25th September 2017 Geneva, Switzerland
What a Difference a Year Makes
Leaving aside the extremely grim subject matter which forms the basis of our work, one of the things I like the least in my job is having to say goodbye to good people. This summer we bade farewell to another great set of colleagues including the UK’s own James Mclaughlin and the ever wonderful, and eternally unpronounceable, Nuala Ni Mhuircheartaigh from Ireland. You’ll both be hugely missed I wish you both well in your post Council lives.
On the plus side, fresh faces come through with new energy and optimism, and a little over a year ago Matthew Forman took over as the head of the UK’s Political and Human Rights Team. He’s kindly agreed to write this week’s post.
What a difference a year makes….
My cameo appearance in Bob’s legendary blog is a rare treat. It means one of several things. I like to think that, having completed 12 months as the head of the political and human rights section at the UK Mission in Geneva, Bob thinks I have built up enough judgement and wisdom to be let loose under his masthead. It may mean that he’s interested to know how I’ve found the past year. Or, it may simply (and legitimately) mean that he’s knackered, and wanted to spread the load a bit. Whatever the reason, it’s a great opportunity to reflect on 12 months at the coalface of the Human Rights Council, and to talk about some of the key issues at this session as we shift into the final week of the September Council.
If I were to offer some advice to the Matt Forman who arrived a year ago, bright-eyed, fresh-faced and optimistic I’d have told him to get ready for long hours for at least 10 weeks a year during the HRC sessions (and therefore NOT to let visitors come and stay to enjoy Geneva during those times!). I’d have told him not to expect to fully understand the HRC ‘Programme of Work’ for much of the first Council session. And I’d have told him – above all – not to panic. The learning curve involved in getting to grips with a body like the Human Rights Council is enough to bring on a nosebleed. But that’s true for everyone new to it, and the arrival of new colleagues this month has been a good way to appreciate how much I’ve learnt. Speaking of people, I’ve been immensely lucky to work alongside the talented and dedicated team at the UK Mission, engaging with outstanding colleagues at delegations from around the world, and with the impