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Bob Last

Head, UK Mission Political and Human Rights Team

Part of FCDO Human Rights UK in Switzerland

3rd October 2011 Geneva, Switzerland

Cheap Seats, Backsliding and Cuban Democracy

As the September session of the Human Rights Council drew to a close on Friday, there were some glum faces around, especially amongst the NGOs. The NGOs provide a much needed reality check to the rest of us and I think it’s a fair criticism that civil servants are often all too ready to point to a lack of failure and call it a success. In truth the achievements from the session constituted relatively slim pickings. The Council established a good new Special Rapporteur on Truth, Justice and Reparation which should provide a helpful resource to countries undergoing democratic transitions. The UK – Brazilian joint resolution on human rights and sport went through with strong support (well done Chris). And the Council also adopted new resolutions on South Sudan and Yemen while renewing important monitoring mandates on Sudan and Cambodia. But the main criticism from NGOs was that all the country resolutions should have been tougher given the realities in those countries and the Council should have been able to look at other situations, like Sri Lanka, which it ignored altogether. They have a point, but I think it is important to look at the session in its context. The Council has been on an upwards trajectory for the last 10 months and it was always likely that this September session would see a backlash by those states unhappy with this progress. So I’m personally not too downbeat that there’s been a bit of backwards slippage in some areas.

One of the negative things to come out of this session was a new Independent Expert on a ‘democratic international order’ which Cuba set up. The new mechanism is entirely pointless, and will be a damaging drain on UN resources. I was involved in an unsuccessful attempt to turn the mandate into something which might be useful by tasking it with the promotion of democracy. Cuba took great exception to this and in a rather disagreeable exchange assured me that they would seek personal vengeance against me for my involvement. I’m not sure what form this will take but I think it’s safe to assume that I can cross off another country from my list of potential holiday destinations.

The episode did make me wonder where the creation of UN mandates will end and what else states will use to divert resources away from real human rights work. Will they start setting up UN Special Rapporteurs on other random things not related to human rights? I quite like the idea of a UN Special Rapporteur on having to put the bins out on Sunday night. Or a Working Group on the unpleasant consequences of changing nappies with a hangover.

Fortunately, the Council avoided passing a damaging resolution aimed at giving the Council oversight over the way the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights allocates its resources. Many states were attracted by the idea of having greater transparency over the way the Office is resourced and there is a sensible debate to be had about this. But giving the Council control over the High Commissioner’s funding and staffing would be a serious blow to her independence and it is crucial for the High Commissioner to be able to run her office free from states’ control.

This was the first session where the UK has not been a Council member, as the rules of the Council mean members must stand down after 2 consecutive terms. Along with the loss of voting rights, Council observers are also reduced to one seat and to sit outside the Council chamber’s privileged inner sanctum. So instead of the spacious business class setting afforded to Council members, I and the rest of my UK colleagues were forced to slum it in economy seats at the back of the room. Due to an alphabetical accident, we ended up towards the very back rows, along with the UN agencies, NGOs and other miscellaneous Council dwellers for company. I half expected a gregariously uniformed aisle steward to appear offering to microwave a 3 week old Panini at an exorbitant rate. But they never did. Creature comforts aside, the changing composition in the Council has been an important innovation and, unlike the old Commission on Human Rights, has allowed a much broader range of experience to be brought into the Council through a diverse membership.

I’d like to express my delegation’s gratitude to Rwanda, Tanzania and St Kitts and Nevis, our neighbours at the back of the room who have been kind enough to let us share their seats over recent weeks. While I’m at it, I’d also like to thank the team who run the NGO Welcome Desk in the Serpentine bar for keeping me going with free biscuits during the Council session. Like many other delegates I find lunch proves to be something of an impossibility when the Council’s on so the biscuits were a life saver (and before anyone starts comparing me to a sandwich thief  I always asked and always said thank you).

Well, the UPR begins again tomorrow and I’m on queuing duty in the morning so I’m going to get an early night. If anyone would like to share their own Council experiences I’d be grateful for your comments.

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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