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Heinz, W. An International Relations Perspective on the Reform Needs of the Human Rights Council. German Yearbook of International Law, 62(1), 43-80.
Heinz, Wolfgang S. "An International Relations Perspective on the Reform Needs of the Human Rights Council" German Yearbook of International Law 62.1, 2021, 43-80.
Heinz, Wolfgang S. (2021): An International Relations Perspective on the Reform Needs of the Human Rights Council, in: German Yearbook of International Law, vol. 62, iss. 1, 43-80, [online]


An International Relations Perspective on the Reform Needs of the Human Rights Council

Heinz, Wolfgang S.

German Yearbook of International Law, Vol. 62 (2019), Iss. 1 : pp. 43–80

1 Citations (CrossRef)

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Author Details

Dr. phil. habil. Wolfgang S. Heinz

  • Dr. phil. habil. Wolfgang S. Heinz, b. in 1953. Former Senior Policy Adviser at the German Institute for Human Rights (DIMR) in Berlin, focusing on United Nations (UN), international security policies, and torture prevention in Europe. Former member of the UN Human Rights Council Advisory Committee 2008–13, and chair of the committee. Former chair of the UN Working Group on Communications which addresses consistent patterns of gross and reliably attested violations of all human rights and all fundamental freedoms occurring in any part of the world and under any circumstances. Senior Lecturer in Political Science at the Free University Berlin.
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This article approaches the matter of institutional reform of the United Nations Human Rights Council from an international relations perspective. A well-known tension exists between State representatives acting for their governments in international organisations, but whose decisions are presented as UN policies. The latter should be guided primarily by the UN Charter and public international law. However, in reality, different worldviews and foreign policy considerations play a more significant role. In a comprehensive stock-take, the article looks at four major dimensions of the Council, starting with structure and dynamics and major trends, followed by its country and thematic activities, and the role of key actors. Council reform proposals from both States and civil society are explored. Whilst the intergovernmental body remains the most important authority responsible for the protection of human rights in the international sphere, it has also been the subject of considerable criticism. Although it has made considerable progress towards enlarging its coverage and taking on more challenging human rights crises, among some of its major weaknesses are the election of human rights-unfriendly countries into its ranks, the failure to apply stronger sanctions on large, politically influential countries in the South and North, and lack of influence on human rights crises and chronic human rights problems in certain countries. Whilst various reform proposals have emerged from States and NGOs, other more far reaching propositions are under sometimes difficult negotiations. In the mid- to long-term, the UN human rights machinery can only have a stronger and more lasting impact if support from national/local actors and coalitions in politics and society can be strengthened.

Table of Contents

Section Title Page Action Price
Wolfgang S. Heinz: An International Relations Perspective on the Reform Needs of the Human Rights Council 43
I. The U.S. Withdrawal from HRC Membership in 2018 44
II. The HRC, its Organs, and Some Major Trends 46
A. The New Human Rights Council 46
B. Main Institutional Arrangements 48
1. Composition, Membership 48
2. Becoming a Member of the HRC 48
C. Plenary Sessions 52
D. Dealing With Country Situations 53
E. Thematic Issues 57
F. Universal Periodic Review (UPR) 58
G. Other Actors in HRC Debates: OHCHR, Civil Society/NGOs, NHRIs 60
III. Key Challenges 61
A. Cooperation Between the UN and Member States, Particularly Access to Countries 61
B. Politics and Politicisation 63
C. Special Sessions 65
D. Controversial Issues 66
E. Contesting Narratives 68
1. Russian Federation: Traditional Values, Protection of the Family 69
2. China: Cooperation and Public Criticism of Countries 70
IV. Reform Proposals 72
A. Overview 72
B. Proposals From Inter-Governmental Dialogue Meetings (Glion Human Rights Dialogue) 75
C. Civil Society Proposals 76
V. Concluding Remarks 77