Symposium on Gender Representation: Human Rights Council Advisory Committee Report on Gender Representation – A Historic Opportunity to Reverse Gender Inequality in UN Bodies

Symposium on Gender Representation: Human Rights Council Advisory Committee Report on Gender Representation – A Historic Opportunity to Reverse Gender Inequality in UN Bodies

[Elizabeth Salmón is Executive Director of the Institute of Democracy and Human Rights and Senior Lecturer in International Law at the Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú. She is also a member of the Advisory Committee of the UN Human Rights Council.]

In its 47th Session (21 June-9 July 2021), the Human Rights Council (HRC) officially received the report on Current levels of representation of women in human rights organs and mechanisms: ensuring gender balance that it had requested through its Resolution 41/6 (2019) to the Advisory Committee. Indeed, the HRC had asked the Advisory Committee to study this topic and “to include good practices by States in nominating, electing, and appointing candidates to ensure balanced gender representation, in line with the system-wide strategy on gender parity, and recommendations to assist the Council and Member States in this regard”.

As such, the newly-published report considers the current and the historic situation of women’s underrepresentation in UN bodies and mechanisms. It assesses the impact of this situation and the main challenges for achieving a balanced gender representation, and it references some good practices and valuable comparative experiences. Finally, the report makes recommendations to the HRC and its organs, to Member States, and to the OHCHR. The report also includes two annexes presenting data on gender representation in UN Treaty Bodies and Special Mandates, and good practices from other courts, mechanisms, and comparative experiences.

As the rapporteur of the drafting group within the Advisory Committee in charge of preparing this report, I would like to highlight that this is the first time that there is a specific mandate by the HRC on the subject of gender representation in UN bodies. The fact that this report is now an official document of the HRC is a significant achievement.

Additionally, I must emphasize two additional important points. Firstly, this report is the result of a collaborative work carried out with the inputs and references of both the CEDAW Committee and the Working Group on Discrimination against women and girls (WGD), the two main UN organs tasked with combatting all forms of discrimination against women and girls globally.  Experts from both organs sent inputs and written comments, and were available to hold very fruitful and inspiring meetings for nearly one year and a half.

Secondly, the methodology used for preparing the report was based on the principles of inclusive participation and transparency. Through a public questionnaire designed by the Advisory Committee, we were able to receive inputs and good practices from a wide range of actors including Member States, international and regional organizations, national human rights institutions, civil society, and academic institutions.  Furthermore, from December 2019 onwards, we organized four regional consultations – two of which took place in person, in Bangkok and Geneva, and two of which were held remotely with stakeholders from Latin America and Africa. These events were sponsored by the OHCHR.

From a substantial perspective, the main contribution and warning brought by the document in my view is that the underrepresentation of women not only breaches the principle of equality and non-discrimination, but it may also erode the effectiveness and legitimacy of UN bodies and mechanisms, and limit their potential and impact.

The Impact of Gender Inequality in UN Bodies

The Advisory Committee report contains very revealing data on the stark lack of gender parity in top positions within UN bodies and mechanisms. For the sake of space, I will not address the current situation in detail. Yet, as an example, I will point out that in the Special Procedures (excluding the working groups), only 16 of the 38 special rapporteurships with thematic mandates are held by women, and out of the 11 country-specific mandates only 2 are held by women. Finally, note that there are 11 Special Procedures positions that have never been held by women on issue areas such as torture, the promotion of truth, justice, reparation, and guarantee of non-recurrence, or the enjoyment of a safe, clean, healthy, and sustainable environment, among others.

The report provides a detailed analysis of how the underrepresentation of women affects the human rights to equality and non-discrimination, the right to equal participation in international decision-making, and the right of access to equal opportunity in employment.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights affirms that “[a]ll human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” The UN Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) all recognize that individuals are entitled to human rights without distinction or discrimination. The rights to equality and non-discrimination extend to women’s right to equal participation in international decision-making. As the CEDAW Committee has recognized, women’s participation “will make a difference” and ensure that a “gender perspective and analysis” is included in the “agenda of all international bodies.” In addition, the CEDAW Committee has affirmed that “States parties have a responsibility, where it is within their control (…) to appoint women to senior decision-making roles”.

