Bob Last

Bob Last

Deputy Head, UK Mission Political Team

Part of Foreign Office Human Rights UK in Switzerland

9th September 2013 Geneva, Switzerland

A September to Remember?

I hope you’ve had a good summer. My holidays have become a lot less adventurous since fatherhood, and gone are the days of disappearing off to far-away countries with a rucksack, a guidebook and a cautiously large amount of Immodium. Nowadays all I want from a holiday is some sleep and to spend my waking hours moving at the speed of a three-toed sloth.

I’m not expecting much rest during what promises to be a hectic September session of the Human Rights Council so I thought I’d use the summer to find ways to organise my time better. Friends and colleagues have long been extolling the virtues of online shopping so I finally gave it a go.

Unfortunately things didn’t quite go to plan and I ended up with 10 boxes of my two-year old son’s breakfast cereal. It didn’t take long for him to lose interest, so I’ve been steadily working my way through them over the last couple of months. In the spirit of forgiveness my wife has banned me from future unsupervised online food buying.

There is always plenty going on in Geneva, whether the Council is in session or not, and last week the UK hosted an international Conference on the Foreign Secretary’s Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative. The use of rape as a weapon of warfare has been ignored by political leaders for far too long, so I’m very proud that the UK is at the forefront of trying to do something about it.

The UK is set to launch a new international protocol which should make a real difference by ensuring more perpetrators are convicted through better evidence gathering and through practical steps to better protect women and girls.

Sadly the reality for now is that rape and other sexual violence remains prevalent in almost all conflict and post conflict scenarios. The September session is set to look at the human rights situations in a number of countries, including Syria, Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo which have all seen reports of appalling levels of sexual violence and other human rights violations against civilians.

The Council is set to take up the situation in Syria once again, with the Commission of Inquiry due to provide a briefing in week two. Both the human rights and humanitarian situations have continued to deteriorate in recent months, with the regime’s abhorrent use of chemical weapons amounting to a clear war crime.

The UK has been leading the way in providing humanitarian aid to help alleviate civilian suffering but the need for safe humanitarian access is vital for this to happen and has become more pressing than ever.

The session will also take up the human rights situation in Sudan which has further worsened in recent months. It is something of an anomaly that a situation as bad as Sudan is considered under item 10 of the Council’s agenda, which concerns technical assistance. By any objective measure, given the level of ongoing violations, Sudan should be considered as a country of concern under item 4, but it remains to be seen if there will be sufficient openness on the part of African members of the Council to accepting this.

The UK gets ready to speak at the September session of the Human Rights Council
The UK gets ready to speak at the September session of the Human Rights Council

September sessions can often be the underwhelming poor relation of the March and June sessions, as attention begins to shift to what will happen at the General Assembly in New York. But this year has a different feel to it, with a range of new resolutions planned including African-led initiatives on albinism and Female Genital Mutilation. The Council is also set to give a much needed boost to civil society.

Repressive laws to control civil society, intimidation against human rights defenders and reprisals against those who seek to engage with the UN human rights system all seem to be on the rise. Even in the Council there is a sense that NGOs’ freedom to operate is under ever increasing scrutiny from those states who want to stop NGOs raising their voice in a way which would be silenced in their own countries.

In response, Ireland will present a new resolution on civil society space alongside Hungary’s long-standing resolution on intimidation and reprisals against those who cooperate with the UN. Both resolutions are key to setting out the protection which states need to give those individuals and NGOs in their countries who are working at great personal risk to give meaning to their rights.

However uncomfortable they may be for states to listen to, the voices of independent and credible NGOs are much needed to hold states accountable to their own obligations .

Amongst the things I’ll be working on over the coming weeks is the UK’s resolution to renew the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on Contemporary forms of Slavery. Since the mandate was established in 2007 the Special Rapporteur, Gulnara Shahinian, has done an excellent job in raising the profile of different forms of modern slavery such as domestic servitude and forced marriage.

Despite the high sensitivity around the issues she has to raise, Ms Shahinian has managed to maintain constructive relationships with a range of the countries she’s visited and to provided them with helpful follow-up assistance.

Following the mass exodus of colleagues summer, there’ll be a new school atmosphere this September, as the new colleagues will arrive with sharp haircuts and high energy. As I seem to have become the Council dinosaur, I’ll do my best to provide the continuity from old to new. I will be at my most youthful and cheery disposition in the mornings, as my toddler’s breakfast cereal will still be working wonders.

You’ll have to excuse me if you see me napping in the afternoons though. The sugar high just doesn’t last that long.

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3 comments on “A September to Remember?

  1. Interesting blog Bob, thanks – and congratulations for all the work so far in support of the Foreign Secretary’s initiative to prevent sexual violence in conflict. I hope the UK will reinforce these messages in the debates and negotiations surrounding the country situations you mention. It’s also good to see the Human Rights Council tackling such a range of important thematic issues, including those which have as yet flown under the HRC’s radar. I’m looking forward to reading more about how it all goes – particularly Ireland’s new resolution, the UK’s efforts to renew Ms Shahinian’s mandate and your sugary cereal addition. Be nice to the ‘freshers’.

  2. Great blog as ever. Really insightful. Hope you and the rest of the UK team have a good session. Sounds like you will have a very busy agenda.

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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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