For every Council delegate there is one resolution, above all others, whose success or failure takes over their life. It dominates their working hours and prays on their subconscious mind even during the little sleep it’s possible to squeeze in. For me, it was Sri Lanka.
There was a huge amount riding on the United States’ resolution. The 2009 Special Session on Sri Lanka was the Council’s darkest hour and my own professional low point. It left deep scars. We failed to address human rights violations and instead saw Sri Lanka push through their own resolution congratulating themselves for winning the war. For a long time western delegates were afraid to run country resolutions in case the same thing happened again. Another failure on Sri Lanka would have been a huge blow for all those in the country working towards accountability and national reconciliation, and a major setback for the Council’s recent progress. So it was a massive relief when the Council passed the resolution by a large majority, including India who broke with their long-standing position of opposing country resolutions to vote in favour. Sri Lanka’s own conduct drew much attention this session with many delegates shocked at threats and intimidation against Sri Lankan human rights defenders brave enough to travel to Geneva. The Council’s message is clear: Sri Lanka needs to do more to combat impunity, to work towards reconciliation and to build a lasting peace. I hope Sri Lanka will take advantage of the assistance the UN is keen to offer them to achieve this.
All Council sessions take a physical toll on delegates, but the 4 weeks in March are especially hard going. The sleep deprivation and the lack of time for food are bound to add an extra furrow to every delegate’s brow. But it’s carrying a really heavy bag that gets me. You can spot a Council delegate from a hundred yards away. They have a particular lopsided walk misshapen by weeks of being overloaded with UN documents and computers. The UK team come out of sessions particularly deformed as a result of our 2 tonne Soviet-era laptops.
Overall the session was a major success which continues the Council’s rise. After a tremendous June session last year, we had a few setbacks last time round. After the Empire struck back in September, this was the Council’s Return of the Jedi. I was half expecting ewoks to appear at the session closure, but given that Friday’s session ran to 9 o’clock, it was probably well past their bedtime. Among many successes the Council renewed its Rapporteurs on Iran, Burma and North Korea. And it passed 2 resolutions on Syria by a huge majority and renewed its Commission of Inquiry to investigate violations. With only Cuba, Russia and China holding out as supporters of the Geneva branch of the Baath party, Syria was left more isolated and under more pressure than ever.
But for all the attention on global events, the biggest drama on the final day was the Austrian resolution on the Minorities Forum – something which is normally so inoffensive that it barely registers a flicker on the Council’s seismic controversy scale. China was adamant that registration procedures needed to change to stop, as they put it, “terrorists from sneaking in”. But it was clear that their motivation was to stop minority Uighur groups from attending. Plucky Austria refused to be cowed and took their chances with a vote: squeaky bum time. Austria won by a narrow majority, drew wide admiration and left the minorities forum with the same open participation, at least for another year.
Outside the session I’ve been on a voyage of personal discovery. Managing a March session with a teething one-year-old isn’t something I’d want to do too often. As my son Ben moved to a more grown up diet I found out that weetabix is the only food with greater adhesive properties than banana. While I might spend less these days in Geneva’s bars and restaurants, my dry cleaning bills are keeping the Swiss economy humming.
It would be remiss of me to sign off without a last word about my outgoing Ambassador, Peter Gooderham. He’s been a real force for good at the Council and a great advocate for human rights. I wish him well for the future. And as an another Geneva veteran, I hope he found the session as cathartic as I did.