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Bob Last

Head, UK Mission Political and Human Rights Team

Part of FCDO Human Rights UK in Switzerland

25th March 2014 Geneva, Switzerland

Moment of truth

Every Council delegate will know what a strain the March session can put on your family life. Things have got so bad that I’m now considering looking for a new wife. It’s not for me though. My wife has got to the point that she’s told me she needs someone like her to help look after our two small children, provide sustenance to compensate for the vitamin-deficient UN sandwiches and organise everything at home single-handed during my weeks of UN lock-down. I just need to last one more week and then I promise to start doing the washing up and emptying the cat litter again.

On the work front it’s been a good, bad and ugly sort of week. It started with the Council at its strongest as the Commission of Inquiry on North Korea presented its formidable report. Drawing comparisons with Nazi Germany, apartheid South Africa and Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, Commission Chair Justice Kirby said the “gravity, scale, duration and nature of the unspeakable atrocities committed reveal a totalitarian State that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world”.

The establishment of the Commission has brought about a sea change in the global attention given to human rights in North Korea. A few years ago it looked like the world had simply stopped caring with the UK among only a handful of countries expressing concern at the Council, while Pakistan, Angola, China and others sought to defend North Korea from public scrutiny.

The Commission’s report has ensured that the world can no longer ignore the reality of the state inflicted horror within North Korea and during Monday’s debate states from all regions spoke up to support the Commission’s recommendation to refer the matter to the International Criminal Court.

The Commission of Inquiry on North Korea: Michael Kirby, Sonja Biserko and Marzuki Darusman
The Commission of Inquiry on North Korea: Michael Kirby, Sonja Biserko and Marzuki Darusman

The Commission of Inquiry on Syria also reported to the Council this week and detailed the ongoing harrowing violence which they said had cost over one hundred thousand lives and displaced millions both inside and outside the country. Chair Paulo Pinheiro said the Commission now had an enormous volume of testimony on violations and had the names of those criminally responsible for hostage-taking, torture and executions. What it lacked was a means to achieve justice and accountability and he called on the UN Security Council to make this pursuit of justice possible.

On other countries, the Council heard from its Rapporteur on Iran whose latest report documented an alarming rise in executions and ongoing discrimination against the Baha’i, Christians and other religious minorities. The outgoing Rapporteur on Burma, Tomas Ojea Quintana departed on a note of caution mixed with optimism. Despite the clear improvement since his first visit in 2008 he was worried by fresh attempts to restrict evolving freedoms and was particularly concerned by the dire situation in Rakhine state where serious violence has recently taken place against the backdrop of widespread violations suffered by the Rohingya community.

On Sri Lanka, the wait for justice goes on. The Council is set to take action this week on the resolution brought by the group of countries including the UK and US which calls for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to investigate allegations of serious violations and abuses by both Government forces and the terrorist LTTE during the conflict which ended in 2009.

I was moved by the testimony of Dr Varatharajah Thurairajah who described the high civilian death toll, the denial of medical supplies and the repeated attacks by the Sri Lankan military on the medical facilities he worked at as a government doctor in the “no fire zone” which was supposed to provide safety for civilians. He said after the conflict he was taken to the Criminal investigation Department, refused medical treatment despite a life-threatening condition and forced to give a false public testimony at a press conference to support the government’s version of events.

At the week’s end China came under the spotlight during the adoption of its UPR report. NGOs were keen to use their speaking time for a period of silence for Cao Shunli, the Chinese activist who was detained in connection with protests at China’s lack of engagement on UPR with civil society and who recently died in a prison hospital. This led to an unseemly showdown with China rejecting a very moderate proposal by the HRC President to reflect on the issue with his Bureau of vice-Presidents.

NGOs stood holding photos of Cao Shunli while Council members engaged in a procedural vote, which China eventually won. Opinions were divided on whether the NGO stand was worth the fight, with some arguing that a confrontation would have been better avoided while others were more sympathetic to the Council openly discussing the NGOs’ wish that their views be heard. Either way, this was clearly not a good day for the Council.

All things will come to a head this week as all the resolutions come up for voting on Thursday and Friday and I’ll let you know how it all ends up. I hope there’ll be something at home approximating normal life for me to go back to afterwards. I suspect it’ll be a while yet before I look rested though as my wife’s already signed me up for 4 weeks of night shifts with our baby daughter.

2 comments on “Moment of truth

  1. It´s great to read about what is happening in HRC from more personal perspective and comments. Thank´s for doing this. It´s a great idea and help for all who wants to stay informed.

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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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