Human rights at the forefront of modern politics

The Human Rights Council – a rich story
Eric Tistounet in discussion about his book, ‘The UN Human Rights Council: A Practical Anatomy’
1 Mar 2023

With a long career and successful past working at the Human Rights Council, what made Mr. Tistounet want to write the book at this point in time and what objectives did he have when he was writing it? He explains that: “the idea came to me during a sabbatical leave which I took when the UN offered me this opportunity in 2018. Initially, I did not really have the intention of writing a book. But when I started working during the sabbatical, which was initially intended to focus on the complex voting processes of the Human Rights Council, I realised that for others to understand the complex working methods of the Council, an expansion into much more than simply its voting process and daily work was required. This is how I started writing this book and it is mostly based on the assumption that the Council is such a complex body that, for the stakeholders and for the end users, it has become almost impossible to really follow its work without some form of guidance”.

His book goes into great detail about so many aspects of the Council, but what are the main findings of it? Mr. Eric Tistounet believes that: “the main findings are that the Council is an extraordinarily productive body which is evolving extraordinarily rapidly. I don’t think that there are other examples in the UN system where you see a body which expands year after year, session after session in such depth. And what I mean by that is that it is creating new mechanisms, new working methods and dealing with a multitude of crises with flexibility and innovation. And that creates a body which is of course extremely helpful in terms of achieving the protection and promotion of human rights and the prevention of violations. However, this also creates and generates difficulties in understanding how the Human Rights Council works. So, there are two aspects there, the inventiveness, the efficiency of the body and on the other hand, the implications in terms of the complexities of its procedures”.

Of course, the Council is evolving all the time. Does this therefore mean that the more complex the Council becomes, the greater the risk that it will be open to criticism? Here’s his take: “there will always be criticism when it concerns a body of an intergovernmental nature dealing with human rights. By definition we are talking about a body which is dealing with highly sensitive matters, highly delicate and problematic issues and there won’t be any circumstances when you will have everyone agreeing that the Council is doing everything well. All stakeholders consider some aspects of the work of the Council as welcomed but they criticise other aspects of its work. Of course, the UN, and in particular this body, will be subjected to criticism and we have to accept that. The point is that the positive criticism, that is to say criticism which are constructive in nature, are absolutely welcome and they help to move the Council forward. It is my belief that the Human Rights Council has taken this on board and that the Secretariat has done everything possible to facilitate that”.

We should remember that the book was published in 2020. We have since had a pandemic and a war in Europe. Mr. Tistounet makes the following observations about the situation at the HRC and whether it has changed since then: “these events dramatically changed the way the Council operates – and in a very positive way too. During the pandemic, the Council proved to be one of the only, if not the only, UN body which fulfilled its work in its entirety. It certainly encountered some challenges during this difficult time, but it did receive a lot of help from the UN as a whole. It is for this reason that I think that we should all, as UN staff, be very proud of having supported the Council in fulfilling its work during this period. This ultimately meant that for two years there was one body of importance which was working absolutely adequately in response to whatever needed to be done in terms of human rights. As a result, it attracted attention which normally would have been devoted to other UN organs, particularly in New York. So, quite a number of crises which normally would have been dealt with in New York were referred to Geneva through the human rights angle”.

And what about whether the Council adopted new procedures and processes to adjust to the current political instability in Europe? He explains that: “if you look simply into the activities of the Council during this particular year, the Council has organized, quite revealingly, a fact-finding mission on the situation in Ukraine. This has been established and is up and running. It has also created a mandate for a Special Rapporteur on the issue of human rights in the Russian Federation. It has held two special sessions, that is to say those which are dedicated to a particular crisis outside the normal parameters of the regular session. One was on the issue of the situation in Ukraine and the other one was on the situation of Afghan women and girls. In addition to these, during the September 2022 session, the Human Rights Council decided to include in its work issues regarding cyberbullying, human rights in relation to nuclear testing in the Marshall Islands – which has gone largely unnoticed by the world – and also on the impact new technology in the military domain has on human rights. So, the boundaries of what the Human Rights Council can deal with are definitely increasing. This has implications for us working at the Council, as we have to, for example, organize new interactive dialogues, discussions and debates. These are great for giving an overview of where the world stands on certain issues at that particular moment in time. However, this always occurs within the context of a rapidly changing world in which crises shift and overlap with new ones”.

Mr. Tistounet’s history at the Human Rights Council goes way back – he was even present at the inception of the Council all the way back in 2006. What then, is his view on what the Council’s overall legacy has been, here he explains: “I think that at first it faced a difficult start. Critics often view the Council as struggling under the weight of crises, that it is highly politicized and so on. However, we have to remember that when it started its work in 2006 it was facing intense political difficulties. For example, there were lots of political difficulties among the various regional and political groups and by the third year of its existence, many believed that the Council would end up like the Commission and become a highly politicized body. However, things began to progressively change over time. The creation of different types of coalitions, the vital work of moderates, the work of small states which are strongly involved in human rights and which have positively impacted the Council’s presidency all had a considerable role in changing the situation for the better. What we witnessed from 2011 to 2020 was a consolidation of what the Human Rights Council should be and what it should be involved in. There was a significant reduction in the level of politicization, and whilst polarization still exists, it too has changed. However, in terms of it being a UN body, with all the constraints that this means sometimes, I believe that it has achieved quite a lot, and all members of the Secretariat and at UNOG should be very proud to have been in a position to support what the Human Rights Council has been doing over these past 17 years”.

Evidently the Human Rights Council has a special place in Mr. Tistounet’s heart. Having watched it grow and flourish over the years, we could never have imagined the variety of world crises it would be tasked with dealing with. Surely then, this persistence and resolve despite adversity, is testament both to the Council’s necessity as well as its endurance, as Mr. Tistounet’s book would suggest.

* Jake Sanders is the Editorial Coordinator of UN Today magazine.
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