Why do human rights organization engage the UNHRC?

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Why do human rights organization engage the UNHRC?

To help start the conversation and keep the focus of this discussion thread, please consider and respond to the following questions:

  • What could UNHRC engagement add to your domestic advocacy? How does this tactic fit into an organization’s short term and long term strategy?
  • What are the anticipated outcomes of a successful UNHRC engagement?
  • What can the UNHRC do? What can’t they do?
  • What is realistic to expect?

Share your experiences, thoughts, ideas and questions by adding a comment below or replying to existing comments!

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Using an 'alternative' space - possibly use case

To get this going, let me describe some possible scenarios or use cases for the Human Rights Council, which should describe one of the reasons human rights defenders that we work with are using the Human Rights Council and the procedures and mechanisms it provides. 

  1. This relates typically to a situation where domestic means of accountability and redress fail, are ineffective, or have proven to be biased against human rights defenders. In such circumstances it can be useful for human rights defenders to rally around a different 'space', in this case the Human Rights Council, in order to strategise, speak out, shed light on violations committed or condoned by their State, etc. 
  2. A second scenario could arise where a government is susceptible to, or at least somewhat receptive to, international scrutiny and pressure. Engaging at the international level can push the government to initiate change, or at least to open avenues for a dialogue with national civil society.
  3. A further configuration could be where a government is receiving foreign aid, but has a negative human rights record. highlighting that human rights record at the interantional level can (not necessarily and maybe not very fast) lead to donors - both state and private - that are more aware and considerate of human rights policy. 

This is just a start - many more scenarios are possible - but let's get the conversation going. 

Best, Michael 

What the UNHRC has the mandate to do, according to the GA

Thanks for starting the conversation, Michael! Your comment makes a very important point - that part of the reason that human rights organizations engage the UNHRC is to shed light on violations commissioned by their State and to apply international pressure on the issue and actors back home.

I wanted to add some more detailed information on what the mandate of the UNHRC is (in what ways it can shed light and apply pressure) according to the United Nations General Assembly Resolution 60/251:

  1. Promote human rights education and learning as well as advisory services, technical assistance and capacity-building, to be provided in consultation with and with the consent of Member States concerned;
  2. Serve as a forum for dialogue on thematic issues on all human rights;
  3. Make recommendations to the General Assembly for the further development of international law in the field of human rights;
  4. Promote the full implementation of human rights obligations undertaken by States and follow-up to the goals and commitments related to the promotion and protection of human rights emanating from the United Nations conferences and summits;
  5. Undertake a universal periodic review, based on obvjective and reliable information, of the fulfilment by each State to its human rights obligations and commitments in a manner which ensures universality of coverage and equal treatment with respect to all States; the review shall be a cooperative mechanism based on interactive dialogue wiht the full involvement of the country concerned and with consideration given to its capacity-building needs; such a mechanisms shall complement and not duplicate the work of treaty bodies; the Council shall develop the modalities and necessary time allocation for the universal periodic review mechanism within one year after the holding of its first session;
  6. Contribute, through dialogue and cooperation, towards the prevention of human rights violations and respond promptly to human rights emergencies;
  7. Assume the role and responsibilities of the Commission on Human Rights relating to the work of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, as decided by the General Assembly in its resolution 48/141 of 20 Dec 1993;
  8. Work in close cooperation in the field of human rights with Governments, regional organizations, national human rights institutions and civil society;
  9. Make recommendations with regard to the promotion and protection of human rights;
  10. Submit an annual report to the General Assembly.

Do any of the above stand out as a way to help explain/support why human rights organization engage the UNHRC?

Kristin Antin - New Tactics Online Community Builder

Council as a forum for dialogue

Hi everyone,

I think it's interesting, reading through the mandate of the Human Rights Council which Kristin posted, how often the word 'dialogue' appears. The Council is supposed to serve as a 'forum for dialogue on thematic issues on all human rights' and futher, to 'contribute through dialogue and cooperation towards the prevention of human rights violations'. 

There is nothing here about intervening in situations of human rights violations, or condemning States that do not implement their human rights obligations. 

