restricted access The United Nations Human Rights Council: A Critique and Early Assessment by Rosa Freedman (review)
In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Reviewed by
Rosa Freedman, The United Nations Human Rights Council: A Critique and Early Assessment. New York: Routledge, 2012. 330pp. $145.00.

Rosa Freedman, a lecturer in law at the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom, begins the concluding chapter of her book by writing: “Assessment of the Human Rights Council’s formative years has demonstrated that the body is failing to fulfill its mandate, particularly in terms of protecting human rights” (p. 297). Sadly, it is difficult to quarrel with this conclusion. Although the Council was launched in 2006 with the best of intentions by then Secretary General of the United Nations (UN), Kofi Annan, to replace the discredited UN Commission on Human Rights, the new body has not lived up to the hopes of those (including me) who supported its establishment. Worse, because the Council is the component of the UN that is most visible in the human rights field, its poor performance weighs down other components of the world body that do good work.

The UN has a High Commissioner for Human Rights directly appointed by the Secretary General who does not operate under the direction of the Council. The current high commissioner, Judge Nevanethem Pillay of South Africa, is an outspoken proponent of human rights who speaks out forcefully about abuses of rights wherever they take place. She does not allow geopolitical considerations or regional alliances to get in the way. Her approach resembles that of such leading non-governmental bodies as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. The UN also has several “treaty bodies” that monitor and promote compliance with particular human rights treaties, such as the Convention against Torture and the Convention to End Discrimination against Women. These are composed of experts who act as individuals rather than as representatives of their governments. They also perform well. Freedman’s book touches only lightly on the work of the council’s dozens of special rapporteurs dealing with such issues as internal displacement, arbitrary detention, extrajudicial executions, involuntary disappearances, torture, and the protection of human rights defenders. The creation of these posts, and the appointment of the individuals holding them, was inherited by the Council from the commission. The same is true for special rapporteurs focusing on specific countries, such as Myanmar and Burundi. The individuals [End Page 212] holding these posts are often highly qualified and do excellent work, as was also the case in the era of the commission. The Council itself plays a useful role by requiring that UN member-states be subject to “universal periodic review” of their human rights record. My colleague Morton Halperin, one of those who have worked hard to improve the performance of the Council, notes that “every country in the world has participated so for the first time countries like China, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Russia have accepted the legitimacy of international questioning of their human rights situation.” Yet, on balance, the Council, like the commission before it, performs miserably.

Why should this be the case? Apparently, it is because the Council is more or less representative of the UN’s member-states. Because those states are organized in regional blocs, bodies such as the Council encourage them to exhibit their worst tendencies. The UN includes five regional groups: the African, the Asian, the Latin American and Caribbean, the Western European and Others (including the United States), and the Eastern European. Criticism of a member of the African bloc for its human rights abuses is likely to unite the members of the African group in that country’s defense and may also deter governments in other regions from supporting criticism because it will antagonize the entire African group. It is nearly impossible in such circumstances to secure even-handed resolutions about human rights practices. The system encourages denunciations of alleged abuses committed by countries that lack the protection of a regional group, particularly Israel, which is the target of many of the Council’s attacks. This is not to say that Israel does not warrant criticism for certain practices, but the repeated denunciations of alleged Israeli abuses, as also was common under the old commission, tends to discredit the Council itself when it ignores...