Background Briefing

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Country Situations

The Justification for Country Resolutions

The introduction of the Universal Periodic Review paves the way for a more comprehensive assessment of the human rights performance of all U.N. member states. However, the Council will need to retain an effective tool in cases of gross, systematic, and/or sudden and severe violations of human rights.

Adoption of a country resolution by the Commission on Human Rights and now by the HRC is the most definitive method developed by the international community to call attention to the violation of human rights by a government. Such resolutions have usually been part a cumulative process of heightening scrutiny within a combination of multilateral pressures on a state to improve its human rights performance. In some cases, country resolutions have helped forge an international consensus that the government in question violates human rights, given legitimacy and protection to beleaguered national human rights activists, and focused on particular steps that the government needs to take to satisfy the international community. (This last impact could be enhanced if country resolutions established “benchmarks” by which a government’s performance could be judged in subsequent sessions.) This has been exemplified in the past, including in the early days of the CHR’s scrutiny of country situations, notably in the cases of Chile, South Africa, Guatemala, Argentina, Turkmenistan, and Myanmar.

The failure of the CHR to address urgent country situations sends a powerful message to governments that they can violate human rights with impunity. The failure to adopt resolutions on Iraq in 1988 and 1989, Chechnya in 2002, 2003, and 2004, Darfur in 2004, and Uzbekistan in 2005 emboldened human rights violators, undermined overall efforts by the international community to effectively address human rights violations in these countries, and profoundly discredited the Commission.

Resolutions addressing violations of human rights in specific countries must thus remain a central aspect of the new Human Rights Council’s work. Indeed, one of the few specifications for the new Council that was prescribed in the 2005 World Summit Outcome2 and reiterated in the resolution creating the new Council3 provides that “the Council should address situations of violations of human rights, including gross and systematic violations, and make recommendations thereon.” Suggestions to impose restrictions on country-specific resolutions, including a proposed two-thirds supermajority requirement, were firmly rejected by member states in the negotiations and were not included in the final resolution.

The old system of “Item 9” resolutions (“Question of the violation of human rights and fundamental freedoms in any part of the world”) and “Item 19” resolutions (“Advisory services and technical cooperation in the field of human rights”) should be replaced by one agenda item, entitled “country situations.” All country situations should be addressed under this single agenda item. Establishing a separate agenda item for any one country would smack of the politicization and selectivity criticized by many member states during the negotiations.

While the system of examining country situations has been rightly criticized in the past for over-politicization, the new composition and ethos of the HRC, plus the existence of the UPR, should go some way towards diminishing this. All states should thus retain the right to sponsor country-specific resolutions at such time and manner as they deem appropriate, but the more frequent meeting schedule and the universal review procedure expand the range of options available to the Council.

In some cases, the more frequent meeting schedule will allow member states sponsoring country-specific resolutions, and nongovernmental organizations supporting such resolutions, to initially address many situations through a resolution that makes recommendations to the government involved and may include the provision of capacity building services. If those recommendations are not implemented, however, and the state does not take other measures adequate to correct the human rights concerns identified in the resolution, the Council would need to move on to adopt stronger resolutions addressing the situation.

The Interplay between UPR and Country Resolutions

Some states view UPR as a substitute for country-specific resolutions. It may be in some instances, but not in many others. The amount of time before the next scheduled periodic review, and the urgency and gravity of the human rights situation in a country, will be factors for Council members to consider in deciding whether to adopt a country-specific resolution or await the next periodic review.

Further, peer review assumes good faith on the part of the government under review in complying with treaty obligations and other human rights commitments voluntarily assumed. Such peer review without the possibility of a country resolution is inadequate in cases in which violations are the result, as they often are, of willful government misconduct. Indications of bad faith by the government involved—e.g. deliberate governmental misconduct that violates human rights, or a refusal to implement Council resolutions—will augur for the adoption of a country-specific resolution.

Finally, the periodic review process may itself demonstrate the need for a country-specific resolution, either because the government involved has not implemented the recommendations of the review or otherwise improved the human rights issues identified, or because deliberate governmental misconduct is identified in the review.

Country-Specific Mandates

The CHR system of creating country-specific mandates (“special representatives,” “special rapporteurs,” and “experts”) allowed it to maintain an ongoing scrutiny of situations of concern. The rapporteur system, in particular, permits greater possibilities for monitoring progress, setting benchmarks, engaging in dialogue with the government, and evaluating the implementation of recommendations.

Where there is a country rapporteur, he or she could also serve as the session rapporteur for the UPR of that country.

In some particularly grave situations, having a country rapporteur undertake one or two missions of a couple of weeks duration each year is manifestly inadequate to deal with abuses, and consideration might be given to full-time rapporteurs as well as the greater use of in-country human rights offices to monitor and report on abuses. Such offices, in places such as Cambodia, Colombia, and Nepal, have made important contributions to the protection and promotion of human rights.

With three sessions a year, the HRC should have the opportunity to establish more in- depth briefings and interactive dialogues with the special rapporteurs to enable more serious consideration and more careful responses to the problems identified.

In country situations that are also on the agenda of the Security Council, more systematic arrangements should be put in place to ensure briefings of the Security Council by the special rapporteurs since human rights problems so often lay at the heart of the peace and security questions being considered.

Convening Additional or Emergency Sessions

A prime feature of the new Council is its ability to address serious human rights situations more expeditiously, both because it will meet at least three times a year, and because special or emergency sessions must be called on the request of only one-third of the membership. Inherent in the concept of the “responsibility to protect,” which has recently been endorsed by both the General Assembly and the Security Council, is the need for an early response to deteriorating human rights situations before they become grave enough to warrant more extreme measures by the international community.

It is vital that the Council make use of this element of the resolution in a principled and objective way. Addressing human rights crises or deteriorating human rights situations in a timely fashion is an essential measure that can both save lives and prevent the worsening of political crises that so often occurs when unchecked human rights violations and ongoing impunity lead to downward spirals of violence and abuse.

Examples of recent human rights situations that demanded an urgent and effective response from the international community and which would provide extremely strong reasons for convening an additional emergency session by the HRC include the escalating violence in Darfur in 2004, the Andijan massacre in Uzbekistan in May 2005 and its fallout, and the wide scale forced evictions in Zimbabwe in 2005.

[2] General Assembly resolution 60/1, para. 159.

[3] General Assembly resolution 60/251, para. 3.

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