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III.3. The role of individual States

III.3.1 The influence of the Great Powers

It is not only regional or other groups that have had a predominant role in the work and functioning of the Council. There have also been specific States which have had a particular influence in the still short life of this UN body, including main Powers at the international level. Foot indicates that this influence can be exercised by offering incentives or threatening disincentives to act in a certain way. It can even exist without any particular action by the influential State. This happens because there are States which have legitimate authority in international organizations. It can also happen if a State has the capacity to harm other States interests, even if they do not use this leverage. The chance to do so is enough to influence the other States’ behavior.[1]

A significant example of an influential State is the United States. American foreign policy on human rights has been the object of detailed and careful study and exceeds the scope of this work.[2] The role of the United States in the Council will only be taken as an example of State influence.

The United States has had a cyclic position that radically changed on three occasions during the Council’s rather short existence. The initial position of the US during the institution- building process under the G.W. Bush Administration was described earlier in general terms. It voted against the establishment of the Council and, after a few sessions, where it participated as an observer State, it directly disengaged from discussions and meetings of the body. The absence of the United States during the first period of the Council favored the positions of some of the aforementioned groups on certain specific issues.

The United States changed its position under the Obama Administration. In fact, it returned to the Council in 2009, engaged in the Council’s work constructively, and contributed to producing remarkable changes. One example is the work of the American Delegation in creating an environment that eventually allowed the need to address violence and discrimination against LGBTI persons to be introduced. The US was also a key actor in the creation of new country mandates such as the one on Iran.[3] The US also promoted the creation of a new thematic mandate on freedom of association, together with Egypt, in the context of the Arab Spring.

These resolutions and progress on specific issues would have been unthinkable only a few years before the US rejoining the Council. Many African and Arab countries were—and many of them still are—against the mere inclusion of the term sexual orientation in a UN document. Except in very limited cases—e.g. human rights violations by Israel—the OIC and the African Group, followed by other States, were reluctant to support the renewal or the creation of several country mandates because they considered it was not a constructive approach. Nonetheless, the American position on the human rights violations committed by Israel did not change. It rejected resolutions on Israel—e.g. on the Palestinian territories—and continued to maintain an isolated position.

A third change arrived in 2017. After the start of the Trump administration, criticisms of the Council for its politicization, poor records in terms of the quality of membership, and the selective manner in which human rights violations by Israel were dealt with, eventually led to a new withdrawal of the US from the Council in 2018.[4] The absence of the United States is to be regretted because of its strategic importance, the difficulties that like-minded countries will face when attempting to move particular human rights issues forward, and also because it sets a risky precedent which can be emulated by others.[5]

In sum, the presence or absence of a Great Power such as the US is relevant enough to produce substantive changes in a UN body like the Human Rights Council. In any case, State influence, even that of a main Power, has limits in the Council. During the institution-building, for example, the United States was unable to include some strict requirements for the membership of the Council. During the Council review, it was not possible for the United States to convince others to remove a specific item on human rights in the Middle East from the agenda. The decision-making process by majority of votes clearly contributed to this limit, which does not exist in other UN bodies such as the SC.

III.3.2 Contribution of individual States. National issues that become international initiatives

Although the influence of the Main Powers in the Council cannot be underestimated, the size and power of States is not the only factor in the development of the human rights system, including international human rights norms and standards. This is because having a strong human rights foreign policy is also a matter of choice; consequently, there are some States that give a higher priority to this issue than others.[6]

Since the creation of the Council, a number of individual countries have contributed to its work and to the development of norms, standards, policies and other measures with a significant degree of success. In general, initiatives are related to domestic realities which in most cases are shared by other—if not all—countries of the same region and, sometimes, even other regions.

For instance, for a long time now, South Africa has been the main actor behind all anti-racial discrimination initiatives at the UN level. The heavy past of Apartheid gives this country an enormous international legitimacy to deal with the issue. In this sense, since the beginning of the work of the Council, South Africa has received strong support from the vast majority of countries to ensure the continuation of thematic mandates, such as the Working Group on African Descent. The same level of support was shown to this African country during the 2009 Review Conference of the DDPA, except for a number of WEOG countries.

Norway is another valuable example. Being a European country outside the main regional bloc, the EU, it has usually sustained more flexible positions than its neighbors during debates and negotiations in the Council. Its work in this UN body has demonstrated a national position with firm values and conviction about the importance of the issue at the international level. Its commitment to the universal system is clearly shown by, inter alia, the fact that it has been world’s largest voluntary contributor to the work of OHCHR.[7] Norway has been able to successfully lead complex initiatives such as human rights defenders and business and human rights—together with other sponsors like Argentina—in a spirit of constructiveness, and to achieve the adoption of these resolutions by consensus. Moreover, Norway has positively engaged in different human rights processes, including the Durban review negotiations on racism.

Another example of the importance of an individual State is Cuba. This country undertook many efforts to end the country mandate, which dealt with the human rights situation in Cuba during the Commission era. This was clearly rejected by different States—mainly from WEOG—and NGOs. Nevertheless, Cuba finally managed to have the country mandate eliminated at the end of negotiations on the institution-building process of the Council. The Cuban role in the Council was not only restricted to this question related to the national human rights situation in the Caribbean island. Cuba also submitted an exceptional quantity of draft resolutions per year in the three sessions of the Council on a wide variety of issues, such as support for the independent expert on the negative effects of foreign debt on human rights and the establishment of a new independent expert on cultural rights.

Argentina has also made a valuable contribution to the work of the Council from the beginning, in 2006. Argentina’s dark past of gross human rights violations during the dictatorship in the 1970s and 1980s, as well as the recovery of democracy with human rights at the top of the national political agenda for almost four decades, had an impact not only at the domestic level but also internationally, including in particular in the Human Rights Council. Up next, the Argentine experience in the Council will be analyzed in depth as an example of the importance of individual States in the Human Rights Council.


  1. This position is sustained in Foot, Rosemary et al, “China’s influence on Asian States during the creation of the UN Human Rights Council: 2005-2007”, Asian Survey, Volume 54, N° 5, 2014, pages 858-861.
  2. See in this regard, Renouard, Joe, Human Rights in American Foreign Policy. From the 1960 to the Soviet collapse, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016, pages 7-279. See also, Hancock, Jan, Human Rights and US Foreign Policy, Routledge Taylor and Francis Group, London and New York, 2007. See also, Donnelly, Jack, International human rights, Ibid, pages 11-16.
  3. The White House, President Barak Obama, “Fact Sheet: Obama Administration leadership on International Human Rights”, 4 December 2013, available at: https://bit.ly/38BZ5k8.
  4. The Washington Post, “The US withdrew from the Human Rights Council. That’s not how the Council should work”, by Susan Hannah Allen and Martin Edwards, June 26, 2018, available at: https://wapo.st/2IzEUs7.
  5. Freeman, Rose, “Why the US left the UN Human Rights Council and why it matters”, in The conversation. com, 20 June 2018, available at: https://bit.ly/2GUrO8B.
  6. Donnelly, Jack, International human rights, Ibid, pages 110-114.
  7. See for instance, Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, “United Nations Human Rights Report 2018”, pages 84-94, available at: https://bit.ly/3eYVVIv.


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