The history of Wilton Park and the Human Rights Council

9 September, 2014

The Human Rights Council (HRC) is currently holding its twenty-seventh regular session, which runs from 8 to 26 September 2014. Our meetings have contributed towards the creation of the HRC, and we continue to hold regular discussions on topical human rights issues.

In February 2004 we held an informal meeting on Addressing contemporary security threats: what role for the United Nations? for the UN High-level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change, early in the series of consultations it conducted in the course of its work. The panel was created following the division in the UN Security Council as a result of the 2003 intervention in Iraq. There was questioning of the UN’s purpose; how significant was the UN as an international body if states chose to ignore the Security Council’s role in ensuring peace and security, including authorisation of the use of force? The panel was established by UN Secretary General Kofi Annan in late 2003 to look at the way the United Nations and the international system operated. Its purpose was to assess the current threats to peace and security; to evaluate how well existing policies and institutions have responded to those threats; and to recommend ways of strengthening the UN to provide collective security for the 21st century.

The High-level Panel’s findings were published in 2004 in a report entitled A more secure world: our shared responsibility and among its recommendations, the High-level Panel proposed changes to the UN’s Commission on Human Rights (CHR), the then principle inter-governmental human rights body. The idea for reform of the UN’s human rights structures provided the context for our meeting in January 2005 on What future policies for protecting human rights? during which participants discussed how the CHR could be made more effective. It was suggested at this meeting that “the CHR could be replaced by a Human Rights Council (HRC), which would be a principal organ of the UN.” This meeting was the first of a series on human rights issues co-sponsored by the Norwegian and Swiss governments that has been taking place annually for the past decade.

The proposal to create a HRC gained momentum and was included in the report of the UN Secretary-General issued detailing his recommendations for action on the High-level Panel’s findings. The Secretary-General’s report was prepared in advance of the September 2005 UN World Summit, a meeting of over 170 world leaders. The World Summit provided a mandate for substantial consolidation of the UN’s policy around human rights, including the acceptance by governments of the norm of ‘the responsibility to protect’ discussed during our 2008 conference Implementing the responsibility to protect: the role of regional and sub-regional partners and in 2010, How can the Lisbon Treaty help the European Union mainstream the responsibility to protect? as well as the creation of a new body, the HRC. While UN inter-governmental meetings following the world summit held lengthy negotiations on the HRC’s establishment, we had detailed discussion of the prospective workings of the HRC at its 2006 annual human rights meeting How to advance the human rights agenda?

The Human Rights Council was created by the UN General Assembly on 15 March 2006 by Resolution 60/251. It held its first session in June 2006 and is made up of 47 Member States which are elected by the UN General Assembly. It is responsible for strengthening the promotion and protection of human rights around the globe, addressing situations of human rights violations and making recommendations on them. It discusses all thematic human rights issues and situations that require its attention through the year, holding at least three regular sessions annually and special sessions as urgent issues arise. Most recently the HRC has held special sessions on human rights abuses in Iraq by the Islamic State, the latest outbreak of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the ongoing crisis in the Syrian Arab Republic.

Informal discussions during a coffee break at our meeting on Business and human rights...

Informal discussions during a coffee break at our meeting on Business and human rights…

When creating the Human Rights Council in March 2006 the UNGA decided that the Council’s work and functioning should be reviewed at the level of the General Assembly five years after it had come into existence. This review provided the context for our annual conference on UN-related human rights 2010 Reviewing the work and functioning of the Human Rights Council. What are the priority issues?

The most recent conference in this series, held in January 2014, examined Addressing implementation gaps: improving cooperation between regional and global human rights mechanisms. Our meeting in January 2015 on Strengthening the UN human rights treaty monitoring system: what are the next steps? will discuss how to strengthen the UN human rights treaty body system.

In addition to addressing human rights violations in conflict situations, the HRC also tackles important thematic human rights issues such as the freedom of association and assembly, freedom of expression, freedom of belief and religion, women’s rights, LGBT rights and the rights of racial and ethnic minorities.

We hold policy discussions relating to many of these issues. In 2012 we held a meeting on Preventing Sexual Violence in conflict and post-conflict situations and a year later, addressed Combating human trafficking: business and human rights.

Business and human rights is a recurring theme in our work, beginning with the appointment of Professor John Ruggie as the Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General on the issue of human rights and transnational corporations and other business enterprises. At our first meeting, in October 2005, we helped launch Professor Ruggie’s mandate through discussion on Business and human rights: advancing the agenda. In January 2011, six months before Professor Ruggie was due to present his final report to the HRC on the UN framework for business and human rights, in particular the Guiding Principles for its implementation, we held a meeting to help resolve some of the outstanding issues. Once the Guiding Principles were agreed, we met in June 2012 to discuss Business and human rights: implementing the Guiding Principles one year on. We have also discussed Burma/Myanmar, business and human rights: setting standards for responsible business.

Most recently, in September 2014, we held our first meeting on the issue of LGBT rights, Promoting the human rights of LGBT persons: next steps for international institutions and civil society, which we aim to follow up in the coming years.

Related conferences

What future policies for protecting human rights? (2004)

Addressing contemporary security threats: what role for the United Nations? (2005)

How to advance the human rights agenda? (2006)

Implementing the responsibility to protect: the role of regional and sub-regional partners (2008)

How can the Lisbon Treaty help the European Union mainstream the responsibility to protect? (2010)

Reviewing the work and functioning of the Human Rights Council. What are the priority issues? (2010)

Preventing Sexual Violence in conflict and post-conflict situations (2012)

The UN framework for business and human rights (2012)

Business and human rights: implementing the Guiding Principles one year on (2012)

Burma/Myanmar, business and human rights: setting standards for responsible business (2012)

Combating human trafficking: business and human rights (2013)

Addressing implementation gaps: improving cooperation between regional and global human rights mechanisms (2014)

Promoting the human rights of LGBT persons: next steps for international institutions and civil society (2014)

Further Information from the UN

United Nations Rule of Law – The Secretary General’s high level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change

A more secure world: our shared responsibility

2005 UN World Summit

Resolution 60/251

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