16th September 2013 Geneva, Switzerland
No room at the UN
September didn’t used to be like this.
It was the session which could be relied upon for a genteel beginning as delegates eased themselves in after the summer, meeting new colleagues and renewing old acquaintances before getting down to some serious Council business. But not any more.
This session has got off to a blistering start with every day packed full of meetings on the forty-plus resolutions which states have proposed for others to consider. As anyone who is leading on a resolution will tell you, meeting rooms have become extremely hard to come by.
Availability is in such short supply that I’m starting to suspect that there’s an illicit trade in room allocations for those in the know. Some meetings are now being held deep within the obscure labyrinth of the UN in rooms thought only to exist in legend. However long I’ve been here, the complexity of the UN’s layout never ceases to intimidate me.
Perhaps this is a negotiating ploy for the more contentious resolutions, restricting meetings to those who are brave enough to embark on the quest for the room. I’m not known for my sense of direction so I usually carry a torch, whistle, and Kendal mint cake, just in case.
High Commissioner Navi Pillay’s opening statement on Monday set a sombre tone for the week ahead by referring to the deteriorating situations and increase in violence in many countries since the Council last met in June, including in Egypt, DRC, Iraq and South Sudan. But it was her comments on Syria that carried the most force, as she reminded us that when she addressed the Council in September two years ago, some 2,600 Syrians had already died in the conflict; now the number of dead stands at over 100,000. She said the suffering of the two million refugees and the 4 million people displaced inside Syria had reached unimaginable levels.
Shortly after the session started, the sad news came through that Sri Lankan Human Rights Defender Sunila Abeysekera had passed away after a battle against cancer. Sunila was a hugely inspiring person and I was fortunate to meet her during her visits to Geneva, where she was a well-known and highly respected figure. She was a prominent Sri Lankan activist as well as a leading international advocate for women’s rights. She will be much missed at the Council and I join others in extending my condolences to her family and friends.
The Council heard the final report this week by Gulnara Shahinian, the Council’s first Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Slavery which the UK established at the Council in 2007. Ms Shahinian is an impressive and hugely likeable person who has made the mandate a success by managing to work constructively with governments while keeping victims at the centre of her work. She has broken new ground at the Council by raising issues for the first time such as servile marriage, child slavery in the mining sector and domestic servitude. On Friday my Ambassador, Karen Pierce, chaired a panel discussion with the Special Rapporteur which included Anti-Slavery International who led the call for the Rapporteur’s establishment 6 years ago and Carlos Bezerra, a Brazilian State senator from Sao Paulo who successfully brought an anti-slavery bill through the State legislature. He gave an impressive account of how the law is now being used successfully to combat slavery and as model in other Brazilian states and was a strong reminder of how the Council’s work can be used within countries to make a difference.
Throughout the week, I kept hearing positive remarks from others about the UK’s National Action Plan on Business and Human Rights. The Action Plan explains how the UK will meet it its obligations to protect against human rights abuses by business enterprises and marks a major advance in the UK’s implementation of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. As those who follow the issue will know, the Guiding Principles were the work of John Ruggie, the former Secretary General’s Special Representative on Business and human Rights. The UK was the driving force behind creating of the post of Special Representative, and there’s no doubting that the Guiding Principles were a huge leap forward. But the real test is whether or not they will be implemented. Let’s hope other countries will follow suit with their own action plans to implement Professor Ruggie’s work.
Well, it’s late on Sunday night and it’s another meeting-packed day tomorrow, so I am thinking of heading down to the UN this evening to get a head start to find the room of my first meeting. But if you’re expecting me and I’m unusually late, please try to keep an ear out for an emergency whistle.