Bob Last

Bob Last

Deputy Head, UK Mission Political Team

Part of Foreign Office Human Rights UK in Switzerland

1st July 2014 Geneva, Switzerland

Zeitgeist and Poltergeists

It’s been a difficult month. Like many other Council goers I’ve been trying to find enough time for the essential trinity of work, family and football. This is a struggle at the best of times but I feel that however many late-night shifts I’ve put in trying to make time for my council workload, my insomniac children and watching the world cup on telly, no one has really got enough attention.

On the home front, it feels like I’ve been contending with supernatural powers. Living with small children is like having a poltergeist in the house and nothing ever seems to be where I’ve left it. Over recent weeks I’ve been late leaving the house after prolonged searches for my keys, my phone, my UN badge, my wallet and my trousers. I’ve tried getting my bag ready the night before but objects disappear from inside, or else the whole bag goes missing. I’m thinking of seeing if my kids can stay with some of my more unhelpful colleagues next session to wreak their sabotage elsewhere.

Whenever I get the time I try to speak to groups of students interested in learning more about the goings on at the Council. One particularly smart young person recently asked me how I would define the Council-era Zeitgeist. I had to confess that I wasn’t sure that I’d be able to define it all without the prior use of a dictionary, but it got me thinking. I used to feel confident that the Council’s defining spirit was the universality of rights and that eventually this would bridge the disagreements which surface here in discussions on women’s rights, the death penalty, civil society, sexual orientation and more. While the positions states adopt at the Council may reflect international differences on these issues, wherever progress has been achieved at the national level it has been through individuals asserting their rights, before states take these up and defend them as a matter of course. This will happen pretty much everywhere eventually. It’s just a matter of when.

But this session saw a worrying attempt to put the brakes on progress through an Egyptian led resolution on the ‘protection of the family’. The resolution initially did not recognise the rights of individual family members or that families come in diverse forms. When several Latin American and European states proposed to address this through an amendment, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan attempted to impose a strict and narrow definition of marriage as a union between a man and a woman. Although this regressive definition was eventually dropped, the resolution’s failure to recognise that families exist in many different forms led to the UK calling a vote. The adoption of the resolution was a rare low moment in the Council’s recent history and sent a damaging message against diversity, non-discrimination and universality.

Thankfully the Council’s response to other major issues was more successful. In a significant advance, the latest resolution on Syria included clear references to the International Criminal Court for the first time. It was disappointing to see the likes of South Africa abstain, and even worse to see Algeria, who had previously abstained, join Russia, Cuba, China and Venezuela in voting no, but the overall vote count, with 32 Council members in favour, showed the ongoing and strong rejection of the violations caused by the Assad regime.

One of the most positive new developments this session saw Ukraine present a resolution which sought the Council’s help in addressing the many human rights challenges in the country. Ukraine’s recognition that it needs outside help is commendable but the resolution’s mention of violations taking place in the Crimean peninsula led to strong opposition from Russia. Only 3 council members joined Russia in voting no, while 23 voted in favour in a clear sign of support for Ukraine’s openness to external monitoring and help.

My Ukrainian and US colleagues, Petro Beshta and Valerie Ullrich
My Ukrainian and US colleagues, Petro Beshta and Valerie Ullrich

On some of the many other issues which came up, the Council also renewed the Special Rapporteur on Belarus for a further year with a strong majority of the Council criticising Belarus for its ongoing denial of rights in the country. In an unexpected move the Council also set up a new Commission of Inquiry on Eritrea which will report to the Council next year. The proposal for the Inquiry came late in the day and took many members by surprise, but the appalling scale of violations in the country, which has one of the very worst human rights situations anywhere, ensured that the proposal would pass.

I hope you all have a nice summer and for those of you with teams still in the World Cup, I hope your exit doesn’t prove too painful when it comes. I’ll be back after the summer break when the Council resumes in September. In the meantime I’ll be trying to keep my personal belongings out of the reach of my mini poltergeists.

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6 comments on “Zeitgeist and Poltergeists

  1. Thank you for this interesting blog post.

    It is very sad indeed that one country tries so hard to prevent the universality of, and progress on, human rights.

    It was very obvious to most of us observing the UN Human Rights Council session that this so-called “Protection of the Family” resolution was led by one country, and that it was an attempt to preserve male dominance, and to prevent progress on the human rights of women and children in particular.

    But the human rights are and will remain universal and apply equally to all individuals regardless of what family they live in, whether families headed by single parents, by grandparents, by same-sex couples, or whether families with adopted children, or with no children.

  2. Another great blog from Bob and very insightful about the inner workings of the human rights council.

  3. Dear Bob,

    Looking forward to your talk in Copenhagen on Monday, Sept. 9th!

    In preparation for the workshop, I just fell across the following – maybe new to you:
    Gerber, P., and Gory, J. 2014. The UN Human Rights Committee and
    LGBT Rights: What is it Doing? What Could it be Doing? Human Rights Law Review, 2014, 14, 403–439. doi: 10.1093/hrlr/ngu019

    Stephen Wessels

  4. Great blog Bob, and just as an update for HRC 27, Chile used its Item 1 statement to announce it will be running a resolution on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity along with Colombia and Uruguay.

  5. Bob, at Last. Glad to find you and see that football (the real one) is still part of your life. My best wishes for now. I’ll try to get in touch more often.

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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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