View of the Palais de Nations, the headquarters of the United Nations Office in Geneva and the UN Human Rights Council.

© 2011 Juliette de Rivero/Human Rights Watch

(Geneva) – The UN Human Rights Council should build on successes of the past year by continuing to improve its response to human rights violations around the world, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. Since July 2010, the Council has established international investigations on Libya, Syria, and Côte d’Ivoire, appointed an expert to investigate human rights in Iran, and spoken out after years of silence on human rights abuses in Belarus.

The 69-page report, “Keeping the Momentum: One Year in the Life of the UN Human Rights Council,”examines the Council’s work from July 2010 through June 2011, and describes some notable progress by the Council in its fifth year.

“The Human Rights Council has finally begun to live up to its mandate by taking quick action on human rights crises in places like Syria and Côte d’Ivoire,” said Juliette de Rivero, Geneva director at Human Rights Watch. “Now the key challenge is keeping the Council moving forward, and not backsliding.”

The report shows how individual states such as Argentina, Brazil, Chile, the Maldives, Mexico, the United States, and Zambia have played crucial roles in moving the Council forward. It also looks at how states such as China, Cuba, Egypt, Pakistan, and Russia have often sought to derail that progress. The report also discusses the Council’s shortcomings, including its ineffective and disproportionate focus on human rights violations in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, and its failure to respond adequately to human rights abuses in other places deserving of its attention, such as Afghanistan, Bahrain, and Sri Lanka.

The Council’s work was most effective when states worked together across regions to come up with initiatives aimed at advancing human rights, Human Rights Watch said. This helped to avoid polarization, and allowed the Council to focus on solutions rather than rivalries or opposing views of human rights. But some countries resisted attempts to make the Council respond more effectively to human rights violations in particular countries. A few states even categorically rejected efforts by the Council to address human rights violations when the countries in question objected to scrutiny.

“The Human Rights Council acted promptly and helpfully on several crises this past year,” de Rivero said. “The Council has come a long way, but it still needs to address many parts of the world where violations are being ignored.”

Human Rights Watch called on states recently elected to the Council, including Benin, Botswana, Costa Rica, India, Indonesia, Italy, Kuwait, and Peru to keep the momentum going. The new members will help determine whether the Council continues the largely positive path of this past year, or returns to a more complacent approach, where states that are the target of the Council’s attention have the ability to trump the Council’s engagement, no matter what the costs for human rights on the ground. At the same time, states that contributed to the Council’s progress last year need to recommit to making further improvements, Human Rights Watch said.

“The Human Rights Council’s new members could play a critical role in defining the Council’s legacy,” de Rivero said. “New members should join with those who contributed to recent successes to further the gains of the past year and address remaining shortcomings.”

The report examines ways to build on the Council’s recent progress to benefit of all those facing human rights abuse. Human Rights Watch challenges states to live up to the Council’s clear mandate: to promote and protect the human rights of people throughout the world.