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The United Nations Commission on Human Rights (UNCHR) was a functional commission within the overall framework of the United Nations. 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 10th dec 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 seventies, 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 Chile. In the eighties, there is 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 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 was comprised 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:
- 15 from African States:
- 12 from Asian States:
- 5 from Eastern European States:
- 11 from Latin American and Caribbean States:
- 10 from Western European & Other States:
The Commission would meet each year in regular session for six weeks during March and April in Geneva, Switzerland. In January 2004, Australia was elected as chair of the 60th Session. In January 2005, Indonesia 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, Switzerland, on March 27, 2006.
Sub-Commission on Promotion and Protection of Human RightsEdit
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 the 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.
Special procedures of the Commission on Human RightsEdit
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 Rapporteurs for a maximum of 6 years. They were unpaid, independent and received personnel and logistical support from the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights for their work. Their main activities were to examine, monitor, advise and publicly report on human rights situations in specific countries or territories. They were able to write to governments about reported violations and conduct fact-finding visits to countries that invite them.
The special mechanisms were categorised according to:
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.
In May 2001, the United States, which had been a member since the establishment of the body in 1947, was not elected to the Commission. The technical reason for this was lack of sufficient support from European States which were critical of Washington's opposition to the creation of the International Criminal Court. The United States was elected to the Commission again in 2003.
Activist groups had long expressed concern over the memberships of the People's Republic of China, Cuba, Zimbabwe, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan, and the past memberships of Algeria, Syria, Libya, and Vietnam 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 Sudanto the commission, calling it an “absurdity” in light of Sudan’s ethnic cleansing in the Darfur 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 threatening Sudan with unspecified sanctions if the situation in the Darfur region did not improve within the next 30 days. The Security Council passed the resolution 13–0, with China and Pakistan abstaining. 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.
Human rights and mental healthEdit
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 .
- Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights
- ngoCHR.org - Volunteer Reporting on the Sessions & Parallel Events