Functioning of the Human Rights Council

The Human Rights Council is an intergovernmental body within the UN system and is based in Geneva. It aims at strengthening the promotion and protection of human rights in countries around the globe.

The Council is based on the UN Charter and reports to the UN General Assembly (GA) on an annual basis. It is composed of 47 member states. Seats are allocated following a geographical distribution – the UN regional groups: 13 seats for African states, 13 for Asian states, 8 for Latin American & Caribbean states, 7 for Western Europe & Other states, and 6 for Eastern European states. Member states are elected by secret ballot of the majority of GA members for a three years term and are not eligible for immediate re-election after two consecutive terms. Each year, one-third of the members are newly elected by the GA. When electing the members of the Council, the other states should take into account the contribution of candidates to the promotion and protection of human rights as well as their voluntary pledges and commitments made thereto. The GA, by a two-third majority of the members present and voting, may suspend the rights of membership in the Council of a member that commits gross and systemic violations of human rights.

Procedural and organizational matters of the Council are facilitated by the Bureau (or "Officers"). During debates its role remains limited as it intervenes mostly as a facilitator, member states being the main actors of the Council. The Bureau is composed of one president and four vice-presidents, each of them representing one of the five regional groups of the United Nations. The presidency rotates every year between the five regional groups. With this system, a representative of each regional group assumes the presidency once during a five years cycle. The five members of the Bureau are elected at the beginning of each annual cycle (in June) for a one year mandate.

The Council is a political body (as opposed to treaty bodies, which are established by specific human rights treaties). This follows from the fact that it is not composed of independent experts, but of member states.

Plenary sessions of the Human Rights Council

The Human Rights Council holds three plenary sessions every year, usually in March, June and September. Each one of these sessions follows a pre-established agenda structured along 10 items. This means that each and every session of the Council will discuss these 10 points.

In plenary sessions, there are three formats of debates:

  • General Debates (GD): A general debate is a relatively open format where a large range of topics related to the item under consideration can be discussed. All items except item 1 contain such a general debate.

  • Interactive Dialogues (ID): An Interactive Dialogue is a format that focuses on a report under consideration. This can for instance be a report of the High-Commissioner, of Special Procedures mandate holders or other reports. In this format, the number of speakers is typically limited, and all statements are required to refer to the report under consideration.
  • Panel Discussions: Panel discussions focus on a particular topic and are held on a one-off basis. They consist of a segment of three to four hours where a group of panellist presents their views on the topic to then interact with States and NGOs. Usually, they are held following the adoption of a resolution requesting that a panel on a given topic be held. The concept of a panel discussion as well as the composition of the panel is largely up to the states that have sponsored the resolution which has established the panel. Concept notes on panels to be held are available on the Extranet.

Speaking time arrangements vary according to the format of debates. For more information on speaking time arrangements, see NGO Participation.

During plenary sessions, state delegations prepare resolutions which the Council acts upon during the last days of the session. Negotiations regarding resolutions take place in a very informal way - sometimes even in the middle of the corridor. So-called informal consultations are also organised in the process of drafting a resolution. Informal consultations are meetings where the state sponsoring a resolution seeks inputs into the text it is going to present. Informal consultations are usually open to interested NGOs and are announced in the calendar of side events. A number of resolutions recur in regular intervals with a different focus, but usually sponsored by the same state or regional group. These resolutions are called traditional resolutions or initiatives and build on the texts that have previously been adopted. A voluntary calendar of thematic resolutions lists which resolutions are scheduled to be passed when. A list of resolutions tabled - meaning the ones that have been handed to the secretariat once they are ready for action - for each session is published towards the middle of a session on the Extranet (click on the session, then on "resolutions"). Once the Council has acted upon the proposed resolutions at the end of the session, this list also provides details of the voting process as well as statements that states may have made regarding their vote.

Special sessions of the Human Rights Council

Special sessions are not planned for in the annual calendar of the Council. They take place when a state’s proposition to hold a special session is supported by at least one-third of the member states of the Council. Special sessions focus on specific situations that can lead to gross violations of human rights. These specific situations can be related to events occurring in a specific country (or region within a country), as well as to topics that affect human rights around the world. Such thematic special sessions have in the past for instance focused on the right to food or on the global economic and financial crisis. Yet a vast majority of special sessions deal with specific country situations.

Documentation for all special sessions can be found here.

Universal Periodic Review (UPR)

The Universal Periodic Review is a mechanism of the Human Rights Council through which States examine their peers with regard to their human rights records. Within the UPR, all UN member States are subject to review. The working group on the UPR is composed of all member states of the Council and meets three times a year for two weeks. During any given session of the working group, 14 states are examined (3h30 per state under review). The outcome of this review is then transmitted to the Council, where it is finally adopted during a plenary session under item 6 (1h per state under review).

The basis for the UPR are the UN Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, human rights instruments to which a state is party, as well as voluntary pledges and commitments made by states, including those undertaken when presenting their candidatures for election to the Council.