For a human rights defender considering engaging with the Human Rights Council, what purpose could such dialogue on a country or an issue of concern serve? 

Michael has indicated some possible results of such dialogue, in the 'shedding of light' on violations, creating 'international scrutiny and pressure', and providing a forum for informing States of the situations in countries that can in turn influence foreign policy. 

How could outcomes of this sort be leveraged to create change at the national level? 


International Service for Human Rights

Realism and responsibility of NGOs

Great to get this conversation started! In response to one of the questions set out in this discussion thread - what is realistic to expect - it is important to consider the internal dynamics of the council, what inevitably goes on behind closed doors within the negotiations between States, and how much NGOs are able to influence these sometimes wider political dynamics. Secondly, when in session the Council cover a wide range of topics within a short space of time, which means that a particular topic, theme or area will be moved on from quickly. In essence it is therefore vital to be realistic about your impact. 

 However, that said, as an NGO focusing on a neglected area within the global child rights agenda (street children), we have found that while taking the above (shortcomings?) into consideration, it is worthwhile engaging with the Council as an effective way to get an otherwise neglected issue back on the agenda, and then using the Council's outputs (reports, resolutions, discussion days) as an effective leverage for engaging States at a national level. Furthermore, we have found that it gives much smaller national and local based NGO ammunition and legitimacy for advocacy on the ground.  In essence it is vital for NGOs to also consider their own role and responsibility in how to utilise and leverage the outputs from the Council, to ensure that the perceived change in society we are looking for is achieved.  Happy Monday :-)  Louise MeinckeAdvocacy DirectorConsortium for Street Children

How do NGOs utilise and leverage the outputs from the HRC?

Great points, Louise! I really appreciate your point that it isn't just about getting the HRC to hear you out or comment on the issue you are working on...it's about using these outcomes in a strategic way - to build on these recommendations and comments made by the HRC to then engage actors on the national level. So really, this conversation should be about how to engage the HRC and utilize/leverage the outputs.

Please share a few concrete examples of how the Consortium for Street Children has utlized and leveraged the outputs from the HRC in our examples thread! We're eager to learn more from your experience. Thanks!

Kristin Antin - New Tactics Online Community Builder

It really is great to see the

It really is great to see the conversation starting and thank you all for very interesting insights. 

I would tend to agree with you all so as to why HR organisations engage with the Human Rights Council. Indeed, the HRC provides an alternative space within which Human Rights Defenders can expose their government human rights violations in order to shed a light on these issues and to attract international scrutiny on them. If the state is receptive and committed to have a good human rights record, this can have tremendous effect domestically as the government adjusts its behaviour. If not, it can provide human rights defenders with opportunities for advocacy at the international level. Talking to delegations present at the HRC, setting up advocacy meetings with OHCHR actors and international NGOs present can prove beneficial to prevent human rights violations from falling off the agenda and go unnoticed and forgotten. 

The documents produced by the Council can then be used by human rights defenders as advocacy tools internally. While they are not legally binding, HRC resolutions nevertheless constitute soft law and have a weight to them that can support internal advocacy efforts. 

It is however the truth that political dynamics play greatly within the HRC and that the institution itself has been accused of double standards on more than one occasion as all human rights situation are not dealt with in the same manner, so Louise is right to point out that outcomes can take a long time to appear and that can in truth be frustrating. However, it is through perseverance that issues get picked up. By lobbying even for a word to be added into a resolution, human rights organisations can influence the nature of it and its impact. It might not seem much, but it can indeed make all the difference. 

When you say Kristin that intervention when human rights violations arise is not mentioned, it is true that this mandate doesn't fall under the HRC, and this question is debatable in itself. However, the council can condemn through resolutions human rights violations. A good recent example of such condemnation is the HRC action on Syria (ex: http://www.ohchr.org/Documents/HRBodies/HRCouncil/RegularSession/Session...

