Reflective perspective of a departing President
Behind the scenes insight into the Human Rights Council from Federico Villegas, the outgoing President
1 Mar 2023

The Human Rights Council has the support of the Secretariat team, composed of staff from the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) – their support is vital.

“The office of the President of the Human Rights Council (HRC) would not be able to perform its important tasks without the support of the OHCHR team. We worked last year under difficult technical circumstances and I could witness their passion for human rights. Of course we had glitches while running remote sessions, but they succeeded in avoiding disruptions in the functioning of the Council. The Secretariat team spends many hours in making the Council work properly and the stress they are under is enormous. In the March session, for example, many dignitaries come to Geneva, and the team deals with constant requests by many delegations. It takes a huge effort to satisfy everyone. The Secretariat also offered me their expert advice on issues related to the Special Procedures and on institutional matters so I felt supported to make the correct decisions.”

Support could take on a political dimension

“I had my own views, but they also gave their advice on issues of a political and institutional nature. The team I worked with was very knowledgeable about the history of the Council, and also of the sensitivities involved. There is a wide range of issues that I had to deal with such as appointments, the relations between countries and mandate holders and ensuring that the Council’s rules and procedures are observed so that the meetings can run smoothly. I had to ensure that the collective will was reflected in outcomes. This was only possible through the support I received and cooperation with all delegations.”

The role as President is definitely not limited to chairing the meetings of the Council

“We created the HRC as the intergovernmental body to allow the ‘third pillar’ of the UN to keep growing and developing. Actually, the easiest part of my presidency was chairing Council meetings. I was never stressed, maybe because, like my colleagues, I had previous podium experience. I knew the hardest part would be off the podium, where you have to deal with delicate issues such as countries with military coups and conflicts of representation.  Other cases include mass public protests, calls for the Council to react or a UN expert barred from returning home. There were times when I had to react to unfortunate comments made by mandate holders and publicly state my position based on the Council’s standards. My experience and long-standing career in human rights helped me deal with these kinds of issues. Yes, each President has their own style, but the role of the President is far from being limited to their bureaucratic responsibilities.”

Meeting with stakeholders is essential

“I met with NGOs, presidents, ministers, mandate holders and victims and families of human rights abuse. Mandate holders and investigative mechanisms were often unable to enter countries and cooperate with governments, so I facilitated discussions between both parties. You listen to governments points of view, but the mechanisms are part of the Council and they must cooperate with them. So, the President deals with a wide variety of stakeholders.”

Sometimes one meets the families of victims – and they will have requests 

“Every time I had such requests, I tried to provide assistance. Sometimes I engaged informally with delegations or I requested information on specific cases. I also provided advice on the mechanisms and tools of the Council at their disposal to raise awareness on particular situations.”

Challenges are boundless for any President of the Human Rights Council 

“There are several challenges. I devoted a lot of time in trying to ensure the cooperation of countries aligns with the independent mechanisms of the Council. There is a false idea that if a country votes against a resolution, that resolution doesn’t apply to it. It is a very dangerous concept to assume a mandate does not apply to a country in opposition to a resolution.”

Occasionally you encounter resistance from countries 

“We cannot force change, but as an independent body, we can offer the opportunity for governments to tell their side of the story. Our independent mechanisms complement countries’ efforts. States must fulfil their human rights obligations, and we can help them to do so. Then there are countries who claim the mechanisms are biased, and deny them, cooperating only with mandates they agree with. However, human rights means working with those who criticize you. The responsibility is higher for members of the Council because they represent the 193 members of the UN who elected them. We do not have the right to deprive people who are suffering of international protection because we voted against a resolution. We may have differences during the negotiations, but once approved the mandates must be fulfilled. This is one of the biggest challenges of the job.”

There are always other challenges and political pressures on the horizon

“The HRC experienced politicization since its creation, a challenge all presidents had to deal with. As a result of the pandemic and, more recently, the war in Ukraine, many international organizations in Geneva have been paralyzed. We had difficult discussions within the WHO, WIPO and the WTO: the impact was felt everywhere. However, the Council still delivered. In 2022 we approved one hundred resolutions and decisions in a very challenging geopolitical context, 70% by consensus and 30% by a vote. There were also challenges on substantive on issues. As you know, the Council has three main roles: to address the human rights situation in every country of the world via the UPR; to consider the situations requiring immediate Council attention by convening special sessions or urgent debates – we can mention the situations in Iran, Afghanistan and Ukraine in 2022 – and the progressive development of new human rights norms. 

So, in the June session last year, the Council adopted resolutions on violence against women and on the extension of the mandate for the Independent Expert on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity (SOGI) which were very difficult discussions.  We cannot forget that human beings are behind these issues, real people that suffer discrimination. So, although the President is not directly involved in the discussions, I couldn’t have finished my term on a happy note if the Council wouldn’t have adopted those decisions, and I was glad that we could ultimately move forward the human rights agenda. 

Many achievements can be made during the presidency

I think one of the most important things we did was expanding the Council’s outreach to highlight our work. The lectures I gave in universities and the engagement with think tanks allowed me to get in touch with many people that knew about the Council but never heard directly from the HRC President. We should all talk openly about our work, a collective responsibility beyond our national positions. I could also have regular contact with the press, with the support of the media team. This outreach helped us build the highest presence in social media of any intergovernmental body in the UN system. The Council was up to its expectations. Since day one, the Council was relevant, we took action. After the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Council established a Commission of Inquiry, the first ever on a permanent member of the Security Council. Additionally, an urgent debate was organized to consider the deteriorating situation of women and girls in Afghanistan and a special session on Iran was convened to consider the situation that arose in the county after the death in custody of Mahsa Amini. As a result, the Council established a fact-finding mission to investigate all alleged human rights violations in the that context. We are affecting people, directly or indirectly. Our constituency is 8 billion people, and we need to show them that we are working to improve their lives. Resolutions are the achievement of the delegations that present and negotiate them and it is the job of the President, with assistance from many people, to keep things running in a way that allows the Council to fulfil its mandate. 

* Mollie Fraser-Andrews and Richard Turner are contributors for UN Today.
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