Taking-stock: The Human Rights Council and Gender Parity in Special Procedures after 10 years

The Human Rights Council (HRC) completed its 33rd session on September 30, 2016. After 10 years of functioning, this organ seems to be doing a better job of appointing women for special procedures than other human rights bodies as a result of the application of gender parity guidelines adopted at the level of the Consultative Group (CG). After the latest appointments, and according to a report from the Universal Rights Group, the gender balance of mandate-holders has slightly increased from 41%-44%. However, more needs to be done to sustain the gains and ensure that gender parity becomes a mandatory standard and not a mere guideline in the selection of special procedures mandate holders.

In June 2015, the HRC’s Consultative Group (CG) adopted the “Guidelines on Gender Parity” (Guidelines) to address the gender disparity in the special mandate holder selection process. The Guidelines recommend the establishment of gender quotas for the CG in the selection of individuals for short-list interviews and short-list for final decision by the President and HRC. Specifically, Guideline Recommendation 2(a) – relating to short-list interviews – advises the CG “to list no more than three persons of the same sex out of the five candidates ranked for Working Groups and for individual mandates . . . .” Guideline Recommendation 2(b) – relating to short-list for final decision – recommends “their collective three-candidate short-list for the President and Council’s final decision ensures no more than two out of three are of the same sex.” When establishing the Guidelines, the CG took into account existing General Assembly and Human Rights Council resolutions and stated that given “the present situation of grave gender unbalance, the members of the Consultative Group should consider ways to achieve gender parity for appointments to be made at the 29th and 30th sessions of the Human Rights Council, in order to move towards the 2004 General Assembly target of fifty-fifty among all mandate holders and redress the reduced number of women candidates and women appointed in the last exercises, while minding geographical balance.”

The reports of the CG from the 29th, 30th, and 31st sessions of the HRC each make explicit mention of the Guidelines in the section of the report that outlines the selection process for special mandate holders.  In those sessions, the CG considered applications for 11 special procedure mandate holder positions, plus two positions to the Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous People (EMRIP), a subsidiary body of the HRC. Of the short-list interviews, interview selection for four of those 11 positions did not meet the Guidelines’ “no more than three persons of the same sex out of the five candidates ranked” standard. However, three out of those four positions favored women over men in the selection process. Similarly, short-list for final decisions for four of the 11 positions did not meet the Guidelines’ “no more than two out of three” of the same sex standard, but again three of those four favored women over men. Therefore, although the CG did not strictly adhere to the Guidelines during those sessions, there was still a strong indication that the CG followed-through with the Guidelines and their stated purpose based on the two main factors addressed here. First, in almost of all the cases of non-compliance at the short-list interviews and short-list final decisions women were favored over men. Second, nearly all non-compliance favored the appointment of female applicants. The 29th, 30th, and 31st sessions produced about 45% female appointees to special procedure mandates, but two more women were proposed by the CG and elected by the HRC to the EMRIP. Overall, these sessions produced 56% female appointees.

Interestingly, the reports of the CG for the 32nd and 33rd sessions do not make any reference to gender or the Guidelines. They only state that the CG paid full consideration to several paragraphs of the Annex to the HRC’s Resolution 5/1, including para. 40 which provide, inter alia, that “due consideration should be given to gender balance” in the selection and appointment of mandate-holders. Notwithstanding, the final outcome of these sessions shows that the CG respected the parameters of the Guidelines and even contributed to slightly increased women’s representation among special procedure mandate-holders. The CG reviewed applications for 10 mandate holder positions. As to the short-list for interviews, the CG did not meet the gender standard in six cases, whereas only in two of the 10 positions it failed to comply with the “no more than two out of three” of the same sex standard. These numbers show that even if the CG had more difficulties with respecting gender balance when creating the short-list for interviews – mostly due to a significantly low number of women applicants for certain mandates- with few exceptions it was able to maintain the standard when proposing the short list of candidates for election. Overall, 6 women out of 10 positions were appointed by the HRC.

Since the adoption of the Guidelines, the CG put forward noticeably increased percentages of women for both interviews and the short-list of final nominations to be considered by the HRC. Before that, women represented about 37% percent of all special mandate holders. The recent increase in female applicants at each step of the selection process and the increased percentage of female appointees indicate the success of the Guidelines in achieving the stated goal of gender parity across all mandate holders. In spite of these gains, it is not clear if this policy will be sustained in the future, particularly taking into account that the current CG has not expressly extended the application of the Guidelines adopted by its predecessor and a new CG will start its functions in April 2017.  Experience shows that advances in gender parity do not preclude the possibility of regression. Thus, to sustain existing gains the HRC should take additional steps to solidify the Guidelines as formal requirements. Specifically, these guidelines should be included in a resolution of the HRC complementing Resolution 5/1 and incorporating gender parity as official protocol for the special mandate holder selection process.  Only that will ensure that women’s representation in the special procedures mandates are sustained in the future, regardless of the composition of the CG and the gender sensitivities of the HCR and its President.

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