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The United Nations Commission on Human Rights (UNCHR) was a functional commission within the overall framework of the United Nations from 1946 until it was replaced by the UN Human Rights Council in 2006. It was a subsidiary body of the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), and was also assisted in its work by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCHR). It was the UN's principal mechanism and international forum concerned with the promotion and protection of human rights.

On 15 March 2006, the UN General Assembly voted overwhelmingly to replace UNCHR with the UN Human Rights Council.


The UNCHR was established on 10 December 1946 at the first meeting of ECOSOC, and was one of the first two "Functional Commissions" set up within the early UN structure (the other being the Commission on the Status of Women). It was a body created under the terms of the United Nations Charter (specifically, under Article 68) to which all UN member states are signatories.

The body went through two distinct phases. From 1947 to 1967, it followed the policy of absenteeism, which meant that the Commission would concentrate on promoting human rights and helping states elaborate treaties, but not on investigating or condemning violators. It was a period of strict observance of the sovereignty principle.

In 1967, the Commission adopted interventionism as its policy. The context of the decade was of decolonization of Africa and Asia, and many countries of the continent pressed for a more active UN policy on human rights issues, especially in light of massive violations in apartheid South Africa. The new policy meant that the Commission would also investigate and produce reports on violations.

To allow better fulfillment of this new policy, other changes took place. In the 1970s, the possibility of geographically-oriented workgroups was created. These groups would specialize their activities on the investigation of violations on a given region or even a single country, as was the case with Chilemarker. With the 1980s came the creation of theme-oriented workgroups, which would specialize in specific types of abuses.

None of these measures, however, were able to make the Commission as effective as desired, mainly because of the presence of human rights violators and the politicization of the body. During the following years until its extinction, the UNCHR became increasingly discredited among activists and governments alike.

The Commission held its final meeting in Geneva on March 27, 2006 and was replaced by the United Nations Human Rights Council in the same year.


The Commission on Human Rights was intended to examine, monitor and publicly report on human rights situations in specific countries or territories (known as country mechanisms or mandates) as well as on major phenomena of human rights violations worldwide (known as thematic mechanisms or mandates).


At the time it was extinguished, the Commission consisted of representatives drawn from 53 member states, elected by the members of ECOSOC. There were no permanent members; each year (usually in May) approximately a third of the seats of the Commission would come up for election, and the representatives were appointed for a three-year term.

Seats on the Commission were apportioned generally by region. During its last year of service in 2005, the representation by region was as follows:

The Commission would meet each year in regular session for six weeks during March and April in Genevamarker, Switzerland. In January 2004, Australia was elected as chair of the 60th Session. In January 2005, Indonesiamarker was elected chair of the 61st Session. Peru was elected chair of the 62nd Session in January 2006. The Commission held its final meeting in Geneva on March 27, 2006.

Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights

In 1999 the Economic and Social Council changed its title from the Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities to the Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights".

The Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights was the main subsidiary body of the Commission on Human Rights. It was composed of twenty-six experts whose responsibility was to undertake studies, particularly in light of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and make recommendations to the Commission concerning the prevention of discrimination of any kind relating to human rights and fundamental freedoms and the protection of racial, national, religious and linguistic minorities. Membership was selected with regard to equitable geographical distribution.

The Sub-Commission established seven Working Groups that investigate specific human rights concerns, including:

  • Minorities
  • Transnational corporations
  • Administration of justice
  • Anti-terrorism
  • Contemporary Forms of Slavery
  • Indigenous Populations
  • Communication
  • Social Forum

The Human Rights Council assumed responsibility for the Sub-Commission when it replaced the Commission on Human Rights in 2006.

Special procedures

The Commission on Human Rights established 30 special procedures, or mechanisms, to address specific country situations or thematic issues such as freedom of expression and opinion, torture, the right to food, and the right to education.

Individuals with expertise in particular areas of human rights were appointed by the chair of the Commission to serve as Special Rapporteur for a maximum of six years. They are unpaid, independent experts who receive personnel and logistical support from the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights for their work. Their main activities are to examine, monitor, advise and publicly report on human rights situations in specific countries or territories. They are able to write to governments about reported violations and conduct fact-finding visits to countries that invite them.

The special mechanisms are categorised according to:
  • Thematic Mandates.
  • Country Mandates.

Special procedures also include working groups made up of up to five experts who monitor and investigate specific human rights concerns. Three groups were established by the Commission:

The special procedures are now under the direction of the United Nations Human Rights Council.


The Commission was repeatedly criticized for the composition of its membership. In particular, several of its member countries themselves had dubious human rights records, including states whose representatives have been elected to chair the commission.

Another criticism was that the Commission did not engage in constructive discussion of human rights issues, but was a forum for politically selective finger-pointing and criticism. The desire of states with problematic human rights records to be elected to the Commission was viewed largely as a way to defend themselves from such attacks.

