Bob Last

Bob Last

Deputy Head, UK Mission Political Team

Part of Foreign Office Human Rights UK in Switzerland

17th June 2013 Geneva, Switzerland

Going the distance

As the three-week session came to a close on Friday evening, delegates looked each other in the eye with weary emotion and asked how was it for you? The general mood seemed to be that it had been a good session but that the earth didn’t move.

Getting through Council sessions is as much a test of stamina as anything else. Yes, some human rights knowledge, negotiating skills, and a bit of procedural know-how come in handy, but if you want to survive the long-slog of a session, you need endurance. Fortunately, diplomats seem to have it by the bucket-load. I’m considering a sponsorship side venture for the next session and getting endorsements for different delegations from batteries, energy drinks and manufacturers of little blue pills.

Voting on the last couple of days was a typically tense business. Anyone who has been around a while will tell you that one of the main tricks of the trade if you’re leading a resolution is to get it adopted as early as possible. The longer you have to wait, the greater the likelihood that at the last minute, someone will want to unpick a delicate comprise that you’ve spent weeks putting together. So my colleague Ian, who had a tougher session than most people, did particularly well to guide the Syria resolution home with a strong victory margin as the session’s final resolution.

This was the tenth resolution the Council has passed on Syria and it condemned the continuing gross human rights violations and crimes against humanity  being committed. It also called on the the Assad regime to grant urgently needed humanitarian access, which it continues to deny to the area of al-Qusayr.  During the adoption of the resolution, many countries stressed the importance of the Geneva II meeting and the political track as the only way of ending the crisis and stopping the bloodshed.

The Council adopted a consensual text on Burma, drawing attention to the recent violence against Muslims in the country, with a particular focus on the situation of the Rohingya minority. The Rohingya have lived under extremely harsh restrictions on all aspects of their lives for decades and are denied citizenship rights. Burma’s engagement on the adopted statement was a positive step, but Burma should be prepared for tougher measures if it doesn’t take steps to investigate and stop violations against the Rohingya. The resolution on Belarus passed by a much bigger margin than last year, with only three Council members opposed. The high number of countries voting in favour of criticising Belarus should add international pressure and will hopefully lead to Belarus easing the harsh restrictions it has opposed on human rights defenders and political prisoners. Venezuela’s no vote was not a surprise, given its hard-line opposition to country resolutions, and nobody realistically expected Kazakhstan, as regional allies, to vote any other way. But India’s opposition was a bit harder to fathom, and more should be expected of the world’s biggest democracy, when addressing a country with such an abysmal record on civil and political freedoms. 

The main let down of the session, and the reason it won’t go down as historic, was that the resolution on sexual orientation proved to be the dog that didn’t bark. For the many supporters of a resolution from both states and civil society, the lack of a resolution this session has been a distressing setback, but one that can be overcome provided the Council takes up the issue in the near future. No doubt the way forward will be the topic of many a conversation in Geneva and the outside world before the next session in September.

Hip hop artist and former child soldier runs a workshop inside the Luminarium
Hip hop artist and former child soldier runs a workshop inside the Luminarium

The main talking point outside the Council room was the UK-sponsored Luminarium – a walk-through art installation using natural light to create a space to discus and reflect on human rights. The closing ceremony, on the last day of the Council, was a mass recital of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in over 20 languages. It proved particularly moving as guests observed a minute’s silence in tribute to Monica Ross, the artist behind the project who had died that morning. The recital reminded many present of what a groundbreaking document the Universal Declaration remains, and how much further we must go to make its provisions a reality. 

For many Council die-hards, this will be their last session as Geneva braces itself for another sad summer exodus. I’ve lost count of how many great colleagues I’ve bid a fond farewell to over the years. One of the oddities of my own position as a locally employed adviser is that I stay on while others pass through Geneva’s shores. It’s a bit like being the eternally youthful Christopher Lambert character in Highlander, only in my case, as my wife pointed out, my hair looks greyer each summer. So cheerio to Ana, Balazs, Casey, Elio, Etika, Geir, Hanna, Kai, Maria, Nicole, Oz, Piret, Raphael, Sally, Tanja, Timo, Vlad and anyone else leaving. You’ve all made your mark on the Council and I wish you well. But you haven’t got my staying power.

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2 comments on “Going the distance

  1. well done Bob to you and the team for surviving another session. and as Ian said Congrats on your MBE, so well deserved!

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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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