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Bob Last

Head, UK Mission Political and Human Rights Team

Part of UK in Switzerland

29th June 2015 Geneva, Switzerland

Nessun Dorma

It’s been a tiring week. The middle part of the Council session is always hectic as delegates scramble to finalise the version of the resolutions that they want to table by Thursday’s deadline. But my sleep levels have taken a heavier battering than normal thanks to the Women’s World Cup, taking place in Canada’s far-off time zones. I feel like I’d be betraying my feminist credentials if I didn’t stay up into the early hours to watch England’s ‘lionesses’ who have impressively made it into the semi-finals. It’s the best any England football team has done in a World Cup since Luciano Pavarotti’s Nessun Dorma serenaded the world in my early teens. It would have been a good anthem for this tournament too, since the only way of watching it is never to go to bed.

By the end of week 2 , most of us feel a bit like this.
By the end of week 2 , most of us feel a bit like this.

Elsewhere on the feline front, our own domestic lioness moggy seems to be enjoying some fame of her own. When I started writing a blog I was mildly hopeful that this might prompt some corridor conversations or even a wider discussion about some of the key global human rights issues of the day. But this week the main thing people in the Council have stopped to ask me about is Pixie the cat. Sadly, her strike rate has been more prolific than ever and in true Swiss style, the local residents have started a petition for a referendum to enrol her in anger management classes.

Outside the Council, it’s been a great week for equality, with the US Supreme Court ruling that gay marriage is legal across the whole country. So it is particularly unfortunate that as the world moves forward across a range of non-discrimination issues, a group of states at the Council led by Egypt are trying to push the UN backwards on equality, through its resolution on the ‘protection of the family’. The resolution troublingly refers to vague notions of morals, values and traditions, all of which are used throughout the world as an excuse for not taking action to combat harmful practices that can occur within the family. But in a positive shift, South Africa spoke up strongly this week on the need for various forms of the family to be reflected in the resolution, a welcome move by a country with one of the most progressive constitutions when it comes to non-discrimination.

By the end of the week more than 20 resolutions had been tabled, with some late surprises. On Friday evening, Algeria, as African Group coordinator, without any prior consultation proposed a resolution on ‘technical and capacity building assistance to South Sudan’. This followed the resolution presented earlier in the week on South Sudan by the UK, Paraguay, the US, and Albania which proposes a fact finding mission to help move towards accountability and reconciliation in the country. By focussing on technical assistance, the Algerian draft totally fails to respond to the gravity of the human rights situation in South Sudan. As High Commissioner Zeid said at the start of this Council session:

“18 months of devastating conflict have been marked by brutal violence against civilians with disturbing reports of children being raped or recruited into armed forces by both sides – most recently a report of 95 children being killed in recent violence. I urge the Council and the entire international community not to lose sight of this ongoing tragedy and to seek decisive steps to end the fighting.”

In another late move, the Organisation for Islamic Cooperation proposed a resolution to address violations against the Rohingya and other Muslims in Burma. The Rohingya continue to suffer extreme discrimination which affects all aspects of their life in Burma, and the EU’s annual Council and UN General Assembly resolutions on Burma have long raised serious concern about their plight. The OIC’s approach prompted a slightly surreal negotiation on Friday evening, as a number of countries which would normally take strong positions against country specific resolutions when proposed by western states stayed curiously quiet, while a number of western countries actually called on the OIC to tone down the criticism. It is unprecedented in the Council for a resolution to advocate for a single religious group, to the exclusion of others within a country, and the current draft unhelpfully portrays the problems of the Rohingya as religiously motivated, when they are much more complex and multi-faceted. It will be important to find agreement among the Council on such a crucial issue.

As my years of sitting through UN meetings mount up, I try to keep things fresh by borrowing negotiating techniques from other life experience. Fatherhood has taught me that distraction is often a wiser tactic than a straight attempt at negotiation and I’ve been itching to throw some of my colleagues off balance at crucial moments by asking them some of my son’s recent random questions like how many bales of hay does it take to make a haystack, what does a bassoon sound like or do birds sleep while they fly? I’ve resisted so far but I suspect it may only be a matter of time.

The last week of the Council promises to be tense as we move towards voting on Thursday and Friday. I hope that wise heads prevail on all the most important issues. And that England’s women continue on their path to glory. I’ll be awake to watch them if they do.

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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