The review is based on the following documents:

  • National Report: States are encouraged (but not required) to present a report of a maximum of 20 pages. When doing so, they should follow the guidelines regarding preparation of information as adopted in decision 6/102. States are also encouraged to hold broad consultations at the national level with all relevant stakeholders when preparing information. Stakeholders may include NGOs and civil society actors, but also members of parliament, the judiciary or the National Human Rights Institution.
  • Compilation of information from the UN system: The OHCHR compiles a summary of maximum 10 pages comprising information from within the UN system (for example treaty bodies, special procedures or specialised agencies).
  • Summary of Stakeholders' submissions / Stakeholders report: The OHCHR compiles a summary of a maximum of 10 pages which contains stakeholders' submissions. Stakeholders include, but are not limited to, NGOs (regardless of whether they hold ECOSOC consultative status or not), National Human Rights Institutions, human rights defenders, academic institutions, regional organisations, as well as civil society representatives.

In addition to these three input documents, states can also address advanced written questions to the state under review.

The first cycle of the UPR finished with its 12th session in October 2011, meaning that at this point in time, all UN member States have been reviewed once. The second cycle, and thus second review of each UN member state, started in May 2012. It focuses on, among others, the implementation of accepted recommendations and the development of the human rights situation in the state under review.

Resources on the UPR
  • Official website of the UPR: Calendars, orders of review, the composition of Troikas, the three input documents into the UPR for each state reviewed, as well as the outcome of the review.
  • Extranet on the UPR: Log-in using "hrc extranet" as user name and "1session" as password, click on "HRC Mechanisms & Subsidiary Organs" in the upper right corner, select "Universal Periodic Review"). All input documents into the UPR (National Report, UN compilation, Stakeholders' summary as well as the full text of inputs received by the Secretariat, advanced written questions, oral statements during the review in the working group, report of the working group, oral statements made at the adoption of the UPR outcome in the plenary, including NGO statements).
  • UPR Info: comprehensive website dedicated exclusively to the UPR, including a tutorial on the UPR.
  • Secretariat's diagram on the UPR process: visual overview on the stages of the process.
  • UPR info database of recommendations: comprehensive database of all recommendations made, searchable for instance by state under review, state issuing a recommendation, answer or topic.
  • UPR Info follow-up page: includes examples of NGO follow-up reports and states' best practices.
  • UPR Watch: follow-up on implementation of recommendations received.

To learn how NGOs can participate in the UPR, please refer to NGO participation. Comprehensive coverage of the UPR is given by our collection of publications. Also see our FAQ section.

Special Procedures (Special Rapporteurs and Independent Experts)

Special Procedures is the name given to a system of mechanisms which address specific country situations or thematic human rights issues all over the world. These mandates examine, monitor, advise and report publicly on the respect of human rights. Mandate holders are appointed by, and report to, the Human Rights Council. Some mandates also report to the UN General Assembly. Tenor and conditions of each mandate are defined in resolutions passed by the Human Rights Council. Mandate holders are independent experts, meaning that they serve in their personal capacity, do not receive a salary, work mostly part-time and are often not based in Geneva. Therefore, mandate holders are supported by Geneva-based staff of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the so-called “special procedures assistants”. Special procedures mandate holders take titles such as Independent Expert, Special Rapporteur or Special Representative of the Secretary-General. There are also mandates where there is not one individual mandate holder, but the mandate is exercised by a group of five experts, which are then called “Working Group”. For the purpose of NGO interaction with mandate holders, there is no difference between these different titles.

Special procedures are divided in thematic and country-based mandates. Currently, there are 37 thematic mandates, the most recently created one being the Independent Expert on the enjoyment of all human rights by older persons. The number of country mandates has been in decrease since the creation of the Human Rights Council and it is only recently that new mandates on the Central African Republic and Mali have been created, bringing the total number of country-based mandates to 14. It is the Human Rights Council that creates mandates and that appoints mandate holders. An individual can be appointed for a specific mandate for a maximum of six years. A term of thematic mandates lasts three years, while country-based mandates are limited to one year.

Special Procedures have the following means of action at their disposal:

  • Communications: Some mandates can intervene on specific allegations of human rights violations, be that violations that have occurred are ongoing or have a high risk to occur. Upon reception of information alleging a violation, a mandate holder can send a Letter of Allegation or an Urgent Appeal to the concerned government, asking for clarifications or comments and requesting that preventive action or an investigation be undertaken. Whether or not to intervene is a decision that is up to the mandate holder. In general, however, criteria for an intervention are the reliability of the source the information has been received from, the credibility of the information received and the amount of details provided. In addition, the alleged violation needs to fall within the scope of the mandate. This means that criteria for intervention vary from mandate to mandate.

  • Country Visits: Mandate holders can also undertake visits to examine the general human rights situation in a given country, as well as the specific institutional, legal, judicial, administrative and de facto situation. During visits, they may meet government officials at the national and local level, members of parliament, the judiciary, national human rights institutions, UN agencies, NGOs, civil society, victims as well as other relevant actors. They often hold a press conference at the end of the mission and always report to the Council in a mission report containing observations and recommendations. Before a mandate holder can visit a country, his/her request for a visit needs to be accepted by the concerned government. Governments may also issue so-called standing invitations, by which they invite all special procedures to visit their country at any time.

