In the 12 years since its establishment, the Human Rights Council has played a pivotal role in addressing the world’s most difficult situations, its President told the Third Committee (Social, Cultural and Humanitarian) today, as he outlined priority activities for 2018 and described improvements to its work methods.
Presenting the annual report of the Geneva-based body, Vojislav Šuc (Slovenia) pointed out that 60 per cent of the Council’s resolutions were passed without a vote. Further, some were cross-regional in nature, including on country-specific issues, an affirmation of its ability to take action on important human rights concerns by overcoming different political positions.
Among them, he said was a resolution on the human rights situation of Rohingya Muslims and other minorities in Myanmar, whereby the Council established an independent mechanism to collect, consolidate, preserve and analyse evidence of the most serious international crimes, and facilitate fair criminal proceedings.
Through another, on the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Council requested the High Commissioner for Human Rights to submit reports before, during and after 23 December elections. And, during a special session in May, it decided to dispatch a commission of inquiry to investigate all violations of international humanitarian and human rights law in the context of civilian protests around the occupied Palestinian territory, including East Jerusalem.
On working methods, he stressed that, while the Council is a well-functioning mechanism and has many “good stories to tell”, it faces shortcomings, the most pressing of which are its efficiency and effectiveness. He has initiated a process to identify measures to reduce its workload and rationalize its resolutions. The goal, he said, is to “see the Council successfully overcome its challenges and come out even stronger”.
In the ensuing debate, several speakers homed in on that need, with Eritrea’s delegate decrying that the Council suffers from the same ills that made the Human Rights Commission defunct: politicization and double standards. Promotion of human rights is achieved through solidarity among nations. As a Council member for the 2019-2021 term, Eritrea will work to make the body more credible.
The representative of Comoros, on the behalf of the African Group, rejected the notion that rights can be hierarchized, adding: “We cannot promote one set of rights to the exclusion of others”. China’s delegate took issue with the Council’s “naming and shaming” approach, with secessionists using it for political purposes and mandate holders making false accusations. India’s delegate meanwhile called the discourse “contentious”, marked by sovereignty versus intrusive intervention, and individual versus collective rights. He described the lack of consensus and stark divides as worrisome, compromising the Council’s credibility.
However, Council members must uphold the highest standards, said Liechtenstein’s delegate, also on behalf of Australia, Canada, Iceland, New Zealand and Norway. “No State that commits or permits gross human rights violations should be elected to a seat,” he insisted. “We demand the highest standards of transparency and integrity of criminal investigations into crimes against journalists.”
Also speaking were the representatives of Saudi Arabia, Cuba, Iraq, Brazil, Colombia, Kazakhstan, Nigeria, Bangladesh, Iran, Egypt, Oman, Togo, Myanmar and Bahamas.
The Third Committee will reconvene on Tuesday, 6 November to take action on draft resolutions.
Human Rights Council Report
VOJISLAV ŠUC, President of the Human Rights Council presented the body’s annual report (document A/73/53 and Add.1), which outlined activities during its thirty-eighth and thirty-ninth sessions, and its twenty-seventh and twenty-eighth special sessions. This year, the Council adopted a number of resolutions, 60 per cent of them without a vote. Some were cross-regional in nature, on country-specific issues, among them, a resolution adopted in September on the human rights situation of Rohingya Muslims and other minorities in Myanmar, whereby the Council established an independent mechanism to collect, consolidate, preserve and analyse evidence of the most serious international crimes and to facilitate fair criminal proceedings. Syria has also featured high on the agenda, as the Council engaged with the Commission of Inquiry in its three regular sessions, and in an urgent debate in March, adopted a resolution requesting the Commission to investigate events in eastern Ghouta. It also extended its mandate.
On South Sudan, he said the Council extended the mandate of the Commission on Human Rights for another year. It did likewise for the Commission of Inquiry on Burundi and decided that body would present a final report to the General Assembly at its seventy-fourth session. On the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Council requested the High Commissioner for Human Rights to submit reports before, during and after 23 December elections, and on the situation in Yemen, it extended the mandate of the Group of Eminent International and Regional Experts. In May, it held a special session on the deteriorating situation in the occupied Palestinian territory, including East Jerusalem, and dispatched a commission of inquiry to investigate all violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights law in the context of civilian protests.
