Bob Last

Bob Last

Deputy Head, UK Mission Political Team

Part of Foreign Office Human Rights UK in Switzerland

11th March 2013 Geneva, Switzerland

Metaphysics, Mathematics and Mayhem

Strange things happen to the passage of time at the Human Rights Council.

The days go on forever, the weeks feels like months and don’t get me started on what the months feel like. I’d thought this was just the inverse of time flying when you’re having fun but to make matters more confusing time seems to speed up when you’re trying to make a statement in the Council.

The clock seems to tick down so fast that you end up needing to finish before you’ve even got your standard diplomatic niceties out of the way. Spending endless working hours sheltered from daylight doesn’t help matters and the end result of this horological bewilderment is that you lose all sense of date and time.

Carcadian rhythms fall by the wayside as delegates chirpily bid one other good morning at dusk and arrange meetings forgetting the next day is the weekend.

Like most delegates, I spent the week negotiating some of the resolutions which countries are presenting this session. Rather unexpectedly, there are two proposals relating to the death penalty. One, led by Belgium, will lead to a panel discussion looking at the impact of the death penalty on the children of those sentenced.

Not to be outdone by its neighbour, France has proposed a separate panel looking at the broader issue of the challenges states face in introducing a moratorium for the death penalty. The council has never had a discussion on any aspect of the death penalty, so fixing both panels for next year feels like the UN equivalent of waiting for English buses: you wait seven years and nothing happens and then two come along at once.

The death penalty always ranks highly on the UN controversy chart. But this really need not be the case and there ought to be room for a constructive discussion on this issue. After all, the majority of states who have abolished the death penalty, including the UK, have done this in recent memory.

So we all remember the challenges our own countries faced, and the difficult domestic debates we had, in bringing forward laws to limit and then remove the death penalty.

I’ve spent a fair bit of time this week in the Norwegian-led discussions on human rights defenders. This year’s resolution tackles the worrying trend by repressive governments of restricting human rights defenders with criminal sanctions on their activities, limitations on financing within the country and excessive controls over their funding from overseas.

The resolution responds to the concerns raised in this year’s report by the Special Rapporteur on Human Right Defenders, Margaret Sekaggya, and both the Special Rapporteur and Norway are to be commended for bringing much needed attention to these issues.

I never quite believed teachers at school when they told me that I would need my maths one day and the last place I expected to see them proved right was in a meeting on North Korea. My Japanese colleague Junichiro became the first person to introduce a Venn diagram into a negotiation on a human rights resolution on Friday.

Alongside the European Union, Japan has proposed a new Commission of Inquiry to investigate grave and systematic human rights violations in North Korea. Several delegations sought clarity on how the new Commission would relate to the existing Special Rapporteur, who already reports to the Council on the human rights situation in the country.

In a moment of impromptu genius, Junichiro sketched a Venn diagram which seemed to settle the matter. Unfortunately I was sat too far back in the room to actually see it, but if memory serves me well it should look something like this:

picture venn

I’m sure his maths teacher would’ve been proud.

My son turned two on Saturday and we marked the occasion with the customary sugar-induced mayhem that will be familiar to anyone with young children. But even at weekends it is hard to get the Council fully out of mind and the sight of a room full of toddlers charging around chaotically was not unlike the scenes you get in the Council on tabling deadline day, just before all the resolutions have to be submitted.

Except at the Council you get slightly fewer renditions of Incy Wincy Spider. It left me wondering whether Council delegates might function better if they were fuelled with birthday cake instead of the atrocious UN sandwiches we survive on. They say that children experience time differently from those of us greying around the temples.

So outside the Council, days that feel like they go on forever can be a lot of fun. Especially when you’re two.

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3 comments on “Metaphysics, Mathematics and Mayhem

  1. Just found this great blog which nicely illustrates life at the HRC.

    For those of us who did not attend the informals on DPRK, would be interesting to know what issues are found in the overlapping green/pink area in the Venn diagram.

  2. Bob has well described the strange time compression we experience in the Human Rights Council. One of my colleagues sat around from mid-day Thursday until 9:05 the following Monday morning waiting to give her two-minute speech. Then in the space of 10 minutes a day later we wrote and delivered a one-minute speech that led to the Iranian ambassador confessing that yes, torture does happen in the Islamic Republic, but it is not state policy.
    The Venn diagram came in useful too when I pointed out in one of the informal meetings that the work of the Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Iran was not instead of the Universal Periodic Review, but complementary to it.

    Roy W Brown
    IHEU Main Representative, UN Geneva

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About Bob Last

Bob Last (MBE) is Deputy Head of the UK Mission Political Team. He worked on human rights in the UK and Uganda before joining the UK Mission to the UN…

Bob Last (MBE) is Deputy Head of the UK Mission Political Team. He worked on human rights in the UK and Uganda before joining the UK Mission to the UN in 2002. He hopes to share regular thoughts and experiences, following the work of the Human Rights Council and other UN human rights meetings in Geneva.

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