  • Annual Reports: Mandate holders have to report to the Council on an annual basis, and some of them also to the UN General Assembly. Annual reports focus on working methods, theoretical analysis, general trends and developments with regard to the respective mandate and they issue general recommendations. Some mandate holders also provide summaries of all communications transmitted to governments as well as of the replies they subsequently received.

  • Studies and Standard Setting: Mandate holders can also conduct studies in order to clarify the meaning of a specific right and thus contribute to the development of international law.
Resources on Special Procedures
  • Official website of Special Procedures: Contact details and the precise scope of thematic as well as country-based procedures, web pages for each mandate.
  • Extranet on Special Procedures: Log-in using "hrc extranet" as user name and "1session" as password, click on "HRC Mechanisms & Subsidiary Organs" in the upper right corner, select "Special Procedures"). Information regarding the appointment of mandate holders, including on vacancies and the Consultative Group.
  • Visual directory of Special Procedures mandate holders, with short information.
  • Special Procedures Database: This database compiled by Ted Piccone for the Brookings Institution lists communications of Special Procedures to states, as well as the responses received.
  • Universal Human Rights Index: Database containing country visit reports of all Special Procedures. Searchable by country, mandate and key word.

To learn how NGOs work with Special Procedures, please refer to NGO participation. Comprehensive coverage of the system of special procedures is given by our collection of publications. Also see our FAQ section.

Other mechanisms of the Human Rights Council

Advisory Committee

The Advisory Committee is composed of 18 independent experts and functions as a kind of think-tank to the Human Rights Council. It conducts research and realises studies on certain thematic issues, most often at the request of the Council. It may though also suggest research proposals. It provides expert advice, yet cannot adopt resolutions or decisions. Examples of the work of the Advisory Committee include the elaboration of the UN Declaration on Human rights education and training and of the Principles and guidelines for the elimination of discrimination against persons affected by leprosy, as well as work on the right to food, the right to peace and on missing persons.

The Advisory Committee meets twice a year, and its sessions are open to states, NGOs, National Human Rights Institutions, specialised agencies and intergovernmental organisations. More information is available on the Advisory Committee's website.

Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples

The Expert Mechanism provides thematic advice to the Council on the rights of indigenous peoples. It does so upon request by the Council, but may also make proposals to the Council. Examples of the work of the Expert Mechanism include studies on the right to education of indigenous peoples, on their right to participate in decision making or on the role of languages and culture in the promotion and protection of the rights and identity of indigenous peoples.

The Expert Mechanism is composed of five independent experts, often of indigenous origin. It meets once a year in July and its sessions are open to states, indigenous representatives, NGOs, intergovernmental organisations and academia. More information is available on the website of the Expert Mechanism and on the website of the Indigenous Peoples' Center for Documentation, Research and Information (DoCip).

Forum on Minority Issues

The Forum on Minority Issues is a platform for promoting dialogue and cooperation on issues pertaining to national, ethnic, religious and linguistic minorities. It works in particular on the implementation of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities. The Forum also provides inputs to the work of the Independent Expert on Minority Issues, who also guides the work of the Forum, prepares its meetings and reports to the Council on the Forum's work. The Chairperson of the Forum is elected by the Council among experts on minority issues.

The Forum on Minority Issues meets once a year, usually in December, and it is open for participation of states, NGOs, UN entities, other intergovernmental organisations, regional organisations in the field of human rights, National Human Rights Institutions, as well as academics and experts on minority issues. More information is available on the website of the Forum on Minority Issues.

Social Forum

The Social Forum is designed to be a space for open dialogue on issues linked with the national and international environment needed for a full enjoyment of all human rights by all.

The Social Forum meets once a year, usually in September or October. Its particularity is that it is a very open forum, since it is open to a large range of actors, going from states, NGOs and other civil society organisations (regardless of whether they hold ECOSOC consultative status or not), anti-poverty groups, peasants' organisations, trade unions and youth organisations to intergovernmental organisations. More information is available on the website of the Social Forum.

Forum on Business and Human Rights

The Forum on Business and Human Rights provides a platform for the promotion and implementation of the Guiding Principles. The Forum is under the direction of the UN Working group on Business and Human Rights which is responsible for examining the trends and challenges of the application of Guiding Principles and promoting dialogue and cooperation on issues related to business and human rights.

The Forum takes place each year for 2 days, generally in December, and gathers around 1000 participants from more than 80 countries. The participation is opened to States, UN mechanisms and entities, intergovernmental and regional organizations, national human rights institutions, business enterprises and associations, labor unions, academics and experts, representatives of indigenous people and NGOs holding ECOSOC consultative status. Concerning NGOs, even if they have an annual representative with a badge, they would have to register in order to participate at the Forum. More information is available on the website of the Forum 2013.