Human Rights and the UNHRC - Issues in News

Historical Background

  • When we turn the pages of world history, we come across an important event that occurred in 539 B.C. Cyrus the Great, who was the first king of ancient Persia, had conquered the city of Babylon. After his armies had conquered the city of Babylon, Cyrus the Great decided to free the slaves, and declared that all people had the right to choose their own religion, and established racial equality. This event marked a milestone event in history.
  • These decrees were recorded on a baked-clay cylinder in the Akkadian language with cuneiform script and is known today as the Cyrus Cylinder. As a matter of fact, this ancient record has now been recognized as the world’s first charter of human rights. It is translated into all six official languages of the United Nations and its provisions parallel the first four Articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
  • Since then, there have been several documents that have become popular and have asserted individual rights, such as the Magna Carta (1215), the Petition of Right (1628), the US Constitution (1787), the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen (1789), and the US Bill of Rights (1791). These documents can be looked upon as the written precursors to many of today’s human rights documents.
  • In 1215 A.D., after King John of England violated a number of ancient laws and customs by which the people of England had been governed, his subjects forced him to sign the Magna Carta.
  • Among these rights included the right of the church to be free from governmental interference, the rights of all free citizens to own and inherit property and be free from excessive taxes. The Magna Carta also established the right of widows who owned property to choose not to remarry, and established principles of due process and equality before the law. It also contained provisions forbidding bribery and official misconduct.
  • As a matter of fact, when the English drafted the Magna Carta, their intent was to develop a legal system that would no longer be based on an individual ruler’s system of laws, but a system of laws that even a ruler would have to abide by.

Why in the news?

  • UN chief Antonio Guterres on defended the UN Human Rights Council and said he would have “much preferred” for the US to remain in the world body, hours after America withdrew from it, citing alleged bias. The decision to pull the US out of the UN Human Rights Council was announced by US ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, who also criticised the council for its hostility towards Israel.
  • The US has long criticised the UN Human Rights Council for its standing agenda item 7 on the rights violations by all parties in the Palestinian territories. This item was included when the council’s agenda was drawn up at the conclusion of its initial year in the year 2007. This was at a time when the US had decided not to participate in the council. US ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, claimed that UN Rights abusers continue to serve on and be elected to the council.  
  • This is not the first such body the US has walked out of in recent times.

A Note on Human Rights:

Human rights are rights inherent to all human beings, regardless of race, sex, nationality, ethnicity, language, religion, or any other status. Human rights include the right to life and liberty, freedom from slavery and torture, freedom of opinion and expression, the right to work and education, and many more.  Everyone is entitled to these rights, without discrimination.

They are those rights to which all humans are entitled merely by virtue of being humans. They are essentially the inalienable and inviolable rights of all human beings. They are derived from the inherent dignity of human beings. They are essential for human survival and human development.

International human rights law lays down the obligations of Governments to act in certain ways or to refrain from certain acts, in order to promote and protect human rights and fundamental freedoms of individuals or groups.

One of the greatest achievements of the United Nations has been the the creation of a comprehensive body of human rights law. This law is a universal and internationally protected code to which all nations can subscribe and all people aspire. Furthermore, the United Nations has defined a broad range of internationally accepted rights. These list of accepted rights include civil, cultural, economic, political and social rights. Finally, it has also established mechanisms to promote and protect these rights and to assist states in carrying out their responsibilities.

The foundations of this body of law are the Charter of the United Nations and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the General Assembly in 1945 and 1948, respectively.  Since then, the United Nations has gradually expanded the scope of human rights law to entail specific standards for women, children, persons with disabilities, minorities and other vulnerable groups, who now possess rights that protect them from discrimination that had long been common in many societies.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) is a milestone document in the history of human rights. This declaration was drafted by representatives with different legal and cultural backgrounds from all regions of the world. Finally, the Declaration was proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly in Paris on the 10th of December, 1948 by the General Assembly resolution 217 A (III) as a common standard of achievements for all peoples and all nations.

This event is historic, because it set out, for the first time, fundamental human rights to be universally protected. Since its adoption in 1948, the UDHR has been translated into more than 501 languages, which also makes it the most translated document in the world. This document has inspired the constitutions of many newly independent States and many new democracies. The UDHR, together with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and its two Optional Protocols (on the complaints procedure and on the death penalty) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and its Optional Protocol, form the so-called International Bill of Human Rights.

