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Bob Last

Head, UK Mission Political and Human Rights Team

Part of FCDO Human Rights UK in Switzerland

5th July 2011 Geneva, Switzerland


The Human Rights Council broke new ground this week and I ended up rather in the thick of it. On Tuesday, as part of the UK’s decision to do everything it can to hold the Gaddafi regime to account, the team in Geneva went after the 16 signatures needed from Human Rights Council members to hold a Special Session on Libya.  I’d spent the morning at hospital with my wife who is due to have a baby soon, and had to ignore my hyperactive blackberry, which sat in my pocket screaming for attention through its incessant vibrations. Clearly something big was afoot.
No Council member had ever been subject to a Special Session before so getting the required support in the space of a day was a big ask.  But in a dizzying whirlwind of diplomatic overdrive I and my colleagues set about getting enough countries to sign up before dinner time.  Happily, after a slow start the signatures came steadily through. I was hugely impressed by the way in which my colleagues from all regions worked their hardest to get permission from their capitals to sign up. It goes to show that diplomats who care about what they’re doing can make a difference.
The US, Norway, Switzerland and the 6 other EU members on the Council supported it quickly. That was the easy bit. Qatar then provided the breakthrough, showing real courage by signing early, followed by the Maldives.  To their great credit Mexico, Brazil and Uruguay soon joined showing strong leadership from Latin America. That made 15. Fittingly it was another country from the region, Jordan, who took us over the threshold, just ahead of Moldova. It was late by this point and my 9-month pregnant wife sat in the car while I collected Jordan’s signature before driving me home with my phone joined to my head (bad husband).  But we had the signatures and Hungary as the current EU Presidency sent in the formal request for the session.
Support for the Session grew during the week in response to Gaddafi’s bloodshed and Zambia, Senegal and Botswana provided welcome African backing. It was particularly impressive that Palestine, Tunisia, Iraq and Lebanon also signed up to support a session on anther Arab country, something which would have been unthinkable just a few weeks ago.  And even more impressively Jordan, Qatar and Palestine were keen to be amongst those driving the Special Session and its outcome.
Attention then turned to what the Session would do and how tough the resolution we presented should be. It was clear that the sponsors of the session wanted the maxiumum possible. So we set about drafting and seeking support for a resolution including an international commission of inquiry to investigate violations and hold perpetrators accountable and a recommendation for the General Assembly to suspend Libyan membership on the Council – something which has never been tried before. But would any other Council Member want to defend Libya or object to any of these points?
The meeting itself on Friday proved to be an unprecedented day for the Council. High Commissioner Navi Pillay and a representative from the Council’s 41 independent Special Rapporteurs condemned Libya in the strongest terms. Almost 80 States from all regions did the same. Apart from a couple of disgracefully polemical statements from the likes of Nicaragua and Ecuador only Nigeria’s statement for the African Group was ill-judged. It complained about western media portrayals of Africans as Mercenaries, rather than about the appalling and ongoing human rights violations in the country. A Libyan diplomat attended in the afternoon and called for a minute’s silence in respect of those who had died. Afterwards he announced to applause that the Libyan delegation in Geneva had decided to serve as representatives of the Libyan people.
Before closing, the session adopted the Council’s most hard-hitting resolution, condemning the Libyan regime in the toughest possible terms and including both the Commission of Inquiry and the recommendation on suspension of Libyan Membership, which New York will consider next week.
In case we weren’t busy enough, in parallel the Human Rights Council review also ended this week and fizzled out to a pointless conclusion.  But who needs the review, now that the Council has started to do what it was set up for? While its major failing to date has been its inability to react quickly to human rights crises, the Libya Special Session has finally shown that the Council can react rapidly and in concrete terms by condemning violations and setting up a process to achieve accountability.
The behemoth that is the Human Rights Council’s main annual session begins on 28 February complete with visits from the UK’s Foreign Secretary William Hague and Minister for Human Rights Jeremy Browne. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s also coming for good measure. I’ll be doing more regular updates in the coming days.  At least until my baby’s born.

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.

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