Spring at the United Nations: Positive Action Breathes New Life into the UN Human Rights Council, but Challenges Remain

 The 22nd session of the United Nations Human Rights Council (the Council) comes to an end on 22 March.    While the Council has been heavily criticized in the past for being weak and inconsistent, a slew of positive action taken by its member states this session has given renewed hope that the body might prove its critics wrong, according to the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS).

“The spoilers have not gone away.  Russia, China, Cuba, Egypt and other countries hostile to human rights constantly attempt to undermine positive initiatives at the Council.  What is different is that a handful of countries from around the world have found the will and courage to push through a positive agenda,” said Mr. Ziad Abdel Tawab, Deputy Director of CIHRS.

Particularly important have been efforts to combat the double-standards of the international community towards promoting human rights and democracy in the Arab region.

On  28February, during the first week of the current session, more than forty governments from every continent delivered a joint declaration expressing “serious concern” about ongoing repression and human rights violations in Bahrain, and calling on Bahrain to cooperate with the United Nations and ensure national human rights reform.    The United States and United Kingdom, close allies of the Bahrain government, joined the declaration.

Moreover, under pressure from Libyan civil society and other stakeholders, the Libyan government put forward a strong resolution on its own country at this session.  The resolution acknowledges the need to improve several critical human rights challenges in Libya, including the situation of refugees and migrants, protection of freedom of religion and belief, and the ill-treatment of detainees, and also requests the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) to report to the Council at its 25th session on human rights in relation to the technical support and capacity building needs of Libya.

 “This session, what was once considered impossible has been accomplished” added Mr. Jeremie Smith, Director of the Geneva Office of CIHRS.  “In March of last year, when human rights defenders from Bahrain demanded that the international community take joint action to condemn repression in Bahrain they were met with silence.  Similarly, when civil society called on member states last year not to look away from rights violations in Libya just because Gaddafi had been deposed they were ignored, and a weak resolution on Libya that lacked any human rights component was adopted without a vote at the Council.  This session, the opposite has occurred.”

Furthermore, a landmark resolution put forward by Norway on Protecting Human Rights Defenders demands that states stop restricting and criminalizing the activities of human rights defenders through repressive legal and procedural measures.  In particular, the resolution calls on governments to end attempts to restrict the ability of human rights organizations to receive and impart funding and to ensure that rights defenders can engage with the international community without fear of being attacked or threatened for doing so. The resolution was created in response to a report by the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of Human Rights Defenders dealing with repressive legal restrictions on rights defenders.  The report was created following a consultation between the Special Rapporteur and rights defenders from throughout the Arab region that occurred in Cairo in April 2012, during which the growing use of undue legal restrictions was identified as a leading threat to civil society in the Arab region.  China, Cuba, Egypt and Russia lead efforts to weaken the resolution’s protection for human rights defenders throughout the current session of the Council, but their efforts largely failed.

“In countries throughout the Arab region, civil society and rights defenders are being isolatedfrom the outside world and slowly strangled to death through a host of repressive legal and procedural restrictions which threaten their very existence,” said Mr. Tawab.  “In this regard, the resolution put forward by Norway is very important at this time. The Office of the High Commissioner and UN member States must urgently act to ensure that the resolution’s demands to allow rights defenders to act freely are implemented on a national level within the Arab region, especially in relation to current restrictions on funding for civil society being considered by the Egyptian parliament.”

A resolution on The Promotion and Protection of Human Rights in the Context of Peaceful Protests, put forward by Costa Rica, Switzerland and Turkey in response to the uprisings in the Arab region was also adopted.  The resolution “calls upon all States to avoid using force during peaceful protests, and to ensure that, where force is absolutely necessary, no one is subject to excessive or indiscriminate use of force…[and]to investigate any death or injury committed during protests.”  The resolution also establishes a “seminar on effective measures and best practices to ensure the promotion and protection of human rights in the context of peaceful protests.”

Resolutions on Sri Lanka, North Korea, Iran, Mali, Myanmar and Syria were also adopted.

“In a very positive development Libya and Tunisia have openly joined a call by UN member states made during the session for the ICC to be activated in the case of Syria.   This is the first time we see governments from the Arab region openly supporting ICC investigations on Syria at the Council.  Unfortunately, the resolution on Syria which renews the Commission of Inquiry this session does not sufficiently reflect this call for ICC referral due to continued opposition from the United States and most Arab countries,” said Ms. Paola Daher, UN Advocacy Officer for CIHRS.

 “Unlike Libya and Tunisia, which have adopted a more constructive approach to engagement with the Human Rights Council lately, Egypt’s policies and approach towards human rights at the UN remains as hostile and destructive as it was during the rule of Mubarak,” added Mr. Tawab.

The UN Fact Finding Mission into the effect of Israeli settlements on the human rights of the Palestinian people also reported to this session of the Council.   Notably, the report not only deals with the direct human rights violations and breeches of international law resulting from the establishment of settlements, but also looks at how businesses and trade policies have, directly and indirectly, enabled, facilitated and profited from the construction and growth of illegal settlements.  CIHRS addressed this issue before the UN, and also called on Palestine, as a newly recognized observer state at the UN, to immediately take measures to sign onto international human rights treaties.

Despite many positive developments, challenges remain.  Some countries continue to put forward proposals at the Council that are designed to undermine the universality of international human rights standards and protection.   Many fear that a resolution on “Protection of the family,” put forward by Bangladesh, Egypt, Mauritania, Morocco, Qatar, Russian Federation, Tunisia, Uganda and Zimbabwe attempts to undermine previous UN agreements which acknowledge the diversity of family structures, instead aiming to entrench a narrow, conservative conception of family that would provide justification for discrimination by governments against individuals on various grounds, including gender, sex, and religion.   While the adoption of this text was postponed following criticism of the resolutions language resolution by delegations from different regions, the risk remains.

According to Ms. Daher, “Efforts by states to undermine the resolution on human rights defenders restrict reference to the International Criminal Court in the Syria resolution, and put forth language and concepts which seek to undermine the universality of human rights are a reminder that progress at the Council is always under threat. Concerted efforts by human rights defenders to defeat these types of threats continue to be critical going forward.”

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