Human Rights Conventions: There have been a series of international human rights treaties and other instruments that have been adopted since 1945, and as a consequence, have expanded the body of international human rights law. They include the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (1948), the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (1965), the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (1979), the Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989) and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (2006), among others.

Looking at Human Rights from an Indian perspective

The Constitution of India has a rich content of human rights. In particular, the Preamble, the Fundamental Rights and the Directive Principles of State Policy (Article 36-51) reflect the principles and provisions of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948). In the Preamble of the Indian Constitution, we find four ideals that are aimed at the promotion of human rights.

These four ideals are as under:

  • Justice in social, economic and political spheres
  • Liberty of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship
  • Equality of status and opportunity
  • Fraternity assuring the dignity of the individual

We also observe that with the passage of time, the Honourable Supreme Court of India has also expanded the scope of human rights contained in the Fundamental Rights of the Indian Constitution. The Honourable Supreme Court of India declared a number of human rights as an integral part of fundamental rights, though they have not been specifically mentioned in Part-III of the Constitution.

These list of rights which are an integral part of fundamental rights include, the right to health, right to speedy trial, right against torture, right to privacy, right to travel abroad, right to free legal aid, and so on. Over and above this, there have been various laws enacted by the Parliament and the State Legislatures that contain a number of human rights, that are aimed particularly for the vulnerable sections of the society. Some such laws under this segment are the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, the Protection of Civil Rights Act, the Persons with Disabilities Act, the Minimum Wages Act, and so on. In conclusion, the Protection of Human Rights Act (1993) defines human rights in India as the rights relating to life, liberty, equality and dignity of the individual guaranteed by the Constitution or embodied in the International Covenants and enforceable by courts in India.

In India, there have also been several National Commissions as well that have been setup for Human Rights. These include:

  • National Commission for SCs: This was setup under the Constitution of India (Article 338)  
  • Special Officer for Linguistic Minorities: This was setup under the Constitution of India (Article 350-B)
  • National Commission for Protection of Child Rights: This was established under The Commissions for Protection of Child Rights Act, 2005  
  • Central Commissioner for Disabled Persons: This was established under The Persons with Disabilities Act, 1995
  • National Commission for Minorities: This was established under The National Commission for Minorities Act, 1992
  • National Commission for STs: This was setup under the Constitution of India (Article 338-A)
  • National Human Rights Commission: This was established under The Protection of Human Rights Act, 1993
  • National Commission for Women: This was established under The National Commission for Women Act, 1990
  • National Commission for Backward Classes: This was established under The National Commission for Backward Classes Act, 1993  

Brief Round-up of events concerning US’ exit from the UNHRC

  • In 2006, John Bolton, the current National Security Advisor was still a prominent figure in the US policy setup and he was strongly opposed to the idea of the UNHRC. Thus, the recent pulling out of the US from the UNHRC should be seen in line with the policy of John Bolton.  
  • The standing agenda item 7 on Palestine which targets Israel is also an important point to consider. This is because the US has always been opposed to this agenda item being a permanent fixture of the UNHRC. India is also opposed to this concept of country-specific resolutions but we have accepted the Palestinian agenda item.

The Office of the UNHRC

  • The Human Rights Council is an inter-governmental body within the United Nations system responsible for strengthening the promotion and protection of human rights around the globe and for addressing situations of human rights violations and make recommendations on them.
  • It has the ability to discuss all thematic human rights issues and situations that require its attention throughout the year. It meets at the UN Office at Geneva.
  • The Human Rights Council, established on 15 March 2006 by the General Assembly and reporting directly to it, replaced the 60-year-old UN Commission on Human Rights as the key UN intergovernmental body responsible for human rights.
  • The most innovative feature of the Human Rights Council is the Universal Periodic Review. This unique mechanism involves a review of the human rights records of all 192 UN member states once every four years. The Review is a cooperative, state-driven process, under the auspices of the Council, which provides the opportunity for each state to present measures taken and challenges to be met to improve the human rights situation in their country and to meet their international obligations. The Review is designed to ensure universality and equality of treatment for every country.
  • The Council is made up of 47 United Nations Member States which are elected by the UN General Assembly, and is tasked with strengthening the promotion and protection of human rights around the globe by addressing situations of human rights violations and making recommendations on them, including responding to human rights emergencies.
  • The Human Rights Council replaced the former United Nations Commission on Human Rights.
  • The UNHRC is the main human rights body of the United Nations. This body is elected by the UN General Assembly. It has 47 members and a member can seek re-election only once, thus it can have consecutive terms and then it would have to take a break of at least one year. India is not currently a member of the UNHRC.
  • The UNHRC replaced in 2006 the earlier body called the Commission on Human Rights, which had worked in the UN since 1946 and the Commission on Human Rights was scrapped, mainly at the insistence of the US, because they felt that the body had become very politicized; and thus the idea of the UNHRC was to make the body less intrusive, less country specific, and help making it more promotional and general.
  • To what extent the UNHRC has been able to serve this purpose or not still has to be seen. As far as the US is concerned, we need to remember that the US did not join the UNHRC in 2006 when it was setup. The US joined the UNHRC only in 2009 when President Obama came into office.

