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Bob Last

Head, UK Mission Political and Human Rights Team

Part of FCDO Human Rights UK in Switzerland

6th March 2014 Geneva, Switzerland

Council at a Crossroads

A lot has happened here since the end of the last session. Starting with the most important, I became a dad again, when my little girl entered the world last November. My son had cleverly timed his birth 3 years ago with the Human Rights Council’s annual day on the rights of the child but in a spirit of neonatal one-upmanship my daughter picked a more significant date, arriving on World War One Remembrance Day.

You can tell my kids have Swiss nationality by the efficient shift system they’ve designed to make sure my wife and I never sleep. Please excuse my haggard demeanour, dark circles, and baby-stained shoulders if you catch me on a bad day. We’ve been finding some solace from our zombie–like existence in the warm embrace of a chocolate addiction.  So much so, that I am starting to wonder if my children have made a deal with the Swiss chocolate industry.

In the last few months the Council has come safely through some existential challenges. One of the ongoing sagas of 2013 was whether Israel would turn up to its Universal Periodic Review or become the first country to walk away from the process following its disengagement from the Council in 2012 in protest at the disproportionate focus it had received. Thankfully, after much diplomatic activity Israel opted to stick with the UPR and has come back to the Human Rights Council this session. This owed much to the deft handling by the outgoing Polish HRC President for which he won many plaudits.

And as 2013 drew to a close, the HRC held a Special Session called by the African Group in response to the crisis in the Central African Republic. In a sign of the Council’s growing maturity the Central African Republic delegation supported the session and sought help from the Council. It was encouraging to see States acting in a unified manner on such a serious situation and avoiding bloc based divisions – a model route that it would be good to see others follow.

But now comes the real test. While the March session is always the centrepiece of the human rights calendar, this year looks set to be a fight for the Council’s soul.  There over 40 resolutions in the pipeline and several will examine the Council’s ability to respond to the most pressing human rights challenges of our time.

The Council looks set to keep up the pressure on Syria and renew the Commission of Inquiry which has been gathering evidence of the appalling violations by the Assad regime. To do otherwise would be to ignore the suffering which has seen Syria become the greatest humanitarian catastrophe in decades.

The outcome of the Commission of Inquiry on North Korea is less clear cut but will be a major test of the Council’s credibility. The Commission led by Justice Kirby has presented a harrowing report describing the horrors of political camps and the rape, executions deliberate starvation and other horrific abuses being perpetrated by the North Korean regime. The scale and nature of the violations has drawn comparison with the Nazis and needs to be met with a firm response by the Council.

The Council will also need to respond to High Commissioner Navi Pillay’s call for an international investigation into abuses in Sri Lanka perpetrated by both sides during the conflict. Her recent report has made clear that the Sri Lankan government has failed to carry out credible investigations since the war ended and documented a deeply worrying deterioration in the current situation. This year the UK and other states will work alongside the US on the resolution which will respond to the High Commissioners call.

The session has begun against the backdrop of deepening concern about Russia’s intervention in Ukraine in clear violation of the UN Charter. This prompted a strong exchange between the Russian Foreign Minister and the Ukraine delegation who firmly rejected Russia’s justification for intervening to protect the Russian speaking minority as a blatantly ungrounded pretext. Let’s hope the calls made by many States for restraint and for international mediation through the UN will help reduce tension, prevent the situation from deteriorating further, and restore Ukraine’s territorial integrity.
As the session opened on Monday, UK Foreign Office Minister Hugo Swire addressed the Council and urged his counterparts to live up to all of these challenges. His speech  made clear that the UK was committed to using our return to the Council to work to advance human rights by forging partnerships whenever possible but taking a firm line when we need to.

UK Foreign Office Minister Hugo Swire at the Human Right Council
UK Foreign Office Minister Hugo Swire at the Human Right Council

It feels like we’ve been away a while. Council membership clearly comes with plenty of responsibility but it at least has a few perks. I’m particularly looking forward to the privilege of an extra minute for making statements. The last couple of years of speed-reading has certainly built my lung capacity, but since I’m unlikely to take up free-diving at my time of life I doubt I’ll put it to much use.

I’ll keep you posted once we start getting down to the business of negotiating resolutions. In the meantime, if you see me in the coffee bar please shepherd my hands away from the chocolate. I’m not sure my trousers will last the session otherwise.

3 comments on “Council at a Crossroads

  1. The work you and your colleagues do is greatly appreciated here, not just by “insiders” like me but by a lot of people in Britain who care about human rights. Keep eating the chocolate!

  2. Another brilliantly written post, thanks for the way you make battling over a “welcomes” vs “takes note” sound so sexy and 007ish 🙂

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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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