The Human Rights Council is getting too big for its trousers. I know how this feels as I have had to buy a new more spacious suit recently.
June sessions used to start slowly, simmer in the second week and come nicely to the boil in week three. But this year week one has begun at such a frantic pace that by Friday delegates were left looking stunned, as though they’d popped down the road to the shops and ended up running an accidental marathon.
It’s arguably a sign of the Council’s increasing success that states and NGOs are keen to use it take up more issues. But everyone agrees that there are too many resolutions, too many panel discussions and too many new mechanisms being created. For the time being though, no one seems willing to take the first step in introducing some much needed self-discipline and the end result is that we’re trying to do far too much in too little time.
There are certain resolutions that the Council needs in order to respond to the pressing human rights issues of the day, and others that it would simply be better off without. The scale of suffering in Syria demands the Council’s on-going attention. The main issue this session is whether the Council can increase the pressure for international accountability on the Assad regime which continues to conduct violations on a horrific scale with total impunity.
It is also beyond questions that the Council should react to the recent events in South Sudan. According to last month’s report by the UN’s Mission in South Sudan, from the onset of fighting late last year there have been gross violations of human rights on a massive scale with civilians directly targeted on ethnic lines. The African Group seems ready to bring a resolution this session but it remains to be seen whether this will offer the forceful criticism which is clearly warranted and whether this will set up a monitoring mechanism to keep the Council’s eye firmly on the situation.
Ukraine has also indicated that it wants the Council’s help to strengthen human rights protection within the country. Ukraine’s recent engagement with the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Council’s Rapporteur on minorities is commendable, as it tries to embed the rule of law and tackle the violent abuses by armed separates groups in the East. Ukraine’s engagement stands in stark contrast to the denial of access of monitors to the Crimean peninsula, where UN reporting has drawn attention to a clear deterioration in the human rights situation following Russia’s illegal annexation.
Of all the resolutions the Council could do without, the most disingenous is the Egyptian led resolution on the ‘protection of the family’. This is widely seen as a counter strike to the Council resolution on sexual orientation, which South Africa bravely led in 2011 but which has stalled of late.
Behind Egypt’s positive sounding title lies an initiative which threatens to undo decades of progress on women’s rights and children’s rights. Creating a new notion of family rights goes against the rights of individual family members, and is an underhand way of justifying male oppression within the family. It really should be possible to have a sensible discussion of these issues but this is threatening to become a fault line dividing the Council, with women and children’s rights as collateral damage.
To accompany the burgeoning number of resolutions, week one has seen a record number of side events. It’s a shame that time does not always allow delegates to attend in good numbers but it was pleasing to see a packed room at the UK event to mark the start of the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict. Over 150 countries have now signed the international declaration to end rape as a weapon of war and the successful summit has provided a protocol with practical guidance to combat sexual violence and combat impunity.
UK Side Event on Ending Sexual Violence in Conflict
Colleagues may have noticed that my mobility was a bit hampered towards the end of week one, so I’m sorry if I turned up late to your meetings. I developed a foot problem following a strange chain of events which began last weekend. One of my 3 year old’s favourite tricks is to hide our shoes in unlikely places. So when my wife needed me to give her an urgent lift into town I was forced to leave the house with only one sandal (I optimistically tried bringing one of hers, but couldn’t force it to fit).
It seems Swiss streets are not as clean as they are made out to be and standing for five minutes with one-shoe off left me with a foot infection on Monday, hobbling by Wednesday and on antibiotics by Friday. I’ll be keeping a much closer guard of my footwear for the rest of the session.