Anyone who has been through a March session of the Human Rights Council knows that you never come out it of quite the same person as you go in. While the rest of the year’s meetings are important, seasoned Council goers will tell you that March is special.
It’s the main event; the Saturday night feature film; the big one. The demands of the session can take a heavy personal toll and those that last the whole 4 weeks tend to come out with a look which is part wizened Moses coming down the mountain and part shipwreck survivor.
This March while there will plenty of topics on the table, all eyes will be fixed firmly on Asia. The EU and Japan are pushing to set up a new Commission of Inquiry to investigate human rights violations in North Korea. North Korea has arguably the worst human rights record in the world, with no civil and political rights, up to 200 000 people in political prison camps and an Orwellian system of political class division.
It has stubbornly refused to co operate with the Council or to work with the two excellent Special Rapporteurs who have been offering constructive help while monitoring the country’s human rights record for the last 10 years. A Commission of Inquiry will provide a detailed and authoritative evidence of the violations which have been going on for decades and hopefully raise the pressure on the regime to improve.
Burma has been in the UN human rights spotlight even longer than North Korea and used to take a similar approach by denying the UN access. But Burma has come a long way in the last couple of years and has the potential to become a human rights good news story.
I was able to visit the country myself last year and see first hand the big steps forward Burma has taken but also the many remaining challenges. If Burma can deliver on some of its recent commitments, many states seem willing to take a less critical approach this year.
Unfortunately there has been little progress towards setting up a UN human rights country office – a key indicator of Burma’s willingness to make progress on human rights.
Sri Lanka will come up for another resolution this March aimed at promoting reconciliation and accountability in the country. The charged atmospherics around the resolution last year felt like the diplomatic equivalent of Lord of the Flies with a massive Sri Lankan government presence sparing no efforts to persuade countries not to vote in favour of the US resolution.
Sri Lanka failed last year and won no friends through its heavy handed approach. Many diplomats were genuinely appalled by the threats made to those Sri Lankan human rights defenders brave enough to travel to Geneva to describe the situation back home.
Let’s hope we can avoid a repeat performance this year.
The Council will also hear another hard-hitting report from the Commission of inquiry on Syria this session. The Commission has been doing an excellent job in documenting the atrocious violations in Syria and identifying those individuals responsible. It seems certain that the Council will renew the Commission for a further year, though everyone hopes the bloodshed can be stopped much sooner than that.
The session begins with an added level of anxious razzmatazz as we all get ready for our Ministers to come to town. Ministerial weeks are always chaotic and along with the quest for world peace, juggling the unexpected is one of the universal themes which unites diplomats.
Having a Minister visit always comes as a major morale boost for the local team and underlines the seriousness of our work. Foreign Office Minister Baroness Warsi will come to deliver the UK speech, meet a variety of her counterparts and promote the UK’s candidacy for the Council next year.
On the home front I’ve been finding the session’s preparations slightly more challenging this year as my wife has gone away for work leaving me as a temporary single parent.
In the course of writing this entry our young son has managed to feed pasta into the tumble dryer and while I was taking it apart, he then merrily busied himself by emptying a month’s supply of pet food into the cat’s bowls. It’s going to be a long session.