Delegates listen to speeches during the 13th session of the Human Rights Council at the European headquarters of the United Nations in Geneva on March 1, 2010.

(Geneva) - By endorsing human rights monitoring in Burma, Guinea, and North Korea, the United Nations Human Rights Council took an important step to spotlight human rights violations in those countries, Human Rights Watch said today. The council supported the establishment of a UN human rights office in Guinea and extended the mandates of experts appointed to monitor the situations in Burma and North Korea.

"Taking action on the human rights situations in Guinea, Burma, and North Korea shows the council can be relevant in addressing both recent crises and longstanding human rights abuse," said Julie de Rivero, Geneva advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. "The determined effort of some states to make the council work has made a difference."

In its session that ended today, the council also pushed back efforts to initiate a process to draft a new legally binding document on racism and discrimination. Human rights groups had feared this initiative would be used to codify the concept of "defamation of religions," thus restricting the right to freedom of expression. Human Rights Watch and other groups had warned that such steps would actually weaken the global fight against discrimination on religious grounds. Instead, the council decided to continue to examine these questions in an ad hoc committee.

A recurring resolution on "defamation of religions" was adopted again this year, but by the smallest margin to date, with 20 states voting in favor, 17 against and 8 abstentions. This narrow margin signaled growing global opposition to a concept that would limit free expression, Human Rights Watch said.

"It is encouraging that more states are starting to stand up against initiatives that threaten to undermine human rights," de Rivero said. "Countries such as Zambia and Argentina that voted against the ‘defamation of religions' resolution are demonstrating positive leadership at the Human Rights Council."

The council's voting record on extending the human rights expert appointed to monitor rights violations in North Korea also reflected important gains, Human Rights Watch said. Brazil and Djibouti, both of which had previously abstained on this resolution, voted in favor of keeping North Korea under international scrutiny. North Korea refused to accept any of the recommendations put to it by UN member states during its recent review at the council and categorically rejected accusations of violations in the country and the extension of the mandate of the UN expert.

This session of the Human Rights Council had opened at the beginning of March, 2010, amid controversy over a request by the Organization of the Islamic Conference and African states to suppress the publication of a report on "secret detentions" prepared by several of the human rights experts appointed by the council. While the report was issued, the council did agree to defer its consideration to its next session, in June.

The session also included difficult negotiations about protection of human rights defenders, in which several states sought unsuccessfully to introduce amendments that would restrict work by human rights activists and groups.

The council also adopted a resolution to establish a committee of independent experts to monitor the progress of investigations into the Gaza conflict by Israel and the Palestinian authorities, as follow-up to the UN Fact-Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict (the Goldstone report). The committee of experts was instructed to report to the council in September 2010, while the secretary-general will report back to the General Assembly on the same topic this July.

The council's failure to take meaningful steps on many other human rights situations demanding its attention, such as Afghanistan and Somalia, demonstrates that the council still has a long way to go in fulfilling its mandate, Human Rights Watch said.

"The 2011 review of the Human Rights Council should focus on its ability to provide a meaningful response to victims of human rights abuses," de Rivero said. "This session shows that, on certain issues, committed states can surmount the politicization and polarization that has hindered its work. The real test will be whether that effort can be extended to all the areas of the world deserving of this body's attention."