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Iran’s Appointment as the Chair-Rapporteur of the UNHRC Social Forum

Politicisation of Subsidiary Expert UN Human Rights Bodies


On 10 May 2023, the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Council (HRC) President appointed the Islamic Republic of Iran to chair the 2023 Social Forum. The upcoming Forum focuses on “the contribution of science, technology, and innovation to promoting human rights, including in the context of post-pandemic recovery”.

This is not the first time that Iran has been appointed to a UN body amidst mass protests in the country following the murder of Mahsa (Jina) Amini in the so-called “Morality Police” custody. However, the appointment of Iran as the Chair of the Social Forum has generated more critical voices compared to its recent election as the Vice-President of the General Assembly and designation of different roles to Committees of the Economic and Social Council.

One of the main reasons for these critiques is the concerning state of human rights in Iran, especially after the brutal suppression of peaceful protests in recent months. Due to the severity of the situation, the HRC decided to launch a Fact-Finding Mission to examine the human rights violations by the government from the beginning of the protests. Therefore, many human rights activists perceive this appointment as shocking and believe it undermines the credibility of the HRC.

Furthermore, designating the Islamic Republic as the Chair-Rapporteur for this particular Forum on human rights and technology in 2023 is paradoxical. In the last few months, the Regime has used technologies such as facial-recognition cameras to threaten its citizens and identify participants in peaceful protests or those who do not comply with mandatory hijab regulations. Granting a platform to a regime that actively seeks to limit its population’s access to essential technologies like the Internet, hindering their ability to engage with NGOs, private businesses, and independent experts striving to create a more accessible and inclusive environment, should be regarded as a significant concern. Such a situation would enable the regime to identify potential vulnerabilities or avenues of dissent among its citizens and pre-emptively block them.

This appointment serves as a critical reminder that Iran’s case represents only the tip of the iceberg, reflecting a broader concern about the future of norm-creating and norm-promoting bodies within the Council. While the regional rotation system and the absence of alternative candidates might provide a straightforward justification for this appointment, as also the Spokesperson for the Secretary-General tried to adopt this approach, it highlights a deeper issue—the politicisation of human rights within UN bodies. Against this background, this blogpost analyses Iran’s recent appointment as the Chair of the HRC Social Forum, aiming to provide recommendations to prevent further politicisation in subsidiary expert bodies of the HRC.

The Social Forum: A Space for Inclusive Discussions

The Social Forum originated in 1997 as a response to concerns regarding the impact of globalization on the realisation of economic, social, and cultural rights (paras. 85-87). Recognising these challenges, the Special Rapporteur for the former Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities emphasized the need to include governmental and non-governmental groups to comprehensively understand the issues at hand (paras. 92-95).

The Special Rapporteur’s suggestion dated back to 1997, but it was not until 2001 that the Sub-Commission concluded it would establish the Social Forum for the suggested aim. Accordingly, the Sub-Commission invited NGOs with advisory status with the UN and requested other actors, including governments, intergovernmental organisations, and even business-related players, to participate. As a result of the Sub-Commission’s request, the first meeting of the Social Forum was held in 2002 on “Globalisation, the right to adequate food and poverty reduction”.

The findings from the first Social Forum and later ones illustrate that these meetings extend beyond merely exchanging information and insights. Instead, they function as a dynamic platform for cultivating proactive measures. Notably, the final reports generated from these forums were submitted to the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) and other relevant UN bodies for further implementation.

While the CHR dissolved, the Social Forum continued to exist under the auspices of the HRC. The HRC now selects the theme for the Social Forum, which spans three days in October each year, typically determined during its March session. Like its predecessor, the HRC strives to ensure broad participation to overcome hierarchical differences among participants. Additionally, the Council actively encourages all actors to consider the findings of the Forum’s final report when formulating their plans and strategies.

The Chairperson of the Social Forum: From CHR to HRC

The role of the Chairperson of the Social Forum has undergone changes under the HRC system compared to the CHR. Previously, the Sub-Commission experts appointed the Chairperson who was nominated and elected (from among their own members) through acclamation (look at the first to the third sessions). However, the HRC introduced a novel procedure wherein the President of the Council appoints the Chairperson-Rapporteur from candidates belonging to regional groups. This approach follows the principle of “regional rotation” (para. 6), ensuring that the Chairperson represents one of the UN regional groupings.