It is also important to remember that engaging at the HRC also means engaging with its mechanisms, namely the Universal Periodic Review, where states human rights records are reviewed, and the special procedures of the HRC, which are mandates decided by the Council on certain thematics and/or issues. These mechanisms allow for human rights defenders to directly submit the information they have to international institutions, thus making sure that violations don't go unnoticed and that the international community is aware of ongoing violations and taking action, be it during reviews or under mandates. 

In a world where economic interests seem to be dictating policies and state behaviours, the HRC ensures that there is an international institution that is exclusively devoted to call states on their human rights records, and that, is in itself a very important tool. 


the non-derogable human rights of women and girls

I agree with what others have shared in getting the conversation going. I would state a more intimate reason as to why I have and am engaged in the HRC processes. It is to correct an absolute wrong. When a specific vulnerable group or population of persons and the human rights violation they survived have remained totally invisibilized and discriminated against this delivers the message that they, as persons, do not exist, that they are without equality, worth, dignity, and humanness. 

Challenging this reality became profoundly important to me and a colleague when 20 years ago a woman began disclosing classic torture victimization perpetrated by non-State actors that she had/was enduring in Canada. We were shocked to learn that in Canada only State actors were held criminally responsible for torture crimes, non-State actors had impunity as their acts of classic torture were reduced to assaults for example. Exploring the human rights literature soon revealed that the human right not to be subjected to torture had been co-opted by patriarchy. In other words, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights article 5 and other legally binding human rights treaties had negated to apply the non-derogable human right not to be subjected to torture universally. Torture victimization is recognized to be destructive to the humanness of the person tortured so to find that this dehumanization existed within the operationalization of human rights instruments was unacceptable. To attempt to right this wrong required engaging in activities of the HRC because the Government of Canada was simply ignoring or placating any correspondence sent to them asking that Canadian law be amended to hold torturers accountable regardless of whether they were State or non-State actors. Thus, HRC activities have been most important. Gaining access to these have included:

1. First, finding a fit with an NGO that would consider advocating for the rights of women and girls (for all peoples) not to be subjected to torture and that it be criminalized in Canada.

2. Achieving this then meant writing the following shadow report http://www2.ohchr.org/english/bodies/cat/docs/ngos/CFUW_Canada_CAT48.pdf which was submitted to the UN Committee against Torture.

3. This meant being willing to risk operationalizing and genderizing the Committee's General Comment No. 2  paragraph 18 in particular. If the Committee failed to be supportive this would have meant a very embedded gender-based discrimination at the highest of HR levels; this felt to my colleague and I to be a huge risk but one that needed taking.

4. The Committee was supportive. The Concluding Observations to Canada were a breakthrough, linked here: http://nonstatetorture.org/files/3313/4141/8179/GEARSharingBreakthroughs.pdf This breakthough has already been utilized by other NGOs, for example, a Spaish group translated this summary into Spanish to help their human rights efforts.

5. Meeting Government of Canada resistance to equality of the human right not to be subjected to torture regardless of who the torturer is requires more push so a colleague and I, as members of the NGO, will appear at the UPR session in April-May when Canada presents its human rights report. This is an opportunity to push for human rights equality nationally and globally. It is a forum that makes possible the push for national transparency. This would be impossible if not for the activities of the HRC.

So, this is why the HRC processes are important to me--they are essentail to ensure that when we state educating using a human rights framework that the framework is indeed embedded in gender-equality. Without the HRC processes exposing and making visible the women and girls (this is the mandate of the NGO of which I am a member to improve their status and HRs) who have survived classic torture by non-State actors in the so-called domestic or private sphere would not have been possible because the Government of Canada has the power to suppress such a crime which not only invisibilizes it but the women and girls and others who are so violated. 

Council vs CAT

Hi Jeanne, 

Just to clarify: you're main engagement was with the Committee against Torture (CAT) which is of course different from the Human Rights Council and is institutionally independent from it (and also from the universal periodic review (UPR) of the Human Rights Council). I think it's important to keep the two mechanisms appart - the treaty-based CAT on one hand, and the charter based Human Rights Council (or HRC - careful with the acronym, as that sometimes denotes the 'Human Rights Committee') on the other hand.  

