The UN Human Rights Council

Instructor: Dr. Gerd Oberleitner

This e-learning course is a high-level introduction to the Human Rights Council, the main human rights body of the United Nations (UN). The course is scheduled parallel to the regular session of the Human Rights Council. Depending on the Council’s schedule it will also provide “live” coverage of the Universal Periodic Review session and special sessions. By making extensive use of the Council’s website — which contains legal documents, press releases, and audio and video files on the session, and is updated daily — course participants will be able to learn about the UN’s human rights activities as they present themselves to the world: in real-time, with immediate access to the original material, live and uncut, and with all the dramatic twists and turns a session of the Council offers. The course will expose students to the real world of human rights in the making and offer them a glimpse into the world of human rights diplomacy on the highest possible level. An experienced course instructor will guide the participants through the Council’s session so as to ensure a learning experience on a high academic level.

The course will start with a brief introduction to the UN human rights system, including the core UN human rights standards and supervisory machineries and the High Commissioner for Human Rights. It will assess the legacy of the dissolved Commission on Human Rights and the reform which led to the creation of the Human Rights Council. It will focus in-depth on the Council, its role, functioning and limitations; examine the newly established Council’s Advisory Committee; analyse the place of the Council in the larger UN framework; and (based on international law and international relations theory) reflect on the potential and limits of global human rights institutions such as the Human Rights Council.

During the four weeks of the Council’s session (and possible additional sessions) participants will be asked to follow the meetings of the Council, focus on specific issues, read the relevant materials as they appear on the website and as recommended by the course facilitator (press releases, reports of Special Rapporteurs, resolutions, statements by dignitaries, etc.), analyse the performance of the actors and stakeholders in the session, evaluate the voting procedure and outcome of the sessions, and form their own opinion on the work of the Human Rights Council. The course is intended to provide participants with the necessary skills to understand in-depth how multi-lateral human rights bodies function in their manifold capacity as law-making institutions, fora for discussions and reflection, and adjudicators of states’ human rights performance. Participants will learn how law, policy and diplomacy come together and interact in the field of human rights.

The course instructor will provide information in form of on-line material and “mini-lectures” in the weeks preceding the Council’s session. He will guide participants through the session, recommend readings and will comment on the events. During the course NGO-staff, staff of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and staff of diplomatic missions will be available to participants in Q&A sessions via online chat sessions and webinars.

Course structure

The course involves approximately 30 hours of reading, on-line working groups, webinars, interaction among students and instructors, and assignments. The course will integrate active and participatory learning approaches within activities and assignments, with an emphasis on reflective and collaborative learning. The maximum number of course participants is 25. Students who successfully complete the course will receive a certificate of completion. It is also possible to audit the course.

Course outline

Week 1. The UN Commission on Human Rights 1946-2006: achievements and failures
Week 2. The UN Human Rights Council: creation, mandate, expectations, transition
Week 3. Membership, functioning and role of the Council
Week 4. Responding to complaints: “1235” and “1503”
Week 5. “Countries” and “themes”: the role of “special procedures”
Week 6. “Peer review”: the Universal Periodic Review

About the instructor: Dr. Gerd Oberleitner

Dr. Gerd Oberleitner is professor of international law at the University of Graz (Austria), where he works at the Institute of International Law and International Relations. His research interests are primarily in international human rights law, humanitarian law, human security and the law of international organisations. From 1998 to 1999 he served as Legal Adviser in the human rights and humanitarian law department of the Austrian Ministry for Foreign Affairs and has in subsequent years joined the Austrian governmental delegation to sessions of the (then) UN Human Rights Commission. From 1999 to 2002 he was the Executive Secretary of the European Training and Research Centre for Human Rights and Democracy (ETC) in Graz. From 2002 to 2004 he was Lecturer in Human Rights at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) and subsequently Visiting Fellow at the LSE’s Centre for the Study of Human Rights until 2007. He was visiting professor/scholar at the University of Prishtina, the European Inter-University Centre Venice and the Université du Quebéc à Montréal. For more than fifteen years, he has taught international law and international human rights law in a number of institutions and summer schools and in the Venice and Sarajevo Master Programmes on Human Rights and Democratisation. He has been an instructor for HREA e-learning courses since 2003. His publications include Global Human Rights Institutions: Between Remedy and Ritual (Cambridge, Polity, 2007) and Human Rights in Armed Conflict – Law, Practice, Policy (Cambridge University Press, 2015).

Who should apply

The course is aimed at university students and graduates of international relations, international law, politics and other areas, NGO staff members, staff of international organisations and other practitioners. Participants should have a good written command of English and have high competence and comfort with computer and Internet use. HREA aims to ensure equal gender and geographical distribution across the selected participants.


Tuition fee for participants: US$ 575; tuition for auditors: US$ 215. Payments can be made online with major credit cards (Discover, MasterCard, Visa), PayPal, bank transfer (additional fee applies) and money transfer (Western Union, MoneyGram). Bulk rates are available. Payments are due upon registration.

How to register

Registration is closed.

Frequently Asked Questions

Frequently asked questions about HREA’s e-learning courses.