30th September 2013 Geneva, Switzerland
Sleepwalking, Stress and Civil Society
Council sessions are bad for your health. So bad, in fact, that I’m thinking of inviting colleagues from the World Health Organisation along to the next session to see if they agree with me that all delegates should be issued with a health warning so that they can take suitable precautions at the outset. The combined toll of three weeks of sleeplessness, stress and soggy late-afternoon sandwiches are more than most people’s nervous systems can take. I didn’t escape unscathed and started the final week by sleepwalking head first into my bedroom door at full pace in the middle of the night. Once I’d painfully come to my senses, my main concern was how I was going to convince other countries to co-sponsor the UK’s slavery resolution with an egg sized lump on my forehead. Thankfully, with the help of my toddler’s bruise cream, the swelling had subsided by morning and the slavery resolution attracted more support than ever.
The session was an unusually hard slog, but ended up well. The Council rightly reserved its toughest criticism for Syria and passed a resolution by a much stronger margin than in June, with important positive shifts in position from Uganda, Gabon and Angola. The resolution contains a strong condemnation of violations in the country, including the chemical attack in Al Ghouta, and calls on the regime to grant access to both the Council’s Commission of Inquiry and to humanitarian organisations trying to alleviate the suffering inside the country.
Cooperation is always preferable to criticism, so it was encouraging to see a growing number of states choosing the path of engagement with meaningful resolutions under the Council’s agenda item 10 on technical assistance. The Central African Republic unexpectedly decided late in the session that it wanted the Council’s help through a new Independent Expert who will provide assistance and monitor the situation in the country. Somalia, working in partnership with the UK, demonstrated its willingness to improve, by renewing its existing Independent Expert for two years and by setting out a list of commitments which, if implemented, would make a major difference in the country. And Cambodia, while less ready to acknowledge some its challenges, at least agreed to a further two-year extension for the Special Rapporteur on the country. It was regrettable that Sudan chose not to follow these examples. While the resolution renewed the independent expert for a further year, Sudan refused to acknowledge the many areas it needs to improve. The shooting of protesters in Khartoum during the final days of the session left many wondering whether the Council needed to revert to its previously tougher stance on Sudan in the future.
Each session there is always one issue where differences of opinion prove unbridgeable, where principles can’t be compromised and where battle lines are drawn. This September, that issue was how to address the worrying increase in cases of intimidation and reprisals against those members of civil society who cooperate with the UN system. The current response to such cases is often not well-co-ordinated with the result that the human rights system does not currently add up to the sum of its parts. Hungary proposed that the UN should resolve this by designating a focal point to work across the entire UN system to take responsibility. The idea that all individuals should be able to engage with the UN without the threat of imprisonment, torture or other sanction should have been uncontroversial so it was disturbing to see such division on the issue. A small but significant minority of Council members led by India and including Pakistan, Ethiopia, Ecuador and Venezuela, supported a raft of amendments to weaken the resolution. After a lengthy process each amendment failed, before the final resolution was adopted by a vote. It was a shame that such an important initiative could not pass by consensus, but Hungary deserves real credit for standing firm.
This was the final regular session before the Council membership changes with the UK among the 16 countries due to come onto the Council in January 2014. It was also the final session for the outgoing US Ambassador, Eileen Donahoe, who has made an enormous personal contribution to the Council. It is hard to think of anyone who has made a bigger personal impact since the Council’s formative years and equally hard to imagine the place without her.
The Council is due to be back in action in October to look at the records of some interesting countries including China, Saudi Arabia and Israel who are all up for their Universal Periodic Reviews. In the meantime, I’m sure I’m not alone in looking forward to spending a little bit of time away from my diplomatic colleagues, getting some injury-free rest and eating something other than sandwiches. Stay well.