More broadly, he said the Council established a group of rapporteurs to consult stakeholders in Geneva and New York, and present proposals on how the Council can contribute to the prevention of rights violations. On a thematic level, the Council held 13 panel discussions, continued to make its work more accessible to persons with disabilities through the use of technology, as well as international sign language interpretation, real-time captioning and webcast. Turning to Special Procedures, he stressed the importance of respecting mandate-holders and not subjecting them to threats. He welcomed that, as of September, 118 Member States and one Observer State have extended a standing invitation to thematic special procedures. Some States, however, do not cooperate with them and he called on all to do so. The universal periodic review, meanwhile, continues to enjoy strong legitimacy and ownership by Member States, with a 100 per cent participation rate as a platform for non-politicized, non-selective and non-confrontational discussion among peers. The process enables contribution of regional and national human rights mechanisms, civil society, and more recently, parliaments.
Also this year, the Trust Fund to Support the Participation of Least Developed Countries and Small Island Developing States enabled 25 delegates to participate in its regular sessions, 14 of them women. He expressed regret over allegations of intimidation, threats and reprisal against individuals who cooperate with the Council and its mechanisms, stressing the importance of a safe environment for civil society representatives to freely express their views. On working methods, he noted a process to improve efficiency, strengthen the Council and rationalize its work, with a focus on reducing workload and meeting hours during its regular sessions.
When the floor opened for questions, the representative of Yemen said the report was biased and inaccurate. The group’s findings lack professionalism, integrity and ignore the crimes committed by the Houthi militias. Further, the group ignored the reports delivered by Yemen’s national commission and refused to cooperate with it.
The representative of Brazil said the Human Rights Council could do more to help countries address the structural causes of human rights violations. More dialogue and interaction between New York and Geneva is crucial and should be sought by all parties involved, he added.
The representative of Germany, pointing out that the conflicts addressed by the Security Council lately all started with gross human rights violations, asked how the Council could use early warning signs to better inform United Nations bodies.
The representative of Hungary said her country supports the work of the Council and its mechanisms. However, overpoliticization, selectivity and an unmanageable workload have affected its ability to fulfil its mandate. Stressing that a greater emphasis should be put on technical cooperation, in agreement with State parties concerned, she urged those present to support proposals aiming to improve the Council’s functioning.
The representative of Japan said the Council should clarify its focus and address overlap with the mandate of other United Nations bodies and human rights organizations. Special procedures should avoid any politicization of their mandates and take measures to improve, such as through the creation of a third-party assessment process. He asked what is necessary for the Council to function in a more effective manner.
The representative of United Sates asked when the General Assembly should initiate discussion ahead of the upcoming review process and if the Council President is willing to start the procedure in 2019. The overall credibility of the Council remains tarnished, he said, citing its “institutional bias” against Israel, amongst other factors.
The representative of European Union deplored threats and reprisals against those who carry out the Council’s mandate or cooperate with it. He asked how the role of civil society can be strengthened and how reprisals against people who cooperate with the Council should be addressed. He also asked what steps the Council can take to achieve better outcomes at the country level.
The representative of Cuba said measures to achieve the proposed improvements will not happen without political will on the part of Member States. Stressing that the Council is a subsidiary body of the General Assembly, he said his country disagrees with the idea that there should be more links between the Human Rights Council and the Security Council.
An observer from the State of Palestine asked for updates on the Commission of Inquiry to ensure there would be an end to impunity and justice on the ground.
The representative of Switzerland asked about measures to protect the rights of civil society actors.
The representative of Syria rejected the politicization of human rights mechanisms to promote the interests of powerful States, which seek to hide violations perpetrated by occupying forces in the Golan Heights.
The representative of the Republic of Korea said local governments are human rights protectors at the grass roots level and drew attention to the President’s efforts to improve the Council’s efficiency.
The representative of Guatemala said it is vital to strengthen the human rights system, and especially, to improve the Council’s work methods, asking the President how to strengthen its peace and security efforts.
Also speaking were the representatives of Spain, Chile and Latvia.
