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Bob Last

Head, UK Mission Political and Human Rights Team

Part of FCDO Human Rights UK in Switzerland

28th September 2015 Geneva, Switzerland

Difficult Deliveries

However it happens, giving birth to a resolution at the UN is always difficult. In olden times, when the Human Rights Council was but a twinkle in the eye of former Secretary-General Kofi Annan, the process remained unchanged down the generations. Drafts were put together in foetal form by aspiring parent delegations, and then discussed openly with a wide diplomatic audience who would hold out laboriously for an extra paragraph, a verb change, or even a punctuation mark. Texts would be allowed to gestate slowly, before taking shape and finally arriving into the world, to be held aloft for all to admire by the helping hands of Ambassadorial midwives.

These days you never know quite what to expect. Some delegations still follow traditional methods and organise meeting after meeting to consider every paragraph until strength fails them. They manage the pain of listening to states argue whether “Calls upon” “Urges” or “Strongly Encourages” is the appropriate phrase with a show of stolid force, aided by nothing but determination and measured breathing. A privileged few spare themselves the pain of public negotiating almost entirely and take the private option: while they go through the motions of holding an open meeting where others can comment, this is safe in the knowledge that the resolution will be delivered with surgical precision through careful agreement of the most concerned parties.

I’ve spent most of the session working on a resolution on ‘Promoting reconciliation, accountability and human rights in Sri Lanka’. It’s the fourth resolution on this topic at the Council and this year’s text responds to many of the points in the recent strong report by High Commissioner Zeid into violations of international law by both parties to the Sri Lankan civil war. The report, which will be discussed at the Council in the coming week, documents many types of violations over the period 2002-2011 including disappearances, torture, sexual violence and killings of politicians, humanitarian workers, journalists and students. It describes many attacks on civilians in the final stages of the conflict with a particular focus on ‘No Fire Zones’, where hospitals were repeatedly attacked and which the report says could amount to war crimes. High Commissioner Zeid’s key recommendation is for Sri Lanka to establish an ad hoc hybrid court with international prosecutors, lawyers and investigators to try war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Since the High Commissioner’s investigation report only came out during the first week of the Council session, the resolution had to be drafted in haste by its 4 authors – the UK, US, Montenegro and Macedonia – before open negotiations in week 2. While most delegations supported the text, the Sri Lankan delegation had many proposals on the resolution. This came as a major disappointment to many, particularly those from Sri Lankan civil society who attended the meetings, and especially given the Sri Lankan Foreign Minister’s positive address on the session’s opening day. But this was probably only to be expected given how little time the Sri Lankan Government had had to study and form a considered position on the resolution.

By the time it came to table the draft resolution on Thursday, Sri Lanka’s concerns had been resolved with mostly minor language changes and in a historic move Sri Lanka co-sponsored the resolution, indicating its clear support for the text. This is a fundamental shift in position by the new Sri Lankan Government which has now clearly declared that it wants to recognise the truth about what has occurred in the country and engage cooperatively with both the Council and the High Commissioner’s Office. This is a remarkable transformation from the combative and futile stance shown by the previous regime 18 months ago, and one that should be strongly welcomed and applauded.

It's a ... resolution
It’s a … resolution

There has of course been a great deal else going on here besides Sri Lanka with more than 30 resolutions tabled. There are long-standing resolutions on Syria, Cambodia, Sudan, the DRC and Somalia which maintain international attention on all these countries. It is encouraging that the African Group brought forward a resolution on Burundi, following constructive pressure from the European Union. The resolution condemns a wide range of recent violations in the country and requests the High Commissioner’s Office to report back at future sessions so that developments will stay in the Council’s spotlight. One of the trickiest country resolutions this session is Yemen, with competing drafts tabled by Saudi Arabia and Yemen themselves on the one hand and the Netherlands, who have led on Yemen for several years, on the other. The main sticking point is whether, and in what terms,  there should be an investigation into violations and abuses committed in the country over the last 12 months.

As we move towards the voting and adoption of resolutions at the end of the week there’ll be plenty of nervousness, long delays and frantic rushing around. I’ll be among the expectant ones, pacing the UN corridors and waiting anxiously for news. Whatever you’re hoping for, I wish you a healthy delivery.

4 comments on “Difficult Deliveries

  1. Another really insightful blog. Congratulations on securing such a good result on Sri Lanka.

  2. Great piece Bob, capturing in slightly lighter vein such serious matters! And having diverse perspectives. Hope the resolution will not be too soft to offer some hope for those who suffered so much and put some faith in the UN for lack of other hopes and help take forward the recommendations of the OHCHR-OISL

    1. Hello Philip, I work for Crown Worldwide Ltd in the UK, we are storing your effects and you are not responding to our correspondence at your FCO address, we have not received a payment for your storage since February 2016, can you please get in contact with me.
      Jennifer Muir, Accounts Receivable 0208 443 6066

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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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