I am drawing this distinction because that opens the possibility for human rights defenders to choose the most appropriate mechanism for the specific cause that they are engaged in - which I think is an interesting element of this thread of conversation. 

In very rough terms, if your issue is about legal change in a relatively well developed jurisdiction (as would be the case in Canada) and with a government that is at least partially open to change, engaging one of the 'quasi judicial' treaty bodies (CAT, in your example) makes a lot of sense. 

However, if your issue needs a higher level of political visibility, including at the international level, or where the legal system is already underdeveloped, it may make more sense to bring it to the Human Rights Council - composed of States, it will also deliver a more 'political' outcome. 

Using the HRC to strengthen the recommendations of UN experts

Hi Jeanne and Michael,

I agree with Michael that it is very important to differentiate the two mechanisms: the Committee against Torture (CAT), which is a "treaty body" (i.e. a body created by one of the core international human rights treaties and made of independent experts), and the UNHRC, which is an intergovernmental platform made of States, and therefore inherently political.

That said, in the case of my organisation, the NGO Group for the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which works and monitors very closely the Committee on the Rights of the Child (another "treaty body"), we have found it useful to make a link with the UNHRC, and especially with its Universal Periodic Review (see my post explaining this mechanism) to ensure that the recommendations that States receive from UN independent experts, don't get lost or forgotten when they are in a more political arena.

We, and our members and partners, found that this was a good way to ensure that the standards set by UN independent bodies don't get undermine at the UNHRC, but also to remind States of recommendations they already received and "mainstream" certain issues that may receive less attention otherwise.

For example, one of our partners works on the issue of birth registration in a well developed country: while the Committee on the Rights of the Child had already made recommendations on the issue, nothing seemed to have changed much. They achieved a very successful advocacy campaign targeting the Universal Periodic Review of the UNHRC and got this issue raised several times: this helped in putting it on top of the child rights agenda of that country and starting a discussion amongst national authorities.

So in a nutshell, I agree that it is very important to distinguish and understand the differences between those two UN mechanisms (treaty bodies vs. UNHRC). But for NGOs who already work with treaty bodies, one of the reasons to engage with the UNHRC could be to strengthen the outcomes they get from treaty bodies, by getting similar ones at the UNHRC - as for some States, political commitments undertaken before their peers can be much stronger than recommendations received from UN independent experts!


The council is political - so take advantage of that!

Thank you Jeanne, Michael and Anita, for this very helpful exchange on the differences between UN treaty bodies and the United Nations Human Rights Council! Anita, I think this is a really important point, from your comment above, about how human rights NGOs could strategically use the UNHRC:

But for NGOs who already work with treaty bodies, one of the reasons to engage with the UNHRC could be to strengthen the outcomes they get from treaty bodies, by getting similar ones at the UNHRC - as for some States, political commitments undertaken before their peers can be much stronger than recommendations received from UN independent experts!

It is really important for human rights NGOs to know that the UNHRC "is an intergovernmental platform made of States, and therefore inherently political." ...and that this is neither a good thing or a bad thing - it all depends on your goal and how you utilize this platform.

And somewhat unrelated to this...I just wanted to expand on Michael's point above about the acronym "HRC" and how that can be confusing. Let me know if I have this wrong:

The UN Human Rights Committee is treaty-based, and is the body of experts that considers reports from States that are members of the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).

Whereas, the UN Human Rights Council is charter-based and is an intergovernmental platform made of States that are members of the UN.

It is the latter that we are focusing on for this online conversation.

Utilizing UNHRC and treaty bodies, together

Sorry for the delay in responding to the emails sent by Michael, Anita and Kantin. For some 'weird' reason I am not able to gain access to the conversation account so will look into this my server later so am emailing this response to Kristin who has agreed to put it on for me.

To continue on the vein that I was speaking of in my first response, I understand that I was speaking of a treaty body involvement but there is a 'marriage' between the Human Rights Council and the work of treaty bodies in my opinion. For example, when reading about the UPR process it states the NGOs need to consider their written submissions to be based on (1) the UN Charter, (2) the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and (3) treaty body works. I mentioned the CAT Committee for this very reason. By going to them to push for the genderization of the Convention against Torture and to operationalize their General Comments No. 2, paragraph 18, support was gained that stated to Canada that gender-based manifestations of torture by non-State actors need to be included in national laws.