While the exact role of the Chairperson-Rapporteur has yet to be defined in any document, previous reports shed light on their responsibilities. Accordingly, the Chairperson plays a “guiding role” in preparing the “programme”, in the past by cooperating with the Sub-Commission Special Rapporteur on the session topic. Resolution 6/13, which established the new system of Social Forums under the HRC, also mandates that the High Commissioner for Human Rights assist the Chairperson as a resource person in assembling independent experts (to address the Forum’s identified themes and issues) (para. 9).

Consequently, the appointed Chairperson’s approach indirectly shapes the Social Forum’s outcomes. It is crucial to acknowledge that one of the central objectives of the Forum is to bring together independent experts and civil society organizations to engage in free and secure discussions. Therefore, the character and approach of the appointed country as the Chairperson influence the provision of such an environment and the achievement of the Forum’s goals.

The Problem: Politicisation of HRC

Politicisation should be distinguished from having political objectives. According to Oberleitner, generally, in intergovernmental organisations consisting of state representatives, the acts of members would be based on political considerations (Oberleitner, p. 47). However, when countries include contentious issues intending to advance their political goals, even when those issues are unrelated to the ongoing discussions, the politicisation of international organisations will occur (Lyons et al., p. 81). The politicisation of an international organisation should be hence considered a negative point which may result in ineffectiveness, and undermine the proper functioning of that body (Freedman et al., p. 753).

The issue of politicisation within the Human Rights Council is multifaceted and merits careful consideration. One dimension of this problem involves establishing groups and alliances that operate behind the scenes. In general, both connected principles of “equitable geographical distribution” and “the regional rotation” were initially introduced to ensure representation and inclusivity. However, they have inadvertently created opportunities for countries with questionable “human rights records”, such as Cuba, China, Russia, Libya, and Saudi Arabia to join the Council (Freedman, p.221). Moreover, the dominance of African and Asian countries within the Council provides a platform for groups and alliances like the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, Non-Aligned Movement, and G-77 to wield influence and advance their agendas (Chané and Sharma,pp. 223-4).

Another aspect of politicisation is the issue of “selectivity and bias in agenda-setting” (Nußberger and Miklasová, Forthcoming). The presence of groups and alliances within the Council can result in focused scrutiny of specific countries or a reluctance to address concerns in others. For example, the Council’s attention towards Israel and its passive approach regarding Syria illustrates this bias. The formation of alliances can lead to the “instrumentalisation of human rights” for countries with a bad record (ibid.)  and allows them to shield themselves from criticism while gaining credibility and whitewashing their image on the global stage.

Conclusion and Recommendation

The appointment of the Islamic Republic as the Chair-Rapporteur of the 2023 Social Forum should be viewed as the result of the practice of groups and alliances. Having this status at the Forum grants an opportunity for the Regime to chisel its public image in the face of human rights violations. Furthermore, this appointment presents the Islamic Republic with an occasion to engage with experts, thereby gaining insights that could potentially be exploited to further curtail human rights through the adoption of reverse engineering techniques. Given the Regime’s endeavour to discover methods for restricting human rights through the use of technology, this opportunity takes on added significance. In addition to Iran’s current human rights situation, the importance of these points demonstrates why many civil activists call this appointment “a slap in the face”. They have also attempted to collect signatures to force the Council to withdraw from this decision. However, the case of Iran projects a more general threat towards the future of the other subsidiary expert bodies of the Council.

The underlying purpose of such bodies is to provide a platform for independent experts and minimize the influence of political objectives. Freedman and Houghton (pp. 753-4) emphasise that delegating states’ authority should be minimized within these groups to prevent political motives. To achieve this goal, the HRC could adopt two approaches. First, the HRC President should consider the nominated candidates’ human rights records. In this regard, the President should consider the voice of independent civil societies as they have an important impact on appointing members of the HRC (look at the case of Belarus and Iran in Mallory pp. 26-7). Therefore, when a statement or investigation against a candidate within other UN organizations or an effective majority of NGOs states their disagreement with its selection, the President should request an alternative candidate. While this solution would help safeguard the Forum and similar platforms from human rights violators, another approach could prove more effective. Restoring the managerial procedure by appointing independent experts, as practised during the CHR, would prevent the introduction of political objectives into the agenda. Doing so could mitigate the inherent inclination to politicise discussions whenever government representatives are involved.

Reza Khabook

Reza Khabook is a Research Assistant and Doctoral Student at the Academy for European Human Rights Protection (University of Cologne).

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