19th September 2016 Geneva, Switzerland
Too little time
I’m afraid I have to begin on a very sad note as our friend and colleague Ebenezer Appreku, the Deputy Permanent Representative of Ghana, passed away just before the session. He was a wonderful man and a strong human rights advocate. I often heard him speak about how critical attention by the UN had helped his beloved Ghana and how this had left him convinced that when serious human rights violations occur, non-indifference by the international community should always prevail over non interference. He will be hugely missed and our thoughts are with his family and loved ones.
The current session began against the backdrop of a bit of telling off by the UN Director General Michael Møller. He told the Council that there wasn’t enough money to pay for all the extra meetings the Council has been having to meet its overloaded agenda and that things had got to change. It’s good to hear senior UN figures pushing effeciency measures, but for all the recent talk on this there’s little sign that enough states are ready to grasp the nettle and cut down on their initiatives. It feels like we’re heading towards some sort of stand-off with UN headquarters unless there’s a collective change in behaviour soon.
In his opening address, High Commissioner Zeid lambasted those states that refuse to cooperate with his Office and the wider UN family. One of the more annoying oddities about the UN’s human rights system is that those who engage the most find they are the ones who get the most scrutiny and with it tends to come the most criticism. Scrutiny should certainly not only be seen in negative terms and it can often be a positive source of help. But it can’t be right that so many States who do not let any human rights mechanisms into their country are able to do so for years on end without any serious come back. Zeid’s statement helped to redress this imbalance and his personal frustration with those who have denied access to him and his office was palpable.
Since the last session I’ve had to come to terms with the fact that my adolescence is finally drawing to a close as I celebrated a significant birthday ending in zero. For one of my birthday presents my wife bought me a book called the Life Changing Magic of Tidying. She had obviously decided that her not so subtle comments about my domestic disarray were insufficient and that I needed expert guidance. After finally picking it up off the floor from under a pile of miscellaneous detritus, it has proved to be something of an inspiration. I’m not exactly a changed man but I’ve made it through week 1 without losing my wallet, keys and UN badge and am approaching a personal best.
Foreign Office Minister Baroness Anelay came out to Geneva for the session’s opening and this coincided with an NGO led event for candidates for the Council elections in the autumn. Most candidate countries took part though it was a shame that the likes of Egypt, China, Cuba, Russia and South Africa did not. It’s important that states feel that they should demonstrate what they will do to advance human rights while serving on the Council and know that they will be held to account if they don’t meet their commitments. Baroness Anelay was very clear that the UK expects to be judged by its public pledges in 3 years time if elected to the Council.
This session the UK will be leading a resolution on Contemporary Forms of Slavery to renew the UN’s Special Rapporteur on this issue. The Special Rapporteur, Urmila Bhoola, presented her latest report to the Council this week on the topic of debt bondage and received strong support from many states and NGOs. The UK Prime Minister has made tackling modern slavery a top domestic and international priority and the Special Rapporteur has an essential role to play. Both Ms Bhoola and her predecessor have done excellent work engaging states in Africa and Latin America, though so far those with the biggest modern slavery challenges in Asia have yet to agree to the Special Rapporteur’s requests for visits.
Many are following how the Council responds to the High Commissioner’s report on Yemen which calls for a new international investigation. The biggest focus though will be on Africa, with resolutions on Sudan, DRC, Burundi and the Central African Republic. Burundi, as a Council member, is under particular scrutiny following the Council’s special session last year, which was aimed at halting the rapid deterioration in the country.
There will also be another resolution on Syria this session. One of the challenges with responding to protracted crises at the Council is how to make sure the views of victims remain heard. So the UK and other countries who lead on the resolution have proposed to set up a panel to provide first hand testimony from former detainees to make sure the Council is informed directly by those who have suffered violations.
I‘m off to pack my bag for this week. Please bear with me if I don’t have all my papers though – I’ve not had time to finish the book yet.