Further,  it is important to distinguish between two organisations- i.e. the UNHRC itself which has 47 UN member countries and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) which is headed by Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein. Now, the High Commissioner is appointed by the Secretary General, and not by the UNHRC, and the High Commissioner appoints his own office. The office is an autonomous office- it does not report into the UNHRC although it services the UNHRC.

  • One of the major improvements on the UNHRC has been the Universal Periodic Review which takes place every four years for each country, and surprisingly, all the countries, even Israel have gone through 2 cycles of the UPR, which India and the US has also gone through. This is a peer review where the country sends a delegation, it submits a report and then the other countries comment upon it. Some of the points made by various countries are consistent with the points which some of the Indian human rights bodies make- thus, one must treat these reports with a certain degree of respect.
  • The problem with the US is that the US has a dual position on this. On one hand, it is the chief financier of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). Around 60% of the funding of this office comes from non-budgetary funds of the UN- it comes from the donations from the member-states, and the U.S. is the largest donor to that.
  • Thus, on one hand it is the largest donor to the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), and on the other hand, it is withdrawing from the UNHRC, because in the latter, it gets outnumbered by various other countries that are members and do not have a very god human rights record. But what the US does not seem to appreciate is the larger role that the UNHRC plays by making other countries aware of the fact that they have an international image; for example: Most Arab nations prefer to present women delegates as their representatives to the UNHRC. Saudi Arabia has also done this in the past- it was because they realised the importance of putting up a positive face to the world. Human right, irrespective of what the UN says, is essentially an internal matter of each country and it is for the government of each country to protect the human rights of its people.  The UNHRC can only play a promotional role in the idea of safeguarding human rights.

A look at certain contradictions

  • Mr. John Bolton, the National Security Advisor of the USA has always been against the UN. When Mr. Bolton was the Permanent Representative to the UN in New York, he famously said, “The Secretariat building in New York has 38 stories. If it lost ten stories, it wouldn’t make a bit of difference”.
  • Mr Bolton is opposed to the idea of internationalism and multilateralism. Thus, he has obviously influenced Trump. Also, the USA has a history of pulling out of organizations- they pulled out of UNESCO once.
  • It is also true that the US is the largest contributor to the United Nations, but, until President Obama had cleared various dues, the US has been the biggest defaulter. This has an effect even on India, for example, our UN peacekeeping forces are often not paid salaries even for months.
  • It is suggested that what Trump has done is in a way hypocritical as on the one hand, they walk out of the organization and then on the other hand they bring out various reports on human rights. For example, there is a commission called the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), but the reports given by these various commissions have seldom been seriously followed.
  • The United States has one of the biggest prison populations in the world, and it has a lot to answer for human rights. Raising sanctions against a particular country depends on how vulnerable a recipient country is- for example, when we look at Cuba, raising sanctions on Cuba for alleged human rights violations may not prove to be a potent instrument as Cuba has been under various sanctions for many years.

How relevant is the UNHRC today?

