On the second day of our briefings at UN Headquarters, we had the pleasure of being briefed by Ms. Giorgia Passarelli on Human Rights issues. Ms. Passarelli is one of the staff members of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in New York (OHCHR).
Even though the main offices of the High Commissioner with its 200 staff members are located in Geneva, the UN maintains a liaison office with 5 staff members at the Headquarters in New York. OHCHR was founded in 1994 to promote and protect all Human Rights and coordinate the activities of the different UN bodies, agencies, and programs dealing with Human Rights Issues.
In her briefing, Ms. Passarelli explained the work of the High Commissioner and the various Human Rights-related activities of the UN. The OHCHR coordinates a number of Special Rapporteurs who report to the High Commissioner on the Human Rights situation in a certain region or regarding a specific topic. She stressed that even though the reports from the Special Rapporteurs did not enable the Commissioner to take concrete measures, they were by no means futile. The reports serve as an important instrument to increase the pressure on states which repeatedly commit Human Rights violations or to raise public awareness about some issues like torture or freedom of expression. OHCHR also provides support and assistance to states that want to solve existing Human Rights problems.
Ms. Passarelli highlighted the growing importance of Human Rights issues within the UN system. For example, there is a Human Rights component in every Peacekeeping operation since the year 2000.
Afterwards, Ms. Passarelli focused on the recently established Human Rights Council. Since the founding of the organization in 1945, a Commission on Human Rights (CHR) with 53 Member States had served as the UN’s highest Human Rights organ. Its mandate included securing respect for all Human Rights, promoting international cooperation to protect Human Rights, and preventing Human Rights violations. The CHR was a very political body where states were openly criticized and discredited. Human Rights experts were able to alert the CHR of Human Rights violations and to give directions for further action by the Commission. The actions taken did not include sanctions, but pressure from other governments. As Ms. Passarelli put it, “no government wanted to be put on the list of Human Rights violators.”
However, the CHR was far from being an effective body. Critics repeatedly voiced their concerns about the process of electing members into the Commission. Countries that were known to have committed serious Human Rights violations were elected into the Commission and at times even held its presidency. Furthermore, the CHR met only once a year for a 6-week session, leaving not enough time to adequately discuss the serious questions regarding Human Rights. The insufficiencies of the old Commission led to an effort to reform it and create a new Human Rights Council which could address Human Rights issues and react to Human Rights violations more efficiently. Ms. Passarelli quoted the President of the General Assembly, Mr. Jan Eliasson, as follows: “By strengthening this machinery and at the same time make an instrument of cooperation and of dialogue, we enhance the common ownership of the Human Rights works of the United Nations.”
The new Human Rights Council (HRC), which was created by the General Assembly on March 15, 2006, has 47 Member States, which have to compete to be elected into the Council. The HRC will meet more often than the former Commission: it has to convene at least three times a year for sessions which last at least 10 weeks. In a periodic review process, all members can be reviewed by other members of the Council to ensure the transparency of the body. In a new election process, Member States must compete for their votes in the General Assembly to reach a majority of the UN membership. After the creation of the HRC, Secretary-General Kofi Annan said “This Council represents a great new chance for the United Nations and for humanity, to renew the struggle for Human Rights”.
By adopting the resolution creating the Human Rights Council, the General Assembly has proven that even though there are many differences in the world, universal values like Human Rights are still shared by Member States. It also shows that the General Assembly can establish an effective Human Rights body and send a message that the United Nations is able to reform itself.
Concluding her remarks on the creation of the Human Rights Council, Ms. Passarelli believed that the Council “has the potential to be different; however, how Member States will achieve these goals remains to be seen”. All of us felt that she had been a knowledgeable expert with a lot of experience and full of passion who could go on for hours about the interesting and crucial topic of Human Rights.
Tim Nover, Roxana Popescu, Ana Ribeiro