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Bob Last

Head, UK Mission Political and Human Rights Team

Part of FCDO Human Rights UK in Switzerland

7th July 2015 Geneva, Switzerland

Magic Numbers

It's getting hot out here.
It's getting hot out here.
It’s getting hot out here.

UN diplomats spend much of their lives fretting about securing exactly the right words in international documents. I’ve seen a whole day of negotiations conclude with only a comma added, to mutual back-slapping and a general sense of a job well done, and have spent weeks painfully debating the insertion of a footnote or an asterisk. But during Council sessions, delegates can become equally obsessive about numbers.

My wife will attest to my own weakness with most things numeric. Misplaced zeros during attempts at online food shopping have led to excessive supplies of children’s breakfast cereal, stockpiles of dishwasher tablets that will last for at least the next ten Council sessions and enough cat litter to set up a slightly uncomfortable beach volleyball court in the garden. Thankfully my work is far removed from all matters of debt and finance.

There are all kinds of subtexts and subtle messages which lie behind the headline results on each Council resolution. The choice of agenda item number might sound innocuous. But for a country subject to the Council’s scrutiny, as South Sudan was this session, being considered under agenda item 4 on country situations or item 2 on the High Commissioner’s report sends an entirely different signal about the level of the Council’s concern than being considered under item 10 on technical assistance.

The number of countries signing up to co-sponsor each resolution shows the support delegations have been able to muster for their issue. While this can lead to a trade-off between quality and quantity, numerically at least, this session’s winners were Morocco and friends for securing a record 140 cosponsors for their resolution on Corruption and Human Rights. The resolution on Child Early and Forced Marriage also drew a high level of co-sponsorship from all regions on an extremely progressive text.

Most importantly, the number of votes a resolution receives shows where the Council is at on the most contentious issues of the day. The high margin of support for the strong resolution on Syria sent another clear message of international condemnation. It was good to see Brazil return to a vote in favour after abstaining in March but disappointing that Indonesia’s vote went in the other direction. The resolutions on Belarus and Ukraine also passed by healthy margins, but in Ukraine’s case it was a shame that many states felt the need to abstain in the face of a vote called by Russia. Ukraine had come seeking help to improve its human rights situation and support for any country asking for assistance should always be a given in the Council. The fact that Russia felt the need to call a vote points to its discomfort with what may emerge when the Council considers the UN’s human rights reports over the next year.

As well as the important resolution on South Sudan, there were strongly-worded resolutions on Burma and Eritrea, creating additional human rights monitoring. And the Palestinian resolution on the UN Commission of Inquiry into last year’s Gaza conflict passed by a large margin of 41 in favour to 1 against.

The closest vote of the session ended up being on Egypt’s resolution on ‘protection of the family’ which prioritised protecting a narrowly defined family over the rights of individual family members. To improve the bad text,South Africa, Brazil, Chile and Uruguay proposed adding in a recognition that families exist in diverse forms. It was good to hear South Africa speaking up strongly on this point and its stance on this resolution has been one of the big positives of the session. Unfortunately Russia blocked the amendment through the use of a Procedural No Action Motion – a pernicious device used to prevent substantive debate which should have no place at the Council. The No Action Motion passed narrowly by just one vote, showing a high level of discomfort with Russia’s move and a strong level of support for South Africa‘s position.

On a more positive note, Canada’s resolution on Violence Against Women did defend the rights of women within the family with a focus on domestic violence. It was regrettable that Saudi Arabia took objection to long-standing UN language on marital rape which they sought – unsuccessfully- to remove through a vote.

The summer is always a time for diplomatic goodbyes, and there are plenty of people I’ll be sorry to see leave. I’ll miss Natalia and Michael’s Germanic charm, Finnish Stefan’s broad shoulders, Ethiopian Ephrem’s canny ways, Anh Thu’s insightful Swiss wisdom, sharing sweets with Swedish Anna and Dana from Jordan’s voice of moderation and consistent good sense. But most of all I’m sorry to say goodbye to Valerie from the US, who leaves the Council with a success record as good as anyone I can remember. Given our work on Ukraine in recent times, she’s been less of partner in crime than a partner on Crimea. I’ve learnt a lot from our many hours together and I wish her and her family well for life post-Geneva.

Valerie Ullrich. My American other half.
Valerie Ullrich. My American other half.

The other big number that everyone was talking about last week was the sweltering temperature outside the Council chamber. Like most Brits abroad I’m always at my most comfortable when the conversation turns to the weather. But as someone brought up on Manchester’s year round drizzle, the recent conditions have come as a bit of a shock to the system. Where I come from we think it’s a heat wave when it gets to room temperature outside, so the week’s sleeplessness has left my household feeling slightly unhinged. But it has had a good impact on one member of the family – Pixie the mouse-slayer cat has finally got too hot to hunt.

Time to let sleeping cats lie.
Time to let sleeping cats lie.

10 comments on “Magic Numbers

  1. I really enjoyed reading this blog, thanks Bob. I was surprised to hear about the No Action Motion on an amendment to the Family resolution – why did Russia choose this hostile approach, rather than simply calling for a vote on the amendment? Surely the Council should be allowed the opportunity to voice an opinion on any proposal, rather than being denied that chance?

    Lovely picture of Pixie the mouse slayer. She looks very pleased with herself – maybe you just haven’t found her latest conquest yet?

  2. Thanks Bob, great blog, as always! Many important issues addressed. While no-one doubted that the “protection of the family” resolution would pass, it is shameful that a “no-action motion” was presented by Russia with support of the lead sponsors to prevent agreed language on “various forms of family” even being considered. The Human Rights Council should be a space for dialogue and debate, not silencing.

  3. Fun reading! Good to get an insider update for us who left Geneva some time ago. Seems like some good results came out of this Council session. However, keep reminding people on the outside that there also are nonsense Human Rights Council resolutions, such as the one on the Family, which really aren’t about protecting individuals at all, but about justifying inequality and hiding abuse.

  4. Thank you Bob for this great blog – this will be required reading material for my successor! Glad I won’t have to renounce entirely on your wisdom and your wit as I can always read your blog from Berlin…
    It was a real pleasure working with you!
    All the best,

  5. Great blog as ever Bob! And a good recap of the session. It was disappointing to see such a divisive text on “Protection of the Family”, protect from what exactly? And sad to see a “no action motion” called on a very reasonable South African amendment that acknowledged there are different forms of the family. Well done on Ukraine!

  6. Great blog as usual Bob!! Since number counts – and factual journalism is important – you just forgot to mention that the “bad” text on family was eventually adopted by by a 2/3 majority and a bigger margin than 2014.. And wider majority than many of the praised initiatives you mentioned 🙂 .. Never the less I’ll never stop enjoying following your blog and your sharp observations .. Cheers from Cairo 🙂

    1. Good blog Bob. Amr, nice to see an Egyptian using his freedom of expression. Shame about human rights back home though.

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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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