  • Accountability for human rights violations starts by shedding light on a variety of pressing human rights problems. In recent times, there has been a massive increase in the scope and depth of the Council’s workload- this demonstrates a much more determined and systematic attempt by the international community to monitor state behavior as far as human rights violations are concerned.
  • In recent times, the UNHRC has taken action that has led to important and unprecedented results. The commission of inquiry on North Korea, for example, has changed the conversation from denials of human rights abuses to acceptance that the UN Security Council must address the matter, including through a potential referral to the International Criminal Court. It is important to note that the commission of inquiry on North Korea delivered a hard-hitting report in 2014, in which it documented crimes against humanity.
  • Somehow, the idea of human rights has been made akin to the idea of mother’s milk. Thus, everyone wants to have human rights protected and preserved and this was one of the original ideas of the founders of the United Nations- that not only should the United Nations deal with military issues, but it should also deal with the respect for human rights.
  • It must be noted that the Americans were themselves against the original body of human rights and what is required is that we need to have greater respect for human rights- but the moot question is how we accept the idea of human rights under our own domestic constitutional provisions and the political debates at home in India.  
  • In the case of Palestine, we have seen that perhaps the Palestinian issue was going towards a resolution, by an understanding among all the countries, through a two-state formulation, but then internally we found that the Palestinian’s had a division of opinion and on the other hand, the American’s decided to move their embassy to Jerusalem which to divided the Europeans and the Americans. The US administration now is very keen to see that the idea of “America First” is not only looked upon as a declaratory principle, but is implemented in each and every sphere.

What is the locus-standi of the UNHRC?

  • The UNHRC has been strongly criticised for allowing countries with a poor human rights record to be a part of it.
  • All international organizations and all international bodies, ultimately and intrinsically are political in nature. Thus, you have the political composition around them that gets reflected in what these bodies either tend to do or tend not to do.
  • The UNSC for all the lofty ideals that it supports is ultimately a political body, where its members take decisions based on what their national interests’ demands. Thus, to take out UN Human Rights Council as some kind of an exemplar would be something wrong to do while analysing the situation. You have countries within the UNHRC where the officials take certain positions based on very narrow political prisms and narrow national domains which they come from.
  • It is this that often gets reflected in the reports that are often propounded. Surprisingly, the nations that are more open than others become more vulnerable as well, as they allow their vulnerabilities to be debated. However, nations that are more authoritarian in nature such as Russia, China, etc. don’t succumb to any such vulnerability, as their questions are not debated and are not out on the table as they don’t allow such conversations to happen in the first place.
  • The question to be asked here is that whether or not, by walking out of this body altogether, America leaves it open for other countries which are even less democratic than America is; or for that matter who care even less about human rights than what America does?

A brief look at the ramifications of the US walking out of the UNHRC

  • The immediate ramifications of the US walking out will be two-fold:
    a) Would the continuing members of the UNHRC be able to fill up the gap of the money that will be lost by the moving away of the United States?
    b) Would there be any changes in the priorities and the plans which were being fulfilled by the UNHRC?
    Thus, should they now reduce their workload and ensure that they become more efficient in their budgeting and in their financial matters? These are some of the questions that need answering.
  • At the end of the Cold War, the idea that liberal values would spread across the world was strongly believed and felt. But, we can see this disintegration almost piece by piece. The fact that it is coming from America itself shows you how fickle the idea of a single unifying world order can be. Therefore, the question that now arises is where is the alternative model? Where is the alternative world order going to come from? Do we have leaders, do we have states who can project alternative ideas?
  • Unfortunately, we don’t see the kind of cohesion in the west, we don’t see that kind of leadership in the East and thus the foreseeable future appears to be fraught with challenges. The Chinese know that the world order is moving in their direction. The way the Americans have moved out of the South Korean military exercises’, suggests that they want to cut their losses, move out of Asia, and see that they concentrate now on their main area that is settling their scores with the Iranians, Yemen and elsewhere.    

