The United Nations Human Rights Council: Issues for Congress

Publication Date: March 2009

Publisher: Library of Congress. Congressional Research Service


Research Area: Human rights; International relations



On March 15, 2006, the U.N. General Assembly passed a resolution replacing the Commission on Human Rights with a new Human Rights Council (the Council). The U.N. Secretariat and some governments, including the United States, view the establishment of the Council as a key component of comprehensive U.N. reform. The Council was designed to be an improvement over the Commission, which was widely criticized over the composition of its membership when perceived human rights abusers were elected as members. The General Assembly resolution creating the Council, among other things, increases the number of meetings per year; reduces the number of Council seats from 53 to 47; and introduces a "universal periodic review" by the Council to assess each Member State's fulfillment of its human rights obligations and commitments. Council members are elected to a three-year term by an absolute majority in the U.N. General Assembly.

One-hundred-and-seventy countries voted in favor of the resolution to create the Council. The United States was one of three countries to vote against the resolution, stating that the Council was no better than the Commission and that it lacked mechanisms for "maintaining credible membership." In addition, the Bush Administration decided the United States would not run in the first Council elections held in May 2006. Despite these initial concerns, the Administration has said it will continue to fund and support the work of the Council, and may consider running in the 2007 election depending upon the progress of the Council in the next year. Currently, the United States is an observer to the Council and has no voting rights, though it can submit proposals for vote at the request of any Council member.

The first meeting of the Council was held in Geneva, Switzerland, June 16 to 30, 2006, and participants addressed a mixture of substantive and procedural issues. All mandates and mechanisms from the Commission were extended for one year to prevent gaps between the work of the Council and the Commission. The Council also established working groups on the universal periodic review process and the review of existing mandates and mechanisms from the Commission.

The reaction of non-governmental organizations, human rights groups, and governments to the new Council can be described as cautiously optimistic. Some continue to question the election of perceived human rights abusers, such as China and Cuba, to the Council. However, most agree that the true worth and effectiveness of the Council will be determined by the progress made in its first year of work.

Congress has maintained an ongoing interest in the credibility and effectiveness of the Council in the context of both human rights and broader U.N. reform. Legislation has been proposed that would withhold Council funding if certain criteria are not met. Due to the nature of U.N. budget mechanisms, withholding Council funds would be a largely symbolic gesture and may have little or no effect on the Council's operational work. It is expected that congressional interest in this issue will continue to develop as the Council holds its first year of meetings and expected U.N. reform efforts move forward. This report will be updated as events occur.