Bob Last

Bob Last

Deputy Head, UK Mission Political Team

Part of FCDO Human Rights UK in Switzerland

3rd June 2013 Geneva, Switzerland

Launches, lunar landings and hyper-speed delegates

I’m sure the June session of the Council never used to be this busy. In years gone by it felt less like a session in its own right and more like the after show party of the March session when delegations would run a few resolutions that they didn’t quite find the time for and which would tide us over until September.

Not so this year, and week one of the session has been nonstop with the next two weeks looking set to be even busier. The main UN coffee bar took a pre-emptive move to keep our energy levels up and started selling children’s sweets.

Council goers are buying them by the bucket load and the staple Council diet has become 5 daily portions of coffee and gummy bears. Delegates, already on a caffeine high are now collectively going about their work at hyper-speed and showing behavioural signs more commonly seen at toddlers’ birthday parties.

I’m not sure it’s the best recipe for a successful session, but it’s fun to watch.

The new Human Rights Council diet
The new Human Rights Council diet

Previous June sessions have still had the occasional bolt from the blue, and none had more impact than South Africa’s 2011 resolution on human rights, sexual orientation and gender identity. It was a giant leap forward in the global fight to end discrimination on these grounds and there’d been a huge amount of expectation that South Africa would take up the issue again this session.

So it came as a massive disappointment to many when South Africa announced on Friday that they were not going to run a resolution. Their reasons -that now was not really the right time and that the Council might not be the best forum to move the issue forward – left many supporters unconvinced. Let’s hope this is only a temporary delay and that the Council can consider this issue later in the year.

On Tuesday I was happy to be involved with the launch of the first book written about the Council by Dr Rosa Freedman who gave an impressive talk at the UN library alongside my boss, Ambassador Karen Pierce. The book is a critique and assessment of the Council’s early work and well worth a read, especially if you’re new to the world of the Council.

If you want a 6 word summary I’d say it was a bit harsh but mostly fair. Much of the focus is on the Council’s early years and reading it gave me a welcome reminder of how much better the Council is now than it was a couple of years ago. It’s a sign of the Council’s growing importance that it is now attracting serious academic study and I hope there’ll be more to follow.

UK Ambassador Karen Pierce and Human Rights Council book author Dr Rosa Freedman
UK Ambassador Karen Pierce and Human Rights Council book author Dr Rosa Freedman

The main event in the Council plenary was Wednesday’s urgent debate on Syria, focused on the recent killings in Al Qusayr. In a poignant and powerful statement High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said after 26 months the situation in Syria had become an “intolerable affront to the human conscience” and it seemed that “we can do little more than cry out in the darkness and try to count the dead”.

She called on individual states to use the debate as an opportunity for soul-searching. Regrettably, not all states appeared to be listening and 11 Council members declined to vote in favour of the resolution at the end of the debate. The resolution was the strongest passed so far on Syria and sends a clear message to all responsible for the most recent killings that violations must stop and those responsible held to account.

I try to attend as many side events as I can during Council sessions. Statements are often more powerful and I tend to learn more than in the Council chamber itself. At a Czech-hosted event on Belarus, several human rights defenders painted an extremely bleak picture of the human rights situation, one year after the Council established a Special Rapporteur on the country.

Political prisoners remain locked up, along with leading human rights defender Ales Bialiatski. Civil and political freedoms are denied by a regime that retains an iron grip over people’s rights. The Special Rapporteur will present his first report  to the Council this week, and it will be important for Council members to speak out against the repression taking place.

There are so many statements in the Council that these often start to sound the same, whichever country is reading them, so NGO interventions often come as welcome break from the norm. My quote of the week goes to Peter Splinter, the Amnesty International representative for evoking the lunar landings for the first time I can remember in a Council statement.

In response to High Commissioner Navi Pillay’s call on the US to close Guantanamo he said , “closing Guantanamo Bay might not be easy, but it can be done. The United States put a man on the moon. The United States can close Guantanamo”. It’s hard to disagree with his logic. Perhaps Amnesty International and the US delegation should sit down to discuss it over coffee. And gummy bears.

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About Bob Last

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

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

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