Mr. ŠUC replied that he is working to make the Human Rights Council more efficient. He clarified that this is not a reform effort, because the Council functions well: its mechanisms bring results. However, there is room for improvement. He seeks to allow delegations more space and time to focus on human rights questions.
Describing a “mushrooming of resolutions”, he said he seeks to streamline the processes. The Third Committee and Human Rights Council sometimes address the same issue, which may send out a strong message if both bodies support a resolution from “both sides of the Atlantic”. In general, when there are resolutions that are functionally identical, it is rational to work on the same issue at the same time. Describing the “Geneva gap”, he said Governments in New York are focused on peace, security and development —less so on human rights. In Geneva, Governments focus mainly on human rights. The key is to bring the pillars together, he said.
The Secretary-General’s prevention agenda is important to the Human Rights Council, he explained, noting that the latter brings the necessary knowledge and analysis from the ground. The Special Rapporteurs and Commissions of Inquiry also bring valuable information. More broadly, he said politicization has nothing to do with the Council. When delegates use it for their political purposes, this constitutes politicization and it should be minimized. To questions on civil society actors, he said the Council is unique as the only United Nations body to regularly involve them in discussions, which in turn, are more informed and complex because of their participation. As President, he is vigilant in ensuring that civil society space is open.
More generally, he recalled that special sessions can be convened in a matter of days, and that urgent debates are organized during Council sessions. These tools can address human rights violations effectively and quickly. States should follow recommendations more closely and put in place follow-up mechanism. “The whole system should be more focused on implementation”, he stated. The universal periodic review is an effective tool to address violations, and efforts must be made to ensure the Council is functioning properly and “in a good shape” before the 2021 review. Each Sustainable Development Goal has a human rights component and the Council will discharge its mandate accordingly, he assured.
FATIMA ALFEINE (Comoros), speaking on behalf of the African Group, reaffirmed support for General Assembly resolution 60/251, which affirms the need to respect “regional particularities and various historical, cultural and religious backgrounds”, while promoting human rights and fundamental freedoms. Attempts by certain States to impose their values — in contradiction to this resolution — are condemnable. She noted with concern the increasing number of non-consensual resolutions adopted by the Council and deplored the lack of constructive engagement by the Global North on the work of the Intergovernmental Working Group on Transnational Companies and Other Business Enterprises and Human Rights. Stressing that extreme poverty and social exclusion constitute a violation of human dignity, he rejected the notion that rights can be hierarchized. “We cannot promote one set of rights to the exclusion of others”, she stated.
CHRISTIAN WENAWESER (Liechtenstein), speaking also on behalf of Australia, Canada, Iceland, New Zealand and Norway, welcomed the Council’s steps to address situations in Venezuela and Myanmar, pressing the Third Committee (Social, Humanitarian and Cultural) and the Fifth Committee (Administrative and Budgetary) to act quickly on any Council decisions. Encouraging Council members to uphold the highest standards, he said tolerance of, acquiescence to, or the commission of gross and systemic violations is always reprehensible, and particularly inexcusable when displayed or condoned by a Council member. “No State that commits or permits gross human rights violations should be elected to a seat,” he asserted. Denouncing reprisals against rights defenders, he also voiced deep concern over harassment, intimidation and obstruction by States towards mandate holders and called on them to work with the Special Procedures. “We demand the highest standards of transparency and integrity of criminal investigations into crimes against journalists”, he insisted.
Ms. ALSHAFAI (Saudi Arabia) said the judiciary is independent and based on Sharia law and therefore guarantees everybody a right to a fair trial. The penal proceeding law is under review and a new penal bill is being drafted to fight against abuses of power. She assured that promotion and protection of human rights is among the Government’s priorities, noting that Saudi Arabia will always continue to work with the international community to advance human rights in a manner that does not contradict Islam.
Ms. VALLE (Cuba) said the universal periodic review should be consolidated as it is the only mechanism that assesses the human rights situation in all countries. Further, it is the only distinct component of the Council compared to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, which it replaced. Any process to improve the Council will not succeed in the absence of political will, she said, reaffirming that there is no need for greater links between the Security Council and the Human Rights Council, as the latter is a subsidiary of the General Assembly.
