Financial trouble at the Human Rights Council: Who stands to gain?

The Human Rights Council (HRC) is struggling with a severe liquidity crisis.

This is an onsite edited excerpt of the G|O Briefing newsletter

The Human Rights Council (HRC) is struggling with a severe liquidity crisis. The lack of funds is threatening the Council’s ability—and more broadly, that of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights—to adequately fulfill its mandate, a situation that has political implications.

The Council’s financial woes are not new. But the underfunding of the Special Procedures (the Council’s special rapporteurs and independent experts charged with visiting countries, conducting fact-finding missions, and documenting human rights violations and abuses, among other tasks) might become critical in the future. Already, several reports that were slated to be submitted and examined by the Council during its 48th session, due to start on Monday (September 13), have not been completed, and their presentation will have to be postponed.

The historical and systemic underfunding has been compounded by the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic: In trying to respond to the pandemic, several member states delayed or reconsidered their contributions to the UN, impacting the work of dozens of different departments. One of the most severely hit was the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.

As a result, even reports on pressing current issues have had to be shelved. One such report, requested by the Council during its 46th session, held in February of last year, was about access to medicines and vaccines, in relation to the right to enjoy the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health. Intended to be created in cooperation with the World Health Organization, it has not been completed.

“In the light of the ongoing financial constraints faced by the Organization, the High Commissioner (Michelle Bachelet) has not been in a position to implement that mandate within the deadline,” a note to member states from the Secretariat explains. “She (Michelle Bachelet) aims to convene the interdepartmental seminar before the end of 2021 and to submit the report to the Human Rights Council at its forty-ninth session, as the financial situation permits,” it concludes.

Identical notes have been sent to explain the postponement of a report on the effective implementation of the right to participate in public affairs and another on the regulation of civilian acquisition, possession, and use of firearms—an issue of great significance for many countries faced with gun-related violence.

Debate on press situation also delayed

Two other reports making reference to the plight of journalists were also impacted. A group of member states had requested the High Commissioner present to the Council a report on the repercussions, on the safety and work of journalists and media workers, from measures taken by some governments in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The same reason was used to delay a report on good practices for establishing national normative frameworks for access to information held by public entities.

Ambassador Nazhat Shameem Khan (Fiji), President of the Human Rights Council, admitted that the debate on the financial constraints faced by the Council will be a recurring one: “It is a work in progress,” she told The Geneva Observer during a press conference about the upcoming session. The diplomat believes the Council has managed to organize itself in an efficient way in 2021, despite the obstacles. She predicted that “every year, we will have to sit and see what can be delivered.”

Another knowledgeable diplomatic source tells the G|O that the Council is undeniably “under pressure” given the current global political environment. The 48th session—which will last four weeks instead of the usual three—will be “agitated,” the same source says, adding, “I think there is a growing recognition among those member states that share liberal values that the underfunding is a real issue,” as the Special Procedures are at the heart of the defense of human rights.

In the current political climate, with growing tensions between ‘autocracies’ and ‘technocracies,’ who stands to gain from a weakened Human Rights Council? “I don’t believe that China or Russia really care about the Council. It is emerging authoritarian countries, like Brazil, Hungary, India, or Turkey, that may benefit from a body which would not have the means to fulfill its mandate,” analyzes a seasoned HRC watcher.