Human Rights Council sessions rarely end up being either a resounding success or an unmitigated disaster. They rather tend to be a mixed bag with some good things, some bad and a few which leave you scratching your head, wondering what it meant and why it happened in the first place. The September session was much like any other but I couldn’t help leaving the Council Chamber on Friday feeling slightly gloomy.
On the positive side the Council renewed the Commission of Inquiry on Syria by another strong voting margin. Russia, China and Cuba remained intransigent in their opposition to Council action on Syria, and there are plenty of us who won’t be sad to see all three countries come off the Council at the end of the year. India, Uganda and the Philippines all abstained again, for reasons best known to themselves, but the other 41 countries voted in favour. And the excellent new appointments of Carla Del Ponte and Vitit Muntarbhorn to the Commission of Inquiry on Syria will be sure to serve the Council well.
The Council also passed resolutions on Mali, Yemen, Somalia, Sudan and South Sudan. None of the resolutions went quite as far as many in the NGO Community would have liked in terms of raising the very serious human rights concerns each of these countries faces. While this is fair criticism, at least in the case of Yemen the Council’s resolutions have clearly had a positive impact and have led to Yemen setting up a UN human rights office in the country. Austria’s new resolution on the safety of journalists was also a big positive and raised global attention to the growing threats faced by journalists. Let’s hope the resolution’s call on States to stop attacks and violence against journalists will lead to change.
But these felt like slim pickings from a session which felt as unfulfilling as the UN sandwiches most of us have been surviving on for the last few weeks. Amongst the more negative resolutions, there was the usual perennial nonsense from Cuba on issues like a democratic international order and international solidarity which sound inoffensive on the face of it but which have nothing to do with human rights and are mainly aimed at wasting UN time and money. Bolivia’s call for new UN Declaration on the rights of peasants was adopted by vote, but it was clear that many remain unconvinced, with the majority of the Council either abstaining or voting against the proposal. It is very unfortunate that Bolivia went for the path of division and confrontation rather than seeking to build greater harmony around this issue before pushing ahead with a drafting process.
Russia’s success in their resolution on traditional values was much more troubling. In one of its more regrettable moments the Council voted in favour of the Russian resolution, whose ultimate purpose is to damage universal human rights standards. Before the vote the Russian delegation even feigned surprise that their resolution had been met with opposition. If there can be a silver lining, it was in Botswana and Mauritius voting against the resolution, in line with the consistently strong pro-human rights stance both countries have demonstrated throughout their time on the Council. But the Latin Americans needed to do much better. While a good number of their members made strong statements opposing the idea, only Mexico and Costa Rica voted with their convictions and said no, while Guatemala, Peru, Uruguay and Chile all weakly abstained.
No UN meeting is ever complete with a protracted period of seemingly pointless waiting around and Friday afternoon’s closing session didn’t disappoint. Just as we looked set for a timely finish, the meeting came to a stop and we were left milling around for an hour as the President and her team headed to the back rooms for consultations. The reason for the delay turned about to be Cuba’s objection to the Council President’s choice for the new Special Rapporteur on the human Rights Situation in Belarus. It proved to be a storm in a teacup but in a very Cuban-style intervention they said they registered their serious unhappiness with the President’s appointee, while making it clear that whoever she had chosen, they would still have been unhappy as they didn’t want there to be a Rapporteur in the first place. I couldn’t really understand the point of making a fuss, though I sometimes wonder if some colleagues measure their success by the number of hours they spend in the UN rather than what they have to show for it.
By the time I got out of the Council there was just enough time for me to catch the tail end of a reception to mark the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child’s discussion day on migrant children. I was hoping for a quiet beer before heading home but became witness to an egregious case of UN food thievery which trumps any sneaky sandwich takingat a side event. In full view of everybody else, one of the reception gatecrashers shamelessly started filling a carrier bag with chicken satay sticks to take home. This seemed the last chance I was going to get to rectify some of the day’s injustices so I explained to the furtive offender that a reception at the UN is not the sort of place you leave with a doggy bag. He nodded in shame and slunk into the night, but he took the chicken sticks with him. Moral victories seemed to be the best I could manage this session.