Ms. PISHDARY (Iraq) said her country has acceded to eight human rights instruments, underlining the importance of reinforcing the international legal framework of human rights. Iraq has submitted reports and extended an open invitation to all Special Rapporteurs, and its election to the Human Rights Committee reflects international confidence in the country. Iraq will continue to reinforce the universal periodic review as an important mechanism, she said, stressing the importance of technical assistance and underscoring Iraq’s continued support for the High Commissioner.
ZEBIB GEBREKIDAN (Eritrea) said despite reaffirmations of the universality and equal treatment of human rights, the Human Rights Council suffers from the same ills that made the Human Rights Commission defunct: politicization and double standards. Promotion of human rights is achieved through solidarity among nations. As a Council member for the 2019-2021 term, Eritrea will work to make the body more credible. The number of resolutions has grown, however, the efficacy of their contributions remains questionable. The contribution of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) to helping countries realize human rights cannot be underestimated; the Office must ensure it maintains integrity. It is essential to promote dialogue and cooperation, she said, underscoring the centrality of the universal periodic review in improving conditions on the ground.
PAULOMI TRIPATHI (India) said that 70 years after the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the international human rights discourse remains contentious: sovereignty versus the intrusiveness of intervention; the universality of human rights versus cultural contexts; and individual versus collective rights. Since its inception, the Council has grappled with ideological and geopolitical divides, and yet has contributed to human rights action and discourse. The greater acceptance of recommendations emerging from the universal periodic review is encouraging and must be consolidated. Universality and improved efficiency is needed, he said, describing the lack of consensus and stark divides as worrisome, as they compromise the Council’s credibility.
Mr. PADUA (Brazil), noting his country’s membership in the Human Rights Council and underlining the importance of more dialogue and cooperation between that body and the General Assembly, reaffirmed Brazil’s commitment to the Council’s success in promoting and protecting human rights. In order to improve its ability to fulfil that mandate, reform should take place within the framework of the institution-building package and aim to reduce polarization and enhance trust among stakeholders. The Council should also be able to promote effective capacity-building with the engagement of all States to address the structural causes of rights violations, in an environment favourable to dialogue and cooperation.
GUILLLERMO FERNANDEZ DE SOTO (Colombia), stressing the importance of the universal periodic review, underscored the high rate of participation and adoption of recommendations issued by the Council. Colombia has promoted social dialogue to bring together different regions of the country and improved institutional connections to better protect human rights defenders and social leaders. Emphasizing that the prevention of violations is a fundamental part of the Human Rights Council’s role, he said Colombia has strengthened its early warning system and interinstitutional cooperation to better prevent and respond to abuse.
ARMAN ISSETOV (Kazakhstan) said the Human Rights Council alerts the international community to situations and thematic concerns in many countries that require particular attention. To be effective, the Council’s work on country situations should be primarily based on issues of technical cooperation and capacity building, rather than increased monitoring and investigation activities. To this end, dialogue and constructive engagement of the Council’s country-specific mechanisms with States should be at the heart of their activities. The universal periodic review is the most effective, impartial and depoliticized mechanism of the Council, with its own dynamics and universal recognition.
ALEXANDER TEMITOPE ADEYEMI AJAYI (Nigeria), aligning himself with the African Group, said the most effective counterterrorism response mechanism is to reinforce respect for human rights and fight hate speech as well as discrimination, suppression, injustice and marginalization. Adding that Nigeria’s counterterrorism and violent extremism operation is being implemented according to international human rights and humanitarian laws, he said Nigerian civil society, along with political, religious and ethnic leaders, are complementing Government efforts to counter Boko Haram terrorism and violent extremism, especially in the northeast. Further, implementation of the National Counter Terrorism Strategy and National Security Strategy Documents is focused on providing justice to victims, limiting the pool of potential conscripts by creating employment for youth, shutting off Boko Haram’s funding and access to weapons, and building community resilience as well as capacity.
MASUD BIN MOMEN (Bangladesh) said Myanmar has rejected the Special Rapporteur and raised questions about the credibility of the Fact-Finding Mission. Accountability is essential in order for repatriation of the Rohingya to occur in the long run. Myanmar must positively respond to international accountability mechanisms, he said, recommending constructive engagement with civil society, underscoring Bangladesh’s commitment to freedom of expression.
