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Bob Last

Head, UK Mission Political and Human Rights Team

Part of FCDO Human Rights UK in Switzerland

10th March 2014 Geneva, Switzerland

The Game is Afoot

With all the talk these days of business and human rights it can only be a matter of time before Council sessions start getting corporate sponsors. When it happens I hope that manufacturers of beta blockers are first in line to put their name to the March session and that they have plenty of freebies for delegates. For regulars at the 4-week meeting stress levels follow a predictable rollercoaster pattern. They start dangerously high during week one’s Ministerial visits, drop towards a medically acceptable level of dread during the diplomatic frenzy of weeks two and three before sky rocketing into oblivion as the session ends with voting on the last couple of days.

My Peruvian colleague and I on National Dress Day
My Peruvian colleague and I on National Dress Day

The only time approximating light relief is on the Council’s national dress day which marks the end of the first week. This year my colleagues and I paid homage to Sherlock Holmes by donning Edwardian costume. It was amazing to see what a difference a cape, pipe and deerstalker hat could make to how colleagues reacted to me and if I’d known that dressing up as Sherlock would have generated so much good will I’d have done it years ago.

As the week came to an end states and NGOs gave their views on High Commissioner Navi Pillay’s final annual report to the Council. On Ukraine the High Commissioner called for an immediate, comprehensive and independent investigation into all human rights violations that have taken place in recent months, including killings, disappearances, arbitrary detentions, and torture.

Many states including the UK replied to express their support for the Ukrainian people whose rights are being threatened by Russia’s violation of Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty.

The High Commissioner publicly offered her help to Egypt to ensure that human rights are respected. In response a group of 23 states including the UK came together to say that they shared the High Commissioner’s concern about the escalating violence. They supported her call to carry out prompt, independent and impartial investigations into the killings of protesters and security forces during violent events since June, and urged Egypt to end the ongoing harassment and threats against those expressing dissent.

On Sri Lanka, the High Commissioner expressed her regret that the Government had failed to satisfy the Council’s call for a credible and independent investigation into allegations of serious human rights violations. She said the time had come for the Council to establish its own international inquiry mechanism. This is something British Prime Minster David Cameron is strongly supporting and will be a dominant issue at this session.

In Sri Lanka the response was a public threat on national TV against those members of civil society brave enough to travel to Geneva to tell their side of the story. The Government and its allies claim that such threats do not take place but the reality is that this has become a standard tactic and impossible to deny.

As the week came to a close the Council was treated to a rare moment of innovation as the UN unveiled a new system for signing up to speakers’ lists during the Council’s interactive discussions. In normal life this might sound like something which would be hard to get excited about but this is long overdue. The old method was for states to hold up their country name plates and try to attract the secretariat’s attention but the layout of the Council chamber makes it very difficult to see the whole room from the podium.

Delegates had been going to ever more desperate lengths to get themselves seen in order to speak early, from jumping up and down on their chairs to wearing fluorescent clothing and releasing carrier pigeons with their country’s name attached to the ankle. The start of the new system felt rather like a game show as delegates had to press a button as soon as the list opened. Unfortunately I didn’t do very well as my Sherlock cape got in the way, and more than 60 of my colleagues were quicker on the buzzer.

There were a range of events at the week’s end to mark International Women’s Day, with a joint Council statement by a group of women Ambassadors sent round on pink paper. Outside the UN the most striking move was the UK’s idea to turn Geneva’s famous water fountain pink for a day. It was quite a sight.

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A hectic week awaits so I hope you’ve all had a restful weekend. I haven’t though. In preparation for the Annual Day on the Rights of the Child, we filled our house with sugar-high children to mark my son’s third birthday. Thankfully the beta blockers are never far from grasp these days.

3 comments on “The Game is Afoot

  1. Sounds like an exciting session!! A bit sad that they’ve changed the way to get onto the speaking list – everyone secretly enjoyed the challenge! Sounds a bit dubious if you were only number 60! Do we know who makes the technology?! – could be a cunning ploy. I still think a race around the council chamber would be the most fun and beneficial for the health of the delegates.

    Happy birthday to your little boy!

  2. But did the dog do anything in the night? Any chance of getting the heads of certain delegations to dress up as Professor Moriarty – not that we hope anything bad then happens to them of course….

  3. Great blog Bob, thanks. Very upsetting to hear of threats made against civil society members that want to travel to the Council and share their stories. What more can be done to give human rights defenders the protection they need? And how do you rate the chances for establishing an international inquiry on Sri Lanka? Or is it too early for Sherlock’s powers of deduction?

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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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