Previous to this 2012 Concluding Observations by the Committee, as a member of another NGO a colleague and I had gone, in 2008, to the CEDAW Committee asking for their support to recognize torture perpetrated by non-State actors as a violation of CEDAW General Recommendation 19, 7(b). It states no on shall be subjected to torture.

When the CEDAW Committee presented their report to Canada they excluded mentioning the women who reported non-State torture victimization but addressed the concerns of all other groups. This was discrimination at the highest level. So, if making an UPR report to the Human Rights Counsel based on this CEDAW report we would have had the weight of treaty body discrimination which I suggest would probably have negated gaining other States parties political support.

However, going to the Human Rights Council with the supportive outcome of the CAT Committee meets the standards of addressing the UN Charter and human equality between women and men, it meets the standard of referring to Article 5 in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which states no one shall be subjected to torture, as well as human rights equality, dignity, and worth of women to men. I suggest having the weight of the support of the treaty body, of the UN Committee against Torture provides political leverage and meets the UPR process re involvement of treaty body reports which Kantin made reference to.

- Jeanne Sarson

Why engage with the HRC?

Greetings, all. Before turning to"Why engage with the HRC?" I will first just give you a 1-minute intro to the organization I work for, the International Disability Alliance (IDA). IDA is a global umbrella organization of organizations of persons with disabilities, representing persons with disabilities. With others, it was actively involved in the negotiations and drafting of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Now IDA works to promote the rights of persons with disabilites at the UN and in relevant mechanisms.That should give you more of an idea about who we are and what we are working for.

Why engage with the HRC? To keep it basic- to change the situation of persons with disabilities, to increase enjoyment of persons with disabilites' rights, to make sure persons with disabilities are included where previously excluded, to right wrongs (as said above), to work to reduce and eliminate discrimination, to visibilize the issues (which have mostly been totally invisible in the human rights mechanisms so far) and ask for relevant changes.

To do this at the Council does mean looking at the mandate of the Council, its agenda, seeing where it is possible to engage with the resources that you and your organization have. It's helpful to look at GA resolution 60/251 and also HRC resolution 5/1 to get a sense of the agenda. (Extremely broad.)

What could engaging at the Council add to your domestic advocacy? I think one of the major benefits of the Council is the ability to address multi stakeholders at once and also to advocate for changes on issues that have maybe been neglected, not well understood or that have not met with success after  national advocacy efforts. The mechanisms available at the Council are like tools among other tools available.

Multiple tools!

Hi Ellen, 

Great comment, thanks. 

I particularly liked your point about the mulit-stakeholder advocacy that engaging at the Council makes possible. 

Human rights change must happen at the national and even local level (in small places to quote Eleanor Roosevelt) - and I think this is what is most often forgotten at the Human Rights Council (including by international NGO reps). So that change will always need to engage all relevant actors, and if one 'add' the Human Rights Council to the toolbox, that cannot happen at the detriment of engaging all the other actors too, which could include:

  • national policy makers,
  • media,
  • judiciary,
  • legislature,
  • executive,
  • national human rights institution (NHRI),
  • national civil society,
  • third-country representations at the national level,
  • possibly a regional human rights system where it exists

and only at a last level, to amplyfy the pre-existing n ational change-agenda can the Human Rights Council add value (although, as I said in my initial post, I think there are occasions where the national space for NGOs to operate is so severely restricted that the point of having to take the issue to the international level comes earlier, if that makes sense (for instance, until a very recent opening of some space, this was the case in Burma).

In each situation the mix of tools and tactics will be different.

If you read this wondering if your scenario would benefit from Human Rights Council engagement, feel free to post this as a question in the other forum on 'how you know which mechanism to use'


Human Rights Council from below

Hi everyone,

I would like to pick up on the comment about the local level.

