

This was the argument put to me at a briefing last week. We were discussing the session of the UN Human Rights Council that began on Monday. I was being asked what the Council would do about Burma, Burundi, Yemen and Syria, four man-made crises whose consequences for the millions of people caught up in them are plumbing new depths of human misery.

I explained that the Council would be addressing all four. On Burma, we would be hearing from the newly established UN Fact Finding Mission, where the UK would be raising the shocking events in Rakhine which have seen hundreds of thousands of Rohingya flee for their lives. On Burundi, we would be pressing for a tough resolution commensurate with the UN’s finding that crimes against humanity may have been committed there. On Yemen, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has repeated his call for an international inquiry in the wake of the ongoing conflict there, and the Dutch and the Arab Group both plan to run resolutions. And on Syria, we would be leading the Council’s 22nd resolution on the human rights situation there, responding to the UN Commission of Inquiry’s latest report.

But would any of this make a difference, I was asked. It is true that the Human Rights Council has no executive powers. It cannot impose sanctions or provide a mandate to intervene. It is not the Security Council. It can pass resolutions despite the opposition of the country concerned; and if it comes to a vote, those resolutions only need a majority of those voting to pass. That means that resolutions cannot be blocked by a country seeking to evade scrutiny, or by other countries who wish to protect themselves from such scrutiny in the future.

Typically, those country resolutions that go to a vote tend to be under Item 4 of the Council’s agenda, reserved for the most serious country situations. The Syria resolution, which established the Commission of Inquiry that reports twice a year, has always been contested. It was never going to get the support of the regime in Damascus or its allies on the Human Rights Council such as Russia, because the resolution makes clear that the regime itself was responsible for starting the conflict, and subsequently for carrying out widespread violations of human rights. But the passage of this resolution on Syria each session shows that the international community has not given up. The mandate it provides ensures that the UN bears witness to the crimes committed against the Syrian people and holds out the prospect that there will be accountability.

Yet on the whole it is better if a resolution passes by consensus, because it is more likely to be implemented. It means that the country concerned, or its allies and neighbours on the Council, have accepted the resolution. They will therefore be likely to support its recommendations, whether that is to set up some sort of domestic mechanism, or facilitate an international mission. This form of negotiated cooperation is one of the most important mechanisms that we have to bring human rights violations to an end, and those responsible to justice.

While the Yemen resolution did pass by consensus in the Council last year, it has nevertheless failed to prevent a further deterioration of the situation. The report just issued by the UN’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights states that the “minimal efforts towards accountability in the past year are wholly insufficient to respond to the gravity of violations and abuses continuing every day in Yemen.” Reaching agreement on a credible response, including one that leads to effective cooperation with the UN, is likely to be even harder this year.

While the Burma resolution that established the Fact Finding Mission in March passed by consensus, Burma dissociated itself from the resolution and has subsequently said it will not cooperate with the Mission. The goal now is to persuade Burma to change its position and take serious steps to address the rapidly escalating crisis, for the sake of the people who are being driven from their homes, and for the sake of Burma’s democratic transition itself.

Burundi is one of the greatest tests of the Council’s credibility this session. Here we have a member of the 47-strong Human Rights Council, elected by the UN General Assembly because it allegedly met the human rights criteria for membership, standing accused of possible crimes against humanity. If we are to see real change in Burundi, it will be particularly important for the African Group to support a tough response. We will be working closely with them.

Yes, the Human Rights Council has no executive powers. But it is not powerless. It has the unique authority that comes from being the world’s leading human rights forum. Like the UN itself it is far from perfect. But when its members come together they can wield substantial political pressure for change. Helping to bring that about is one of the UK’s most important responsibilities.

About Julian Braithwaite

Julian Braithwaite was appointed Her Majesty’s Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the United Nations and other international organisations in Geneva in April 2015. Julian was born in Rome, and has…

Julian Braithwaite was appointed Her Majesty’s
Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the United Nations and other international organisations in Geneva in April 2015.

Julian was born in Rome, and has degrees from Cambridge and Harvard universities, where he studied biochemistry, history and international relations.

He is married to Biljana Braithwaite and they have
two daughters, Anya (born 2000) and Katya (born 2004). He spent much of his career dealing with the crises in the former Yugoslavia and goes to Montenegro every summer.

Julian posts on the United Nations and the issues around globalisation, including human rights, the internet, global health, humanitarian crises and arms control.