The lack of gender parity in international bodies also impacts the right of access to equal opportunity in employment. The ICESCR recognizes that the right to “[e]qual opportunity for everyone to be promoted in his employment to an appropriate higher level (…)” extends its protection to women seeking to be promoted to, or to serve on, international bodies. It must also be understood that the underrepresentation of women threatens the legitimacy of UN bodies and mechanisms. For instance, gender-imbalanced UN bodies risk overlooking matters and perspectives that should be part of their political and legal agenda.

The Challenges

The Advisory Committee analyzes some of the causes and challenges leading to women’s underrepresentation in UN bodies. Gender parity faces many challenges. At the national level, States do not always provide a formal, transparent, and public procedure for selecting candidates. National-level selection processes generally do not require considering gender balance, nor is achieving gender parity recognized as an explicit goal. At the international level, the election of candidates at the UN system is frequently subject to bargaining processes or exchanges of votes, where the need for gender balance is often disregarded.

Regarding the UN Special Procedures, significant obstacles prevent women from being appointed as special mandate-holders. It is necessary to increase the transparency in the appointment process, particularly regarding the criteria considered by the HRC Consultative Group, as recognized by the HRC in 2020.  On the other hand, although the Consultative Group often refers to gender as a selection criterion in its final reports; it is not bound by a specific gender quota in selecting candidates or drawing up shortlists for the HRC President to make final appointments.


Our general recommendations to the UN System stress the importance of publicity regarding data on gender representation. On a more specific level, we recommend adopting gender-sensitive guidelines for the selection and appointment of Special Procedures mandate-holders and, for example, considering a female-only list of candidates for Special Procedures never held by women.

With regards to UN Treaty Bodies, we recommend that States should commit to (a) identifying more female candidates to nominate and elect or appoint to fill vacancies in the UN Treaty Bodies and mechanisms; (b) engaging with national human rights institutions, civil society organizations, and other relevant non-State actors in identifying strong female candidates; and (c) promoting public and participatory selection processes that include gender as a specific criterion among other important requirements. Finally, our document includes recommendations to the OHCHR, such as the advice to broadly disseminate announcements of upcoming elections of the UN bodies it serves as Secretariat, namely the Treaty Bodies and Special Procedures, and to develop mechanisms and collaborations in this sense, notably by reaching out to relevant women’s networks. These are only a sample of a wide variety of measures that could be adopted.

At the time of writing, the report has been approved by the HRC Advisory Committee and is part of its official documents. Therefore, it can be used by the HRC Consultative Group for its selection procedures, and by civil society organizations seeking to promote and adopt new transparent domestic procedures that include a gender approach. Furthermore, both the CEDAW Committee and the WGD can monitor the follow-up on the report in their periodic examinations and interactions with States, as well as identify issues raised in the report that could be included in the questions for Universal Periodical Review by the HRC. In the near future, I believe that it would be important to include the report in an ad hoc resolution of the HRC as well as to generate specific guidelines to implement the recommendations contained in the report.

Further, I believe that in spite of several difficulties and backlashes, the Advisory Committee report comes at an auspicious moment, given the Secretary General’s System-wide Strategy on Gender Parity, the role of the OHCHR on this issue, and even the HRC presidency’s decision to appoint a specific ambassador as the focal point for gender issues. This is an opportunity not to be missed.

Needless to say, in order to implement the measures included in the report and to expect an effective transformation regarding gender-parity, it is essential for every aspect of the system to be actively involved in the task. This means that States have a great responsibility, as do the regional groups and the entities in charge of monitoring concrete progress on gender parity. We need multi-level, integral, and intersectional work to achieve the essential goal of gender parity, which is both a high ethical goal and a legal obligation. One single actor cannot do the entire job.

In other words, the equality of rights thus requires remedying the overrepresentation of men in the highest positions within the UN human rights system, and enabling women to influence the process of developing, implementing, and administering international human rights law and policy. Gender equality is also vital to realizing human rights for all; without it, we have no hope of achieving the 17 sustainable development goals agreed to by the international community. If not even the HRC and UN institutions can guarantee gender equality, which institutions can?

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