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III.1 State engagement with the Human Rights Council

At present, many stakeholders such as OHCHR, special procedures mandate-holders, NGOs, and specialized organizations greatly contribute to the work of the Human Rights Council. Nonetheless, as in any other inter-governmental organization, the role of States in the Human Rights Council remains crucial. This is why the way States engage in the Council and contribute to its work continues to be fundamental to understanding the outcomes of this UN body.

The issue has been studied by Cox, who tried to explain States’ interests in the creation and functioning of the Human Rights Council, taking into consideration four main theories of international relations: realism, neoliberalism, constructivism and the domestic-policies approach. [1]  

Emphasizing that the realist theory focuses on power interests, Cox argued that, according to this position, the Human Rights Council was created and supported by States because it corresponded to their main interests. However, Cox argued that this theory fails to explain why the Council was established even when the main Power of the international community, the United States, was against it.

Cox also explained that neoliberalists consider cooperation from a different perspective—i.e. beyond military alliances. Indeed, an international organization provides space for cooperation because it gives States more space and time to interact, understand their positions, and eventually move forward, irrespective of the will of a hegemonic State. Nonetheless, according to Cox, the neoliberalist theory has not taken into consideration that sometimes States are complex and their decisions at the internal level could have nuances and their positions change over time. Consequently, it is really challenging—and sometimes not possible—to converge with the position of other peers on certain issues under specific circumstances.

The constructivist theory, according to Cox, attempts to fill the gaps in previous theories by focusing on the importance of international norms, institutions, and ways and means to persuade States to behave in a certain way with tools such as naming and shaming. However, this theory fails to explain the reason why these norms sometimes are not incorporated later in internal law and thus are not respected in practice by States.

The last theory explored by Cox is the domestic-policies approach, which focuses on the fact that a State decides to promote human rights issues considering a complex balance of domestic and international political gains. National interests are prioritized, along with the possibility of benefitting from the work and structure of international organizations. Cox follows Moravcsik, who explains how Eastern European countries embraced the European human rights system after the end of the Cold War as a way to prevent their countries returning to authoritarian regimes in the future. It was in their interest to be part of a system that monitors democracy and human rights.

In this context, Cox has affirmed that constructivist and domestic policy theories tend to better explain States’ interests in the context of the Human Rights Council. Constructivism is applicable to the decision to create this body: it was in the States’ interest to show commitment to reforming a highly criticized universal human rights body. 

At the same time, the domestic policy theory serves to better explain how national interests play a strong role in determining preferences relating to the way to shape a UN body, in this case the Council. According to this theory, States with better human rights records will push for a stronger body with the capacity to deal with thematic and country issues, and they would probably not pay a high cost because of their good performance at the national level. On the contrary, States with poor records will promote an institution with less powers when it comes to dealing with human rights violations. [2]  

In my opinion, the domestic policy approach could also be a tool to understand States’ interest in pushing for specific initiatives in the Human Rights Council, both as a group of States and individually. Substantive issues in the Council—both thematic and country-oriented—are a product of national human rights foreign policies, which prioritize issues of national importance while at the same time considering the characteristics and dynamics of the Council, its composition and other stakeholders that participate therein (States, NGOs, human rights experts).

  1. Cox, Eric, “State interests…”, Ibid, pages 89-97.
  2. Cox, Eric, “State interests…”, Ibid, pages 93-97.

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