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Bob Last

Head, UK Mission Political and Human Rights Team

Part of UK in Switzerland

13th March 2017 Geneva, Switzerland

Change in the Air

Mountain air: can be bad for your health.

While there haven’t exactly  been howls of protest about my online silence these last few weeks, the number of people asking what I’ve been up to rose to three on Friday (excluding my last boss who is clearly still keeping tabs on me from afar), so I feel a little sheepish and neglectful. The main reason for my recent bout of blogging trappism is that a family trip away just before the Council left me with some health issues, and covering the session this last fortnight has been more challenging than usual. It turns out that my Manchester lungs aren’t well suited to the cleanliness of Swiss mountain air and reacted badly to the high quality oxygen that was on offer. I’m well on the mend now, but will be sure to revert to damp and draughty caravan holidays in the north of England so that I stay in better shape in future.

It’s been a strange sort of a session so far with a rather unsettling and unpredictable feel to it. Some of the topics which in the past have been the source of major disagreement have passed off without so much as a squeak. An Austrian-led meeting to renew the Council’s Special Rapporteur on Minorities set a new record by finishing in under 10 minutes the other day, and a resolution by the United States on Freedom of Expression didn’t last much longer. Even Norway’s resolution on Human Rights Defenders, which in recent years has been the rallying point for the Council’s spoiler brigade, passed of without major fireworks. I don’t mind admitting that I’m not well disposed to uncertainty, and my wife will tell you that my idea of unpredictable behaviour is changing to a new brand of herbal tea with less than 2 weeks’ written notice. I’m not too sure what to make of what’s afoot, though I wonder if the continuing twists of world events are starting to seep into the Council’s psyche, making everything a bit harder to foresee.

Last week’s meeting to discuss the resolution on Sri Lanka led by the UK, US, Macedonia and Montenegro also proved relatively plain sailing. Sri Lanka remains the Council’s best chance of delivering a real success story and genuinely helping a country achieve justice and reconciliation and avoiding a recurrence of past violations. It is increasingly cited as the best example of a country moving from outright opposition at the Council to embracing international cooperation. But there is still some way to go. High Commissioner Zeid’s recent report welcomed Sri Lanka’s change in approach to addressing past violations following elections in 2015.  But he also found that the progress in implementing Sri Lanka’s 2015 commitments at the Council was worrying slow. To its great credit, last week Sri Lanka restated its intention to meet its far reaching commitments from 2015 and announced that they would co-sponsors this year’s resolution which set out an additional 2 year timescale for this. But it was clear from the many voices from civil society and Sri Lankan Diaspora, that the government needs to start to delivering much more and soon, or confidence in Sri Lanka’s good intentions will quickly fade.

Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera speaks to states and civil society at the Council

It is proving much more difficult to find agreement on how to respond to the situation in Burma. When the new Government took over a year ago, the hope had been that Burma would follow Sri Lanka’s example of engagement and soon move from being listed as one of the Council’s countries of most serious concern. But while there have been some positive steps, the recent reports by the High Commissioner’s Office and Special Rapporteur Yanghee Lee have pointed to extremely alarming violations by the military, with allegations of particularly extreme brutality against the Rohingya minority. The EU has called for the Special Rapporteur to investigate and it will be extremely important that the Burmese Government cooperate and accept the need for a proper investigation.

To end on a sad note, I’d like to pay a short tribute to Sir Nigel Rodley who passed away in January. Nigel was a true giant of the human rights world, and an inspiration for so many of us working on human rights. It was a privilege to have seen him in action in various guises over the last 15 years, but especially at the UN’s Human Rights Committee, to which he was truly dedicated and where he was held in the highest esteem by his peers.  A number of us are arranging a commemorative seminar in his honour in July and I’ll and keep you posted on details. It’s fair to say that almost everyone in the human rights world has been touched by his work and he leaves behind an enormous legacy, for which I, like so many others, am truly grateful.

Sir Nigel Rodley
[Credit: AP Photo/Anja Niedringhaus]

3 comments on “Change in the Air

  1. Great to see that you are back online Bob. As usual, another thought provoking blog. Good to know that the UK team is still plugged into all the debates and activity. Your tribute to Nigel was spot on and I hope the commemorative event in July goes well.
    Stay healthy and continue to fight the good fight. Your former boss & colleague continues to watch from afar!

  2. Great to hear your wise and amusing words again, Bob. Hope you’re fully recovered from that horribly fresh Swiss mountain air. Was not aware of Sir Nigel’s passing. So sad. Good luck with the rest of the HRC session.

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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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