Manfred Nowak, prominent human rights expert and former UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, gave a lecture in Brussels about the achievements and challenges of the UN Human Rights Council – including an assessment of the likelihood of a UN Convention on the Rights of Older Persons.
The UN Human Rights Council (HRC) was created in March 2006. It is made up of 47 out of 193 UN Member States and is elected by the UN General Assembly every three years to act as a “forum and a springboard for action” to address human rights abuses, as described by the UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon. From 2004 to 2010 Manfred Nowak, Austrian human rights lawyer and expert, was the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture and as such experienced this significant transition first-hand. In his lecture, Nowak sought to ‘take stock’ of the situation in 2016 – including the role of the European Union at the UN – and to offer some suggestions for potential progress.
Nowak identified the primary success of the HRC as being the Universal Periodic Review system. This requires that UN Member States declare what has been done to improve human rights in their countries and then recommendations are made and support is given to encourage continuous improvement. Despite this process not being mandatory, it is carefully adhered to by states and allows for the continuous monitoring and progression of human rights through peer reviews and mutual assistance. Regional representation in the HRC was also highlighted as being fairer than it was in the Commission, as all countries (i.e. not only those in the global North) are proportionately represented, allowing for more constructive collaboration and equity between nations.
Interestingly, when referencing the influence of the EU on the Human Rights Council and on UN policy Nowak referred to the oft discussed UN Convention on the Rights of Older Persons, which has seen the most support from countries in the global South, but also from the UN in general. Nowak highlighted that the EU, as an informed observer of the HRC, has played an important role in opposing the proposed Convention due to most EU Member States currently not supporting it and instead being in favour of strengthening other methods. Consequently, without national governments in Europe bringing this issue to the EU level political agenda, the Convention may never be realised, despite its broad global support.
Nowak concluded that the UN Human Rights Council has evolved a lot, but that it has the potential to achieve much more. One suggested way in which it could be improved is to actively promote equality between social, cultural and economic rights, and civil and political rights – policy areas that within the EU remain conspicuously disparate.