My second week of the Council session got off to a particularly bad start as I managed to put my back out while playing with my son at the weekend. My boss Ian cheerfully put it down to age catching up with me. I like to think I’ve a few good years left in me yet, but whatever the reason, if any colleagues reading noticed me grimacing in meetings, this was probably down to my discomfort and not a reaction to anything you may have said.
The mood in the Council was a bit more subdued as the first week’s summery smiles had given way to autumn’s more familiar furrowed brows. Syria was the main focus for much of the week and Paulo Pinheiro, the Chair of the Council’s Commission of Inquiry on Syria, put in another strong performance when he presented the Commission’s latest findings. He was clear that Syrian government forces were responsible for the appalling Al-Houla Massacre, and that government abuses far outweighed those by the opposition. He also stressed that the Commission’s evidence could be used in future criminal prosecutions and it was very encouraging to see a growing number of countries from all regions calling for the situation in Syria to be referred to the International Criminal Court. For the time being, opinion on this in the Council remains divided, and resolutions on Syria have not gone as far as calling for the ICC to take up the situation. Ultimately this would need to be a decision for the UN Security Council but it’s important for Human Rights Council members to send a strong message.
The latter part of the week saw the adoption of Universal PeriodicReview reports on the first group of countries who had been reviewed in May. This included the UK which meant my delegation briefly took centre stage on Thursday in order to give the UK’s response to the 132 recommendations made by other states at our review earlier this year. While we ended up accepting the majority of these recommendations, this is not just a numbers game – It is about taking the process seriously and making sure that each of the recommendations is considered and explained carefully by the domestic government departments which deal with the issues raised. The key test of UPR is whether it can be used in the years before the next review to make progress on human rights at the domestic level. An important part of this is done through strengthening the relationship with civil society organisations. It was pleasing to see an impressive number of NGOs making statements on the UK in a constructive way. While these acknowledged progress they also raised areas where they feel there is more to do such. This included changing anti-discrimination laws to prohibit discrimination on the basis of caste and ensuring women’s access to abortions in Northern Ireland matches that in the rest of the UK. In order to help ourselves stay on track we committed to maintain our practice of providing a mid-term update to assess progress on all the recommendations. It’s good see an increasing number of countries doing the same thing.
I’ve been thinking for some time that the demands of the Council seem to have a curious impact on people’s eating habits. The working day can run uninterrupted from early in the morning to late in the evening. To cope with this, certain colleagues temporarily set aside their normal, human eating patterns and instead adopt the dietary habits of snakes. They eat copious amounts whenever they get the chance, in the knowledge that this will probably be their last proper feed for days. If you look very closely you can notice odd shaped bulges in people’s bellies where they’ve swallowed meals larger than themselves.
Typing accurately has never been by strong point, as anyone who has sat wincing at my computer screen while I type will testify. Some poeple find it so paiful to wacth, that they either have to loko away or offre to type it for me. While spell-check is a god-send for people like me, it can occasionally lead to some confusion and instead of informing colleagues in London about recent initiatives about the rights of older persons , the rights of peasants and the right to peace, I’ve caused false alarms over proposals to define the rights of colder persons, the rights of pheasants, and the right to peas. I’m half-tempted to put some of these alternatives forward as new areas for the Council to look at.
The last week of the Council will see everything come to a head as we move to a vote on the most contentious issues. There seems to be less division this September than in previous years but the Russian initiative on traditional values looks set to divide the Council. Human rights NGOs are working hard to persuade Council moderates of the real damage this concept will do to universal human rights standards and it was regrettable that Russia took no notice of the many valid concerns raised by states when they held a meeting to discuss the text. I’ll let you know how this and the rest of the main issues covered this session work out when it’s all over. In the meantime, I hope this week I’ll be standing up straight.