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Bob Last

Head, UK Mission Political and Human Rights Team

Part of FCDO Human Rights UK in Switzerland

24th June 2011 Geneva, Switzerland

Rewriting the unwritten rules

Life is full of unwritten rules which help determine the limits of acceptable behaviour and which help you avoid making embarrassing and sometimes costly mistakes. The peculiar world of the Human Rights Council is no exception. No one tells you these little bits of conventional wisdom like, don’t deliver the first 2 minutes of your statement with the microphone off,  don’t fall asleep if you’re on the Council webcam and don’t stare at your new colleague’s UN  badge if you’ve forgotten their name.

And then there are the bigger rules which you wish could be challenged but you never imagine will be.Ever since Brazil bravely came a cropper in the Commission on Human rights in 2003, the grey-flecked Geneva human rights sages have long said that resolutions about sexual orientation, however moderate, simply can’t succeed at the UN.

In an emotional breakthrough on the last day of the June session, that old belief was dramatically consigned to history when South-Africa’s bold resolution on this subject passed by a narrow majority. The result will be the Human Rights Council’s first report and discussion on violence committed against people on the grounds of their sexual orientation and gender identity.

When the resolution passed, with 23 votes in favour to 19 against it was a moment to savour and several colleagues, both NGOs and diplomats, were reduced to tears. I was so happy I almost embraced my colleague Chris, the often unsung hero of the UK human rights team who has been working on this, in celebration. But he’s not one for physical displays of affection and, in any case, not really my type.

It might seem strange that violence committed against people on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity has proved so difficult to discuss about at the UN in the modern age  but the hard truth is that many countries still refuse even to recognise that people can be gay, lesbian or transgender.

South Africa’s resolution and strong stance owes much to their domestic civil society, but their Geneva delegation take huge credit for standing firm in the face of howls of protest from others in their group, especially the group coordinator Nigeria, whose colourful representative urged all African states to vote against the resolution. In doing so, he even claimed that it was he and not the South African delegate who spoke on behalf of the South African people. But then he revealed to the Council that his innermost feelings on the issue might just be somewhat confused by saying that he loved the South African Ambassador.

 Great credit also goes to plucky Mauritius, Zambia and Burkina Faso, for staying true to their principles in the face of strong pressure to vote against the resolution, to the US and Latin American countries and most of all to colleagues at the NGO ARC International, who have worked relentlessly in recent years to build support for addressing sexual orientation and gender identity issues at the Council .

There were plenty of other highlights from the final stages of the session. The delegations from Côte D’Ivoire and Kyrgyzstan won many admirers with their willingness to engage with the Human Rights Council on resolutions to improve the situations in their countries. There is a long list of countries who could learn from their example.

The strong resolution renewing the Commission of Inquiry on Libya led by the UK, Jordan, Qatar and the Maldives passed without a vote and will ensure ongoing monitoring of the ongoing human rights violations in the country.

The EU’s country resolution condemning Belarus passed with broad support from all regions and will lead to regular discussion on Belarus over the next year.As the resolution went through the Cuban Ambassador, somewhat coarsely conjured up some bemusing imagery by telling the room that human rights were “the Vaseline that states use for screwing the proletariat.”  Struggle as I might, I still haven’t quite worked out what this means, but an intervention on Cuban lubrication after a morning on sexual orientation left me thinking that it’ll be some time before the Council sees a stranger day’s voting.

To wrap up a good session, the UN Secretary-General’s Representative on business and human rights,  Professor  John Ruggie saw his  Guiding Principles  formally endorsed by the Council –  a fitting end to 6 years of  tireless work and  hopefully the beginning of a new chapter in corporate  social responsibility.

And with  much less fanfare,  the new optional  protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child glided  effortlessly through the Council  towards  adoption at the UN General Assembly in the autumn. I brought my young son in to mark the occasion, but he seemed more interested in trying to eat the microphone than with anything  else that was going on. He also didn’t seem to want to wait to be given the floor  before sharing  his opinion.

But at  3 months old he’s still got time to learn some rules.

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About Bob Last

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

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