Moving On Up: The UN Human Rights Council Agenda Items Explained

Recently, CSW raised concerns regarding the diminishing scrutiny of Sudan’s human rights record at the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC). The situation in the country is currently considered under agenda item 10, but CSW, along with many Sudanese and international civil society organisations, has repeatedly argued that the present situation is sufficiently serious to merit consideration under agenda item 4.

For many, the importance and even the content of these agenda items is likely to be unclear, yet the differences are crucial in determining the extent to which important human rights situations are scrutinised.

Every HRC session contains ten agenda items, each pertaining to different human rights issues. Matters discussed under these items include the promotion and protection of all human rights, civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights, including the right to development (Item 3), human rights situations that require the Council’s attention (Item 4), the Universal Periodic Review (Item 6) and technical assistance and capacity building (Item 10). At the regular sessions of the HRC, which take place three times a year, the Council considers each agenda item in turn and the resolutions of these discussions are later published online by the OHCHR.

The resolution on the right to freedom of religion or belief falls under item 3, but CSW also engages regularly, though not exclusively, with agenda items 4, and 10, as these present valuable opportunities for raising issues relating to freedom of religion or belief in countries of particular concern. Human rights situations considered under agenda item 4 are generally considered to be more pressing than those considered under item 10.

Agenda Item 4

Under agenda item 4, country specific human rights situations that are deemed to require the Council’s attention are discussed. Countries falling under this item experience the highest levels of scrutiny from the HRC. Human rights situations in Burma, Burundi, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, South Sudan and Syria are considered under item 4.

Item 4 enables organisations like CSW to highlight recent human rights developments in these countries in a continuous effort to hold governments to account and encourage the international community to press for change and accountability. At the most recent session of the HRC (HRC39), CSW delivered updates on Burma and Syria.

A general debate also takes place under agenda item 4, which presents an important opportunity for CSW and others to draw the Council’s attention to serious issues in countries that are not considered under item 4. During the 39th session of the HRC, CSW used item 4’s general debate to highlight issues in China, Egypt and Vietnam.

Under item 4, the Council can ask the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) to submit a report on a specific issue. It can also create a special procedures country mandate or set up an independent commission to investigate the country in question. Item 4 resolutions are generally contentious, and rarely adopted without a vote.

Agenda Item 10

Improving country specific human rights situations through technical assistance and capacity building is another important part of the HRC’s mandate. This is specifically considered under agenda item 10.  Human rights situations in the countries considered under this item are viewed by the HRC as less severe than those considered under item 4, although the Council acknowledges that improvements are needed.

Countries considered under item 10 include Cambodia, Central African Republic (CAR), Somalia, and Sudan. During HRC39, CSW delivered statements on CAR  and Sudan under agenda item 10.

Human rights situations in countries such as these are, rightly, deemed worthy of the Council’s regular attention; however, any measures taken to ensure improvements require the cooperation of the beneficiary state. This can be problematic, as it means that the HRC is sometimes unable to raise violations committed by governing authorities, or those a government refuses to acknowledge in the reports and findings of the UN.

This is precisely the problem in the case of Sudan. A joint letter released ahead of the 39th session of the HRC by 32 Sudanese and international civil society organisations stated: “Resolutions adopted by the Council since it decided to move consideration of Sudan from its agenda item 4 to item 10 have failed to adequately reflect the situation on the ground and outline a meaningful path for accountability and human rights reforms.”

The situation on the ground is one of increasing human rights violations

At HRC39, the UN’s Independent Expert on Sudan detailed numerous examples of human rights violations over the past year, including demolitions of churches, restrictions on press freedom, violations in conflict areas, restrictions on women’s rights and mass arrests of protestors during anti-austerity demonstrations in January and February 2018.

Other issues, raised in CSW’s oral statement on Sudan, include ongoing judicial harassment of religious leaders, and discrimination against religious and ethnic minorities by the state. Discrimination has been reported in education, employment and access to housing, health care and basic amenities.

The above is by no means an exhaustive list of the human rights violations taking place in Sudan. However, it clearly illustrates a need for the HRC to rethink the level of scrutiny it applies to the country’s human rights situation.

Moreover, if other Member States show reluctance, or even fail, to challenge this behaviour, then the cycle continues.  Without political will or courage, impunity will regrettably  become entrenched, undermining the credibility of the UN and sending a message to victims who are seeking redress that the UN can no longer be relied upon for assistance.

Today (24 October) marks United Nations Day, a day on which we celebrate the creation of this valuable institution. However, in order for the UN and the HRC to realise its full potential, greater care must be taken in the analyses of human rights situations on the ground so that countries like Sudan receive the close monitoring they deserve.

By Ellis Heasley, CSW’s Public Affairs Officer