I hope you had a good rest over the summer. Judging by the hectic pace of the first week of the September Human Rights Council, you’re going to need it.
Unfortunately my own plans for a final restorative weekend before the Council began didn’t quite work out. Anyone who’s lived here for a while will know that the Swiss take their laws about making noise in the evenings quite seriously and that flushing the toilet after 10.30 in the evening can lead to a police complaint. So I felt confident that a family weekend in the tranquil mountain town of Schwarzsee would guarantee a good night’s sleep.
Little did we know that our trip coincided with an unlikely 2-night country and western festival which went agonizingly on into the early hours. As I lay awake listening to a Swiss German rendition of Great Balls of Fire at 2.15am, the prospect of returning to the Council started to seem like a welcome escape.
The Council session opened with a welcome appearance from Secretary General Ban Ki Moon who called for justice for war crimes in Syria. He urged the Human Rights Council to keep up its focus on Syria but regretted that its demands for action had not been taken up by the UN Security Council. Later that day Syrian activists and journalists who had witnessed atrocities first-hand gave powerful testimonies at a high-level panel event.
The Council looks certain to renew the Commission of Inquiry which is documenting the ongoing human rights violations so that those responsible can be held to account in the future. Let’s hope the crisis will soon be over so that this will the last time the Council has to speak out on Syria.
There are plenty of other issues on the table this session. Among the trickier ones is whether, and in what terms, the Council will renew the Council’s Expert on the human rights situation in Sudan. Some states are reluctant to keep raising the ongoing violations by the Sudanese Government. But the Council came in for tough criticism for softening its approach last year with many NGOs believing that Sudan’s human rights situation warrants the highest level of scrutiny. The challenge this session will be to ensure that the Council can agree to monitor and report on violations in Sudan and not just offer technical assistance to the government.
There’s a growing tendency for delegations to come up with resolutions which have little to do with human rights. Last session saw the Council establish a new process to draft a UN Declaration on the ‘right to peace’. Of course everyone wants peace – it’s the whole point of the UN after all. But while such a resolution might sound good on the face of it, ideas like this are fool’s gold. A new process to work out what a ‘right to peace’ might mean is not going to have any positive impact.
But it will take away time and money which would be much better spent implementing the hard-won human rights standards we already have. And these sorts of ideas undermine the principle that human rights are about what people can demand from their own governments. The responsibility to defend human rights can not be exported to other countries.
This session, there’s a proposal to take up work on the vague notion of ‘traditional values’. Many in the human rights world find this deeply troubling and are concerned that repressive states may use their own definitions of traditional values as an excuse for denying people their rights, especially those who are marginalised or who belong to minority groups which may have different traditions from the majority. It would be much more helpful if we could shift the focus to applying universal human rights standards in the different cultures and traditions in which people live.
This week also saw the Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Slavery, Gulnara Shahinian present an excellent report on forced marriage. She reminded us that forced marriage can constitute a form of slavery and brought welcome attention to this much neglected issue for the first time in the Council. At an NGO side event organised jointly with the UK, the Rapporteur called for greater international action and for the Council to take up the issue in a resolution.
The week ended with an unexpected display of direct democracy in action. To help launch a new art exhibition ‘the City Speaks’, the British Council organised a UK v Switzerland skateboarding competition on the Place des Nations. It ended in a draw and a sudden death finish which the UK narrowly won. I was impressed that the skateboarders genuinely wanted each other to do well regardless of their team and cheered on each other’s tricks. And I was struck that it was the competitors themselves who decided amicably who the winners were and did not just vote for their team.
There were some lessons in fair play there for all of us and it was a shame one or two of the less democratic members of the UN weren’t there to watch. Perhaps we could decide close votes in the Council by wheeling out a skateboard for delegations to do a kickflip or a nosegrind to settle matters. We could even use the webcast to collect votes from the public. I feel a resolution coming on.