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Bob Last

Head, UK Mission Political and Human Rights Team

Part of UK in Switzerland

12th June 2017 Geneva, Switzerland

Clouds on the Horizon

Growing up in Manchester, we used to say that if you couldn’t see the clouds approaching on the nearby Pennines it meant that it was already raining. I feel much the same way about sessions of the Human Rights Council – if there isn’t one around the corner, you’re probably already in one.

The latest session began on Tuesday with a speech by President Vázquez of Uruguay. Uruguay has been an important positive force at the Council and plays a leading international role on issues such as children’s rights and sexual orientation and gender identity. But President Vázquez warned that human rights can not be taken for granted and of what can happen when democracy is undermined. He said a state’s only source of legitimacy was whether it upheld its citizens’ human rights and recalled his own country’s bitter history of systematic violations under the “state terrorism” of military dictatorship.

It is a cautionary message that countries such as the Maldives would do well to heed. There has been much recent talk here about the Council needing to be more preventive and to engage earlier with states before their human rights situation deteriorates into a full blown crisis. In this spirit, the UK delivered a first joint statement on the Maldives this week, supported by over 30 other states. It called on the Government to address growing restrictions on freedom of expression, to allow diverse political views and to prevent attacks on human rights defenders such as blogger Yameen Rasheed, who was murdered in April. I last saw Yameen Rasheed when he visited the Council to raise awareness of the shrinking space for freedom of expression, as well as the abduction and disappearance of fellow blogger Ahmed Rilwan. Mr Rasheed had warned repeatedly of death threats against him and  it is essential that the Maldives Government meets its commitment to ensure an objective and impartial investigation.

The father of Yameen Rasheed speaks at an NGO side event alongside human rights lawyer Safa Shareef, Shahinda Ismail, Executive Director of the Maldivian Democracy Network and Forum Asia representative Iniyan Ilango

High Commissioner Zeid’s statement  addressed a topic which is a personal favourite – whether it is right to single states out for individual public criticism. There are many who claim that there should be no place for “naming and shaming” at the UN, though I’m firmly with Zeid on this one. In a refrain of his message from two years ago, Zeid said that it is not the naming that shames, but the violations that have led to a country being named. It was his Office’s job to hold a mirror up before those whose shame had already been self-inflicted by the arbitrary detention, torture, rape and killing by states agents. I couldn’t agree more.

But the fullest room of the day was reserved for US Ambassador Nikki Haley, visiting the Council from New York for the first time. The question of whether the US will remain engaged with the Council has been hanging heavily over all of us in recent months. In her Council address and a later public speech her clear message was that the Council needed both to improve its membership and address its disproportionate focus on Israel. She is right on both counts, but getting there will not be easy. The UK has been among those who have spoken out about the unfairness of having a single agenda item just on Israel, but so far not many others have been willing to do so. And it would certainly be better if more countries with good or improving domestic records came forward to contest seats for the Council.  Competitive elections have managed to stop Belarus, Russia and Iran getting elected while clean slates have let states such as Burundi in by default.

Ambassador Nikki Haley addresses the Council

There is also growing alarm here at the genuine prospect that the UN will soon run out of money to pay for the Council’s ever expanding meeting schedule. Council members have been grappling with how to be more efficient for more than two years but so far without success. So it has been all the more surprising to see another proposal for a new Special Rapporteur to cover discrimination based on leprosy. Many states have so far reacted with scepticism, but whether that will lead to anyone objecting by vote remains to be seen.

Finally, my thanks to the very many colleagues, past and present, who sent kind words of support and solidarity following the terrorist attacks in the UK. As a Manchester boy, I followed what happened there particularly closely, and like everyone else from the city know well the arena where the attack took place. The individual stories of all who died and lost relatives are deeply distressing, as they are wherever in the world such appalling acts occur. But it was heartening to see so many from across the North West stand together and refuse to be intimated or divided by shameless acts of individual cowardice. The British Red Cross has been among those collecting donations for the victims and affected families, should you wish to do so.

3 comments on “Clouds on the Horizon

  1. Another great blog Bob. Keep up the good work at HRC. Good to see the renewed scrutiny on the Maldives.

  2. Nice post (as always). It seems like those (few) people in the US who know anything about the Human Rights Council focus almost exclusively on Agenda Item 7. It really drives the narrative (along with the general anti-UN narrative that hangs heavy here). Interestingly, when things that the HRC is responsible for showing up in papers like WAPO / NYT, it’s almost never in the context of belonging to or being a part of the HRC. For example, when the COI on DPRK was getting a lot of news last year (or the year before), none of that focus was on how the UN and the HRC were responsible for this (these) studies. The same could be said about very positive resolutions like SOGI.

    I’m not really sure where I’m going with this post except to say that Haley is right (IMO) about these two issues with the Council but the other problem, at least in the US, is that the UN / Media do a very poor job of framing positives that come from the Council. Prevention may be a way to help shed light on the Council’s work and it’s something that could be quite useful as well. Of course, none of this is likely to significantly impact the US’s current foreign policy (if anyone actually knows what that entails).

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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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