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Bob Last

Head, UK Mission Political and Human Rights Team

Part of FCDO Human Rights UK in Switzerland

19th September 2011 Geneva, Switzerland

Protesting: Peacefully, noisily and a little too much

It’s been a tiring week. The Council has been busy enough but it hasn’t helped that our 6-month old seems to have lost the knack of sleeping at night for more than about 30 minutes at a time. My own dad, over from the UK, sees this as his own private revenge for the years of sleep deprivation I caused him. Though he never had tricky Council sessions to contend with at the same time.

The Council has seen a succession of high level visitors passing through this week. Ministers from Uruguay, the DRC and Burma all gave statements indicating their readiness to engage with the Council and the UN system more generally. Ministers are turning up here with a growing regularity, which I take as an encouraging sign of countries’ interest in what the Council has to say whether for good or for bad.

The star performer this week was the President of the Maldives who gave the key note speech at a high panel on peaceful protests focussing on the compatibility of human rights, democracy and Islam. Speaking from his personal experience he said: “I have been invited here today as a President,” he said, “but I stand before you as a protester; as someone who has spent much of his adult life speaking out against leaders who place their own interests over those of their people, leaders who seek power for power’s sake.”  Inspiring stuff.

Sri Lanka also sent a Minster to the session. In their case it was to raise procedural objections to the transmission to the Council by the UN Secretary General of his hard hitting panel of experts report into the closing stages of the Sri Lanka conflict in 2009. Sri Lanka’s participation in the margins of the Council has been a regular feature since 2007. But they are yet to match their frequent attendance, side events and statements with genuine engagement with the UN human rights system and it does make you wonder if at times they protest just a little too much.

The new head of the Foreign Office’s Human Rights and Democracy Department, Louise de Sousa made a trip out this week. Having come from a posting in Kenya she knows firsthand how human rights violations can quickly spiral out of control when the rule of law breaks down. She left an excellent impression on the human rights team and on the NGOs and other diplomats she met here. Welcome to the job Louise: it’s a key moment to be taking over your department.

We also heard from some of the Councils’ Special Rapporteurs this week. With so many UN Rapporteurs, it’s unfortunate that many of their reports don’t get the attention they deserve. The Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Slavery’s latest report on child slavery in the informal mining and quarrying sector makes for powerful reading.

She gives a much needed but quite harrowing account of child slaves working in abominable conditions among toxic chemicals in areas completely cut off from the outside world. These situations of extreme vulnerability, exploitation and abuse need much greater attention at the UN and I hope the report will provide a basis for action.

It is unfortunate that when the Council hears from Special Rapporteurs it does so in what it confusingly calls ‘clustered dialogues’. This is UN-speak for combining completely unrelated topics in a way which saves time but prevents anything resembling a coherent discussion. One of the very few improvements people could agree on during the fruitless Council review was that the clustered dialogue format should end. But agreement never led to change and we’re stuck in frustrating clusterdom. Perhaps to save more time we could merge some incompatible mandates and see what we could come up. A working group of international hazardous mercenaries sounds exciting. Or a Rapporteur on contemporary forms of internally displaced toxic debt might be handy for some European countries right now.

Next week looks set to be another busy one, with reports on Libya, Syria, Yemen and Belarus all guaranteed to raise the temperature in the Council. We’ll also have the Council’s ‘item 4 debate’ which allows us all to raise the most serious country situations and which always generates a few fireworks.

I’m hoping the increase in the Councils’ energy will be matched by a bit of quiet back home. If my son ever wants to spend his time defending his own or other people’s rights when he’s older I’ll be very proud. But right now a bit of peaceful protest wouldn’t go amiss.

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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