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Bob Last

Head, UK Mission Political and Human Rights Team

Part of FCDO Human Rights UK in Switzerland

30th March 2015 Geneva, Switzerland

Sad Farewells

Council sessions take a heavy toll on all things that are close to us. Our partners, our children and our pets all suffer from weeks of neglect. So do our bags. Any object unfortunate enough to go into my rucksack during Council time will undergo a period of inanimate purgatory as draft resolutions, cereal bars, plastic bottles and spare socks spend weeks somersaulting in despair, waiting to emerge as the Council draws to a close. By the end of the session, my bag is bursting and could be mistaken for a new mobile UN recycle point.

However, I always try to have a clear-out before voting starts so that by the last day all that’s left in my bag is party invites and my dog-eared copy of the rules of procedure. Council delegates tend to treat the rules of the voting process like Kabbalistic wisdom, passed down over millennia and truly understood by only a handful of enlightened souls. Many don’t even dare to look at the rule book and for those brave enough to dare, trying to decipher the differences between a revision, an amendment and a paragraph vote can strike bewilderment, hopelessness and fear.

Fortunately my outgoing boss is an experienced UN hand who had our team well drilled on the finer points of procedure soon after her arrival. The end of the March session saw UK Ambassador Karen Pierce bow out of the Geneva stage after three colourful years. She has made an enormous impact across the waterfront and it’s been great having someone always ready to speak out on the toughest issues and so deeply committed to ensuring the UN is used to its fullest. During her time here she has found increasingly inventive ways of promoting UK priorities, conveying serious messages through popular and accessible means, ranging from science fiction, literature and skateboarding. She’s been a major Council personality who has bubbled with constant energy, drive and fun since the day she arrived. So long Karen and thanks for all the fizz.

The Ambassador's car promotes the Britain is GREAT campaign
The Ambassador’s car promotes the Britain is GREAT campaign

The March session itself was not the most memorable in recent times. The extension of the Council’s mandates on Syria, Burma, North Korea and Iran were all important and will ensure that much needed  monitoring continues in all four countries for another year. Libya stuck out as a particular highlight – both Libya and the wider African group deserve real credit for putting forward a resolution that recognises the gravity of the human rights situation and which established a new investigation by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights into recent violations. But it was a shame to see a decline in votes in favour for several country mandates, and especially disappointing to see a country as important as Brazil unable to support the renewal of the Commission of Inquiry on Syria and the Special Rapporteur on Iran.

It was also disheartening to see Cuba manage to use its resolution on OHCHR staffing to express support for a report by the UN’s Joint Inspection Unit which threatens the independence of the High Commissioner and his Office. But there was some comfort to be taken by Mexico’s willingness to speak up in defence of the High Commissioner’s independence, and by a joint statement delivered by Tunisia for 50 states from all regions at the session’s close which supported Mexico’s principled stand.

The session saw two new mandates set up – a first ever Special Rapporteur on privacy, filling a protection gap in the Council’s architecture and a new expert on the rights of persons with albinism led by Sierra Leone. This follows several years of campaigning by civil society which has brought attention to ongoing discrimination and violations faced by persons with albinism including vicious attacks on young children, whose body parts are sold and used for potions in some African countries.

Civil society activist 'I.K.' Ero and I after the adoption of the resolution on Albanism. I.K's NGO - Under The Same Sun -led the call for the new mandate
Civil society activist ‘I.K.’ Ero and I after the adoption of the resolution on Albinism. I.K’s NGO ‘Under The Same Sun’ led the call for the new mandate

The Session could not have ended on as sadder note as news emerged on Friday night that Somali Ambassador Yusuf Bari Bari had been among those killed in a terrorist attack in Mogadishu. Among his many achievements he had strongly pushed for greater global attention to the rights of persons with albinism at the UN in Geneva and New York. He was one of the most loved and well respected of all the Council’s Ambassadors, a true force of nature who was dedicated to using the international system for the benefit of the people of his country, as well as the rights of those in the wider region. He will leave an impossibly huge hole to fill in Geneva and our thoughts are with his family and loved ones.

Somali Ambassador Yusuf Bari Bari with my colleague Chris Lomax in September 2013
Somali Ambassador Yusuf Bari Bari with my colleague Chris Lomax in September 2013

The Council will be back in action next week as it convenes in Special Session to look at the abuses by Boko Haram in Nigeria and neighbouring countries, at the request of the African Group. While this situation clearly serves the Council’s attention, on past occasions it has been difficult to strike the proper balance between looking at abuses by terrorists and the responsibility of state authorities. Let’s hope the session will be one where the Council can send a strong and truly united message.

1 comment on “Sad Farewells

  1. I am very sad to hear of the death of Yusuf Bari Bari – he was a warm, charming and peace-loving man, who worked tirelessly to try to improve the situation in his own country. I remember him with great affection and respect, and hope that his loved ones can take comfort in knowing that in his time he truly made a mark on the world.

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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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