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Bob Last

Head, UK Mission Political and Human Rights Team

Part of FCDO Human Rights UK in Switzerland

19th March 2012 Geneva, Switzerland

Good Manners and Bad Behaviour

It’s been a strange week. Even during the frenzied latter stages of a Human Rights Council session you expect the UN to be a courteous place. Anything less than model behaviour would feel out of place in an organisation devoted to peace and harmony and based in a country whose last outbreak of anything resembling war was in 1847, and even then the fighting was on such a small scale that it would scarcely register as a pub brawl in the UK.

During negotiations on UN resolutions diplomats have a habit of taking politeness to excessive levels. However unhappy people might be to have to sit through another drab discussion, everybody thanks the Chair effusively for organising the meeting, for writing a resolution and being so willing to accommodate the concerns of all delegations. They then profess undying gratitude for their colleagues’ comments despite disagreeing with every word. This politeness spills over into resolutions themselves in which we “welcome” things we sort of half- like, express our “appreciation” for anything which doesn’t cause fundamental objections and “take note” of things we’d really rather hadn’t happened. I’m thinking of adopting this approach outside the negotiating room and might start taking note of the monotony of grim sandwiches available in the coffee bar or expressing interest in the decision by the UN architects to trap us all in windowless underground rooms for weeks on end.

Good behaviour was dramatically set aside on Monday morning as a mass scrum erupted and security guards rushed to bundle a seething crowd of diplomats and their respective entourages out of the Council chamber. My colleague and I briefly exchanged glances with our eyebrows raised to the standard level for ‘it appears there’s been a violent incident at the back of the room’. But it’s important not to lose focus in UN meetings, so we carried on following the presentation of a report on North Korea’s utterly abysmal human rights record. I later found out that a South Korean Parliamentarian had gone for the North Korean Ambassador as he headed towards the exit. Given the fragile nature of relations between North and South Korean I was glad that the day’s events hadn’t led to anything more serious.

The following day I attended an NGO event at which I heard the personal testimony of Mrs Kim, one of a tiny number of people to have escaped from a political prison camp in North Korea. I’ve attended many NGO events and heard some appalling stories, but this was the most harrowing personal account I’ve ever heard. She described the horrific but routine torture, starvation and executions in the labour camps, how she lost her entire family and how she and thousands of other innocent people were imprisoned without knowing why. The North Korean government has an insane policy of punishing 3 generations of offenders for many political ‘crimes’ which means entire generations are condemned to be born and die in prison camps without ever knowing the reasons for their detention. NGOs estimate that there could be up to 200 000 political prisoners in North Korea but nobody knows the true number.

The main talking point in the Council last week was on the Council’s item 4 debate which focuses on those countries with the worst human rights records. Countries hate being mentioned under item 4, but of course that’s no reason not to do it. Syria, Iran and Sri Lanka all came up repeatedly, which was no great surprise given that there will be resolutions on all of them this session. China also came in for quite a few mentions, pointing to the growing concern about the situation and restrictions in Tibet. But one of the big new developments was a gutsy statement from Somalia about Eritrea, on behalf of 44 countries. Eritrea is probably the country with the worst human rights record never to have been subject to a UN human rights resolution and it was particularly encouraging to see another African country take the lead in raising the situation in Eritrea so forcefully. I suspect we’ve not heard the last on this.

We’re now into the part of the Council session which Sir Alex Ferguson would call squeaky bum time  as delegations nervously wait to see if their resolutions will succeed at the end of the week. Most people’s attention will be on the country resolutions, where the voting tends to be tighestest, and especially on the US-led resolution on Sri Lanka,which many see as the defining issue of this Council session. I’ll let you know how everything ends up, but whatever the outcome, I trust you’ll all be on best behaviour.

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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