Commission on Human Rights

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Commission on Human Rights

Introduction to the Commission on Human Rights

The Commission on Human Rights is a subsidiary body of the Economic and Social Council. The Charter of the United Nations specifies that the Council “shall set up Commissions in the economic and social field and for the promotion of human rights” (Article 68 of the Charter of the United Nations). In its first meeting in 1946, the Economic and Social Council established two functional commissions, one on human rights and the other on the status of women. It was decided that these commissions would be composed of State representatives. The Commission on Human Rights it was composed, in 2001, of 53 States elected by the Economic and Social Council.

The following States were members of the Commission on Human Rights at its fiftyseventh
session in March-April 2001: Algeria(until 2003), Argentina(2002), Belgium (2003), Brazil (2002), Burundi (2002), Cameroon (2003), Canada (2003), China (2002), Colombia(2001), Costa Rica(2003), Cuba(2003), Czech Republic (2002), Democratic Republic of the Congo (2003), Djibouti (2003), Ecuador (2002), France (2001), Germany (2002), Guatemala (2003), India (2003), Indonesia (2002), Italy (2002), Japan (2002), Latvia (2001), Liberia (2001), Libyan Arab Jamahiriya (2003), Madagascar (2001), Malaysia (2003), Mauritius (2001), Mexico (2001), Niger (2001), Nigeria (2002), Norway (2001), Pakistan (2001), Peru (2003), Poland (2003), Portugal (2002), Qatar (2001), Republic of Korea (2001), Romania (2001), Russian Federation (2003), Saudi Arabia (2003), Senegal (2003), South Africa (2003), Spain (2002), Swaziland (2002), Syria (2003), Thailand (2003), United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland
(2003), Uruguay (2003), United States of America (2001), Venezuela (2003), Viet Nam (2003) and Zambia (2002).

Immediately following its creation, the Commission established a subsidiary body that is now known as the Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights (hereafter “the Sub-Commission”).

The Sub-Commission, which is composed of 26 experts who are elected by the States members of the Commission, has inter alia amandate to undertake studies authorized by the Commission and to make recommendations.

The Commission meets annually for six weeks in Geneva in March-April. The Sub-Commission meets for three weeks in August, also in Geneva. The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights acts as secretariat to the Commission and the Sub-Commission.

Commission on Human Rights Development

Over the years, the work of the Commission has changed substantially. Very ea rly on the Commission focused on ela bora ting various human rights standards. It drafted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the two Covenants, on civil and political rights, and on economic, social and cultural rights. Soon, the main challenge before the Commission came to be how to respond to human rights violations. In 1947, the Economic and Social Council passed a resolution stating that the Commission had “no power to take any action in regard to any complaints concerning human rights” (the Economic and Social Council resolution 75(V) (1947) and decision of the Commission on Human Rights at its first session, in January 1947).

In 1965, however, the Commission was faced with a number of individual petitions from South Africa and came under considerable pressure to deal with them. This forced it to grapple with the elaboration of procedures to deal with issues connected to racism. A taboo was broken in 1967 when the Commission established an ad hoc working group of experts to investigate the situation of human rights in southern Africa (Resolution 2 (XXIII), document E/259, 1947, para. 22). The demand to act on the situation in southern Africa led to recognition of the need for public debate on specific countries. In response to arequest by the Commission on Human Rights, the Economic and Social Council adopted resolution 1236 (XLII) in 1967, allowing the examination of cases revealing a consistent pattern of human rights violations. In its resolution 1503 (XLVIII), adopted in 1970, the Council established a procedure to deal confidentially with complaints relating to a consistent pattern of gross violations of human rights.

It took until 1975 before the Commission was able to deal with another situation, however. Following the 1973 coup in Chile against President Allende by General Augusto Pinochet, the Commission established in 1975 an ad hoc working group to inquire into the situation of human rights in Chile. In 1979, this working group was replaced by a special rapporteur and two experts to study the fate of the disappeared in Chile. In 1980, the Commission established the Working Group on Disappearances to deal with the question of enforced disappearances
throughout the world. Since then, there has been less reluctance to establish expert mechanisms to deal with human rights challenges in various parts of the world. Such mechanisms were progressively applied in a more innovative manner and adapted to an increasing range of violations.

The Commission solicits the help of human rights experts to assist it in the task of examining specific situations. Over the years, the work of these experts has provided a much needed analysis on how human rights principles are applied in reality. It has formed the basis for an informed and substantive debate at the intergovernmental level.

It has given a voice to the often silenced victims and offered a basis for dialogue with Governments on the concrete measures to be taken to enhance protection.

The work of the experts is debated during the annual session of the Commission on Human Rights. About one third of the experts also reports to the United Nations General Assembly in New York. Some experts have informally briefed the United Nations Security Council.

Further Reading

Definition of Commission on Human Rights

Within the context of international human rights, the following is a brief meaning of commission on human rights: Body formed by the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) of the UN to deal with human rights; one of the first and most important international human rights bodies.

Commission on Human Rights

Embracing mainstream international law, this section on commission on human rights explores the context, history and effect of the area of the law covered here.


Further Reading

  • The entry “commission on human rights” in the Parry and Grant Encyclopaedic Dictionary of International Law (currently, the Encyclopaedic Dictionary of International Law, 2009), Oxford University Press


See Also

  • Human Rights

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