Concluding Remarks

  • In conclusion, the UNHRC is not the first organization that the US has walked out of. They have walked out of the UNESCO, the Paris Climate Accord, President Donald Trump has severely criticized the WTO as well time and again.
  • US foreign policy has always swung between its primary motivation of isolationism, represented by the Monroe doctrine on one hand, and the engagement and domination of the world as represented by the Truman doctrine, which among other things, talks about combating communism. Donald Trump takes forward the policy of isolationism, and he has come at a point when China has taken undue advantage of the free trade system, by creating a huge surplus and disrupting the whole trading system.
  • Donald Trump wants to reduce America’s trade deficit, and then on Israel, we know that Trump is not willing to compromise. His support for Israel goes all the way to shifting the capital to Jerusalem and his walking out of the UNHRC, is because of the Israel fixation of the UNHRC. Now, Israel has a problem with human rights violations, but so do many other countries in the world.
  • Even Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, the present High Commissioner (OHCHR) is from a country which ranks very low in the Human Rights Index. In his annual report at the farewell speech to the UNHRC, he mentioned a whole list of countries, including the US and India, but he didn’t mention Jordan, which is his own country, where there is very limited freedom. Thus, human rights is an issue where we have to move very gingerly, very carefully and it is not only important to promote human rights within our own country, but also globally through a promotional method, and the UNHRC is a good step in that direction.
  • In the wake of the decision made by the US to walk out of the UNHRC, ciriticisms are coming out strongly against them. The UN has its deficiencies and faults, but without the UN, things could be much worse.
  • As far as the Americans are concerned, they have a clear cut view of what they want to achieve in terms of the American policy in the Middle East. They are moving in that direction as well. They have made common cause with the Israeli’s, the Saudi Arabian’s, and some of their other allies there. Thus, Yemen has become the battleground at this time. The US feels that if it is not Syria, then Yemen, or both of them together and then Iran should be brought under tremendous pressure, and brought to their heels.
  • Also, whenever the Republicans have been in Government in the USA, they have said that the United Nations procedures are very ineffective, very inefficient and therefore, they should not pay so much of money. Thus, there are two parts a) the compulsory contribution which they have to pay to the main budget of the United Nations and b) Voluntary contribution
  • The US doesn’t pay the main budget of the UN often; and as far as the voluntary contributions are concerned, they either don’t pay or they pay after a great amount of delay and deliberation in the Congress. Thus, this is essentially what happens. The US agrees to pay, but later, they pull back and try to politicise the whole organization much more. It is believed that Trump is moving in a direction where he aims to put pressure on the United Nations bodies, and simultaneously on the members of the UN. Many officials in the UN as well realize that they are there in the first place because of no objections from the Americans- for example: Kofi Annan at one time had declared that the Americans were doing some illegal warfare in the Middle East- as a consequence to this; he was removed in virtually no time.
  • We also find that the present human rights commissioner is very close to the US, thus, perhaps he takes most of his briefs from the US government or the US officials. Thus, the US is very happy with him, but not too happy with the members of the UNHRC.
  • As far as India is concerned, we need to keep in mind that we respect the idea of human rights- as per the Constitutional requirements in India, there are various internal bodies that we have setup on human rights. We continue to do that, and that the same time when the Americans put undue pressure on us, we should tell them that there are UN related obligations that we want to abide by to the extent possible.
  • One observes that the idea of Human rights is a cross-cutting theme in all UN policies and programmes in the key areas of peace and security, development, humanitarian assistance, and economic and social affairs. As a consequence, virtually every UN body and specialized agency is involved to some degree in the protection of human rights.
  • A few examples in this regard include: the right to development, which is at the core of the Sustainable Development Goals; the right to food, championed by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, labour rights, defined and protected by the International Labour Organization, gender equality, which is promulgated by UN Women, the rights of children, indigenous peoples, and disabled persons. Human rights day is observed every year on 10 December.

How to approach for the Civil Services Examination

General Studies 2:



  • Rights Issues
  • Human Rights
  • Government policies and interventions for development in various sectors and issues arising out of their design and implementation
  • Welfare schemes for vulnerable sections of the population by the Centre and States


International Relations:


  • Effect of policies and politics of developed and developing countries on India’s interests
  • Important International institutions, agencies



Practice Question:

  1. The withdrawal of the US from the UNHRC has caused quite a stir recently. Examine its impact on the UNHRC and the idea of human rights in the 21st Century. (250 words) (12.5 marks)

Essay Practice Questions:

  1. Human Rights: A Right or a Privilege?


Further Reading:

A note on the Monroe doctrine:

  • James Monroe was the President of the U.S. During his annual address to Congress, he proclaimed a new U.S. foreign policy initiative that came to be known as the “Monroe Doctrine.”
  • This doctrine was primarily the work of Secretary of State John Quincy Adams. The Monroe Doctrine forbade European interference in the American hemisphere but also asserted U.S. neutrality in regard to future European conflicts.
  • The origins of this doctrine stem from attempts by several European powers to reassert their influence in the Americas in the early 1820s.

Also See:

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