United Nations

Briefing to the 59th Session of the UN Commission on Human Rights
February 27, 2003

Held in Geneva each year from mid-March until late April, the United Nations Commission on Human Rights (CHR) is the world's most important annual forum for discussing human rights issues. Members from fifty-three states hold discussions and adopt resolutions on various human rights issues such as civil and political rights regarding torture or summary execution; economic, social and cultural rights such as the right to development; and rights of women, children and displaced persons. In addition, the Commission examines human rights violations in various countries as well as thematic questions related to human rights issues. If the human rights situation in a given country is serious, the Commission may adopt a critical resolution and/or appoint an independent investigator known as a Special Rapporteur to investigate and report on violations. Special Rapporteurs and working groups have also been appointed to address cross-cutting thematic issues. Their reports, findings and recommendations are presented to the Commission and released publicly. The Commission also oversees the development of new international human rights standards, most recently the new Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture, before their submission the UN General Assembly for adoption.

The Commission is at a critical junction this year. Its effectiveness has been compromised by a large number of countries with poor human rights records that have joined the body to obstruct its proceedings. This issue was brought into sharp focus with the election of Libya as chair for the current session. Human Rights Watch has been at the forefront of calls for reform to strengthen the Commission, including the adoption of criteria for membership.

The so-called war against terrorism also poses a further test to the Commissionís credibility. In many countries, governments have curbed civil liberties or cracked down on opponents in the name of counter-terrorism. Other UN bodies, such as the UN Security Council, have failed to integrate human rights concerns into their counter-terrorism measures. Many governments have stopped criticizing human rights abuses by their allies in the fight against terrorism. This year, it will be essential that the Commission respond credibly to this trend by recommending the appointment of an expert to monitor, report and advise upon the protection of human rights in counter-terrorist measures.

The following briefing papers outline Human Rights Watch's priority concerns for the 59th Session of the Commission on Human Rights.