I am a researcher from the University of Antwerp and particularly interested in this online conversation because I form part of a large project on - what we call-  'users' trajectories' in human rights law. The project wants to research how rightsholders navigate through the complex architecture of human rights law and is set against the backdrop of 'localising human rights' (or how to make human rights more locally relevant).

There are five case studies in this project and my case study (the Human Rights Council from Below) in particular wants to investigate the functioning of the HRC from a users perspective. With users we mean the rightsholders or relevant grassroots organisations. There are two objectives i) to map the existing channels through which local communities can get access; and ii) to investigate whether such input from below influences the normative work and/or functioning of the Council. Through meeting these objectives we want to address how relevant the HRC actually is at the local level. 

While the first objective is likely the easiest one to map the second objective is not. First of all, we do not know if there are any issues that made it from the grassrootslevel all the way up to the HRC. One of the issues might be the right to food sovereignty? Or did some of the thematic procedures came from below? Secondly, even if we identify such an issue it is hard to track down and demonstrate that this influenced the HRC in terms of agenda or normsetting (due to the often informal nature of the process).

So if anyone of you knows of (succesful or unsuccesful) examples of such user trajectories this would be greatly appreciated. 


Why engage the UNHRC

Human rights organizations engage the UNHRC for a variety of reasons .Massive human rights violations  in  large   group of people can result into  engagement of the UNHRC, for instance a million people  faced with eviction  from their natural environment ,  a million people is a large number and may warrant the attention of the UNHRC

The culture of impunity such that  violations  go on and on  without  reprieve  can result to engagement of the UNHRC inorder to  address a given problem in a given country

When local  structures especially the legislations  and the jucidiary fail to address a given human rights issue such that all local avenues have been explored and the issue has not been satisfactorily addressed  then the UNHRC can be  engaged

Thank you


Leonida Odongo


The engagement with UNHRC is crucially important for the developing countries including the countries are under transition like Nepal.The pressure and the advocacy through UNHRC can be supportive in the domestication of human rights and expanding human rights juriprudence.Moreover, the standards developed by the UNHRC plays very persuasive value in engaging Government and other relevant sectors twards the protection and promotion of human rights.

Share your experiences and lessons-learned!

Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this, Surya! Do you have any experience working with the UN Human Rights Council? It would be great to document your experiences and lessons-learned in this conversation so that other defenders can learn from them!


Kristin Antin - New Tactics Online Community Builder

How has OHCHR's closure affected human rights situation?

Hi Surya, 

Thank you for that assessment. I would be interested in knowing what the effect was, from your perspective, on the closing of the OHCHR presence in Nepal, and the (relative) silence of the Human Rights Council in this regard. 

From our perspective, sitting in Geneva, there was not a huge interest among diplomats to continue engagement with the government and on the human rights situation in Nepal. What has been your experience? Can you think about an outcome at the Human Rights Council, such as pressure/persuasion/etc that could usefully be played by the Human Rights Council? 

Thanks for any insights you can provide from the ground!


Thank you for participating in this conversation!

To all those who participated in this conversation,

This has been such an interesting conversation on how NGOs are engaging the UN Human Rights Council.  I can't thank you enough for creating such a great resource!  I especially want to thank Heather Collister and Michael Ineichen for helping to facilitate this dialogue and engaging their network of practitioners to participate.

I hope you found it helpful to reflect on your own experiences, exchange stories and examples of how NGOs are working with the UN Human Rights Council, and to share your challenges. I hope you all are taking away new ideas, resources, reflections and allies!

We will begin the process of writing a summary of the comments posted here. It will most likely take a few weeks and once we're finished, we'll post the summary on the front page of this dialogue. For those of you that added comments, I'll notify you by email when the summary is posted.

The conversation leaders committed to participate in this dialogue for these past 5 days. Although that commitment has come to end, you can still add comments until the summary is posted. So please feel free to continue to add your thoughts, reflections, resources and stories!

And finally, we'd appreciate your feedback on whether or not this experience has been helpful to you! Please take a moment to fill out this short survey to help us better understand the impact of these conversations.

Thank you!

Kristin Antin - New Tactics Online Community Builder

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