top of page

Periodical Review in the UN Human Rights Council

This post has originally been published on 25.11.2018.

While the eyes of the world media turn to US midterms this week, we direct our attention to Geneva to assess the resilience of the international system in face of dwindling support and rising uncertainty.

This week 14 countries will have to explain their human rights conduct at the Human Rights Council's 31st periodic review. Amongst them, Saudi Arabia's and China's reactions will be followed with eager interest by the international community. The Human Rights Council must prove its credibility and defend its reputation after the US have withdrawn their support for the institution earlier this year.

Over the course of the last year, Saudi Arabia has started to liberalize many of its fundamentalist laws, particularly those limiting womens' freedom and rights. The modernization campaign by the crownprince Mohammad bin Salman has brought forward swift reform of the traditionalist country. However, his anti-corruption campaigns and strong grip on the country's media has caused international observers and human rights activists to accuse his regime of arbitrary prosecution of potential rivals and political foes. Most recently, the alleged murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a prominent critical journalist, in Istanbul has caused international outrage.

Simultaniously, Saudi-Arabia is engaging in a bloody civil conflict over Jemen, where it has been accused of major war crimes including the deliberate bombing of hospitals and other civilian facilities lacking military necessity. The international community will have to prove that it values human rights over supporting an alleged partner of the west in the Arab region.

China's review might shed light on the changing dynamic within the international system with the USA becoming more and more reluctant to support the western-shaped set of institutions. China's human rights record is all but clean: It is accused of detaining religious minorities in its Xinjiang and other peripherical region in 're-education centers', workers coming to the eastern cities from the countryside are usually stripped off many rights essentially rendering them outlaws, the state maintains a firm grip on media outlets and social media platforms and critics are arbitrarily detained and silenced. Increasingly, China's autonomous regions such as Hong Kong fear to lose their independence from mainland laws of censorship. However, China has made it clear to economic partners that it does not approve of international criticism of its 'internal affairs'. With Chinese investments amounting to ever higher shares in African and Asian countries inparticular, the international community might be reluctant to criticize China for its conduct. With China's nfluence in shaping international institutions rising, the extent of criticism at this year's review might provide insight into the future of human rights as a major issue in the international debate.

The review process has been criticized to be an outlet for regimes to present themselves in a positive light rather than tackling human rights issues. The 3.5 hours of review are also claimed to be too short for an in-depth analysis. However, reforming the HRC poses the threat to even further reduce the extent of control and seems to be politically unrealistic at the moment. Whatever the outcome of the official review, it will be essential to supplement them with the NGOs' shadow reports on the issue.


Jan-Phillip Graf, Geneva


Credit: UN Geneva Human Rights and Alliance of Civilizations Room, captured by Ludovic Courtès, CC BY-SA 3.0.

bottom of page