ZAHRA ERSHADI (Iran) said the High Commissioner’s Office had yet to be fully used as a medium for dialogue and cooperation, expressing regret that politicization and manipulation have increased mistrust and eroded the effectiveness of the Council and its universal periodic review. Regrettably, a few countries prefer to revert to the dysfunctional practice of tabling country-specific resolutions that have no value but to increase confrontation. A product of such unconstructive attempts, the Council’s report includes reference to the resolution adopted against Iran, a shortcoming, and he reiterated Iran’s position of non-cooperation with Council mandates.
FATMAALZAHRAA HASSAN ABDELAZIZ ABDELKAWY (Egypt) said that the Council’s mandate can only be implemented if it is applied based on the principles of non-politicization, objectivity, and international cooperation. Underscoring the need to refrain from targeting human rights situations in various countries and imposing mechanisms on them — despite their position of non-cooperation, given the politicized nature of those bodies — she stressed the role of technical assistance and capacity building in bolstering State efforts to protect human rights. Egypt is participating in the process to strengthen the Council’s efficiency, while reaffirming the interdependence of all human rights, as well as economic, social and cultural rights. Egypt is leading initiatives within the Council on the right to work, protection of the family, and the non-repatriation of funds of illicit origins.
Mr. AL DAGHARI (Oman) said the Government seeks to ensure the people of Oman, citizens and residents alike enjoy the best conditions to lead dignified lives. To that end, human rights are enshrined in the Basic Statute of the State and the Government has adopted numerous international human rights instruments. Since 1970, it has come a long way, establishing free health care and education as well as housing schemes, amongst other social programmes. Oman is proud to be a women’s rights pioneer in the region, he said, pointing out that legislation fully protects women from arbitrary dismissal, notably in cases of illness or pregnancy, and grants them 50-day paid maternity leave.
Mr. DZINADZA (Togo) said promoting and bolstering fundamental rights and freedoms remains a challenge. The Government prides itself in linking rights to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the provision public services, he said, stressing the need for greater international cooperation in that regard. As a member of the Human Rights Council for 2019-2021, Togo reiterates its commitment to work towards a greater respect and a constant reinforcement of human rights.
CHU GUANG (China) said that the Council faces multiple challenges: politicization, double standards and “naming and shaming”. Further, economic and social rights, and the right to development, have not been given the attention they deserve, nor has State sovereignty been respected. Secessionists use the Council for their political purposes, while mandate holders make false accusations. Moreover, the Council’s agenda is overburdened. Some non-governmental organizations have ulterior motives and launch vicious attacks against some Member States. Expressing hope that the Council will respect sovereignty and ensure orderly civil society participation, he said China finds it regrettable that the United States has not renewed its contribution, and that its actions both undermine the Council and exacerbate confrontation.
YE MINN THEIN (Myanmar) rejected the establishment of the Human Rights Council Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar since the beginning, as its composition and mandate raise serious concerns. It would lack impartiality and hinder the Government’s own efforts to find long-term solutions to the situation in Rakhine State. Further, its sincerity and ethics are questionable. The Government has cooperated with the Special Rapporteur, in line with its policy of cooperating with the United Nations. And yet, Myanmar is being treated unfairly and discriminated against; it rejects the International Criminal Court ruling in September in connection with Rakhine State. Myanmar is not a party to the Rome statute and the Court has no jurisdiction over the country whatsoever.
ANGELIKA D. HILLEBRANDT (Bahamas) affirmed her country’s commitment to the Human Rights Council, praising in particular the work of Special Mandate holders, noting that some have undertaken visits to her country. She also underlined the importance of the universal periodic review and the adoption of resolutions regarding women, youth, persons with disabilities, minorities and children, as well as others on specific rights to food, privacy and religious choice. Reiterating support to efforts to address human rights challenges and violations, she emphasized the need to respect the Special Mandate holders. With the Bahamas’ election to the Council for the term 2019 to 2021, she looked forward to providing the perspective of a Caribbean small island developing State to the forum.