Activist groups had long expressed concern over the memberships of the People's Republic of Chinamarker, Zimbabwemarker, Russiamarker, Saudi Arabiamarker, and Pakistanmarker, and the past memberships of Algeriamarker, Syriamarker, Libyamarker, and Vietnammarker on the Commission. These countries had extensive records of human rights violations, and one concern was that by working against resolutions on the commission condemning human rights violations, they indirectly promoted despotism and domestic repression.

On May 4, 2004, United States ambassador Sichan Siv walked out of the Commission following the uncontested election of Sudanmarker to the commission, calling it an "absurdity" in light of Sudan's ethnic cleansing in the Darfurmarker region. One major consequence of the election of Sudan to the Commission was the lack of willingness for some countries to work through the commission. Indeed, on July 30, 2004, it was the United Nations Security Council, not the Commission, that passed a resolution by 13–0, with China and Pakistan abstaining threatening Sudan with unspecified sanctions if the situation in the Darfurmarker region did not improve within the following 30 days. The reasons given for the action were the attacks by the Janjaweed Arab militias of Sudan on the non-Arab African Muslim population of Darfur, a region in western Sudan.


The Commission has been criticized for bias against Israel. According to Anne Bayefsky, professor of international law at York University in Toronto, "commission members seek to avoid directly criticizing states with human rights problems, frequently by focusing on Israel, a state that, according to analysis of summary records, has for over 30 years occupied 15 percent of commission time and has been the subject of a third of country-specific resolutions."

On April 15, 2002, the Commission approved a resolution affirming the right of the Palestinians to fight Israel by "all available means, including armed struggle" in order to achieve independence. In so doing, the Palestinian people was declared "fulfilling its mission, one of the goals and purposes of the United Nations". Of the 53-member commission, 40 countries voted yes and seven abstained. Alfred Moses, a former United States ambassador to the commission and now chairman of the monitoring group UN Watch, said that "A vote in favour of this resolution is a vote for Palestinian terrorism". In a letter to the UNHRC on November 15, 2002, following an attack by Palestinians on Israelis in the town of Hebron, Nabil Ramlawi, the permanent observer for Palestine at the U.N., appealed to the resolution as justification for the attack.

60th Session controversy

The UNCHR was criticized for failing to apply the charters standards to all-member states. When issues such as the stoning of women, honor killings, mutilations, and the apostasy death penalty were raised during the 60th Session of the UN Commission on Human Rights in 2004, Muslim officials rejected "any criticism as interference in the internal affairs of a sovereign state."

Human rights and mental health

In 1977, the commission formed a "Sub-Commission to study, with a view to formulating guidelines, if possible, the question of the protection of those detained on the grounds of mental ill-health against treatment that might adversely affect the human personality and its physical and intellectual integrity". The sub-commission was charged with "determin[ing] whether adequate grounds existed for detaining persons on the grounds of mental ill-health."

The guidelines that resulted have been criticized for failing to protect the rights of involuntary patients.


The United Nations Commission on Human Rights (UNCHR) passed a number of resolutions concerning genocide, these were:UNCHR Decision 9 (XXXV).

1986/18; 1987/25; 1988/28; 1989/16; 1990/19; "Fiftieth Anniversary of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide", 1998/10; and "Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide", 1999/67.

  • 1978 the UNCHR endorsed the recommendation of the Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities to distribute widely the Ruhashyankiko Report.Schabas, p.466 footnote 124 citing UNCHR Decision 9 (XXXV).
  • August 1992, the UNCHR "Condemn[ed] absolutely the concept and practice of 'ethnic cleansing [in the former Yugoslavia]' but did not describe it as genocide. The commissions resolution was endorsed the UNCHR parent body the United Nations Economic and Social Council.
  • November 1992, the UNCHR "Call[ed] upon all Sates to consider the extent to which the acts committed in Bosnia ... and in Croatia constitute genocide in accordance with [the Genocide Convention]".
  • 1994, at the request of Canada an emergency meeting was convened to deal with the ongoing genocide in Rwanda. René Degni-Sgui was appointed as a Special Rapporteur, and he immediately visited Rwanda were he promptly issued a report on the scope of the genocide.

See also


  1. Staff, Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights, Retrieved 2009-04-24
  2. [1]
  3. Thematic Mandates
  4. Country Mandates
  5. Sudan keeps U.N. human rights post - World news -
  6. Anne Bayefsky: Ending Bias in the Human Rights System New York Times, May 22, 2002.
  7. Question of the Violation of Human Rights in the Occupied Arab Territories, Including Palestine Commission on Human Rights, Fifty-eighth session, Agenda item 8. E/CN.4/2002/L.16. 9 April 2002.
  8. Steven Edwards: UN Backs Palestinian Violence Christian Action for Israel, April 16, 2002.
  9. Ed Morgan: Slaughterhouse-Six: Updating the Law of War, Part 2 of 2 German Law Journal, Vol. 5 No. 5 - 1 May 2004.
  10. 60th session of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights
  11. United Nations Commission on Human Rights
  12. University of Wollongong - Faculty of Arts - STS Research
  13. Schabas, William (2000). Genocide in international law: the crimes of crimes, Cambridge University Press, ISBN 0521787904, 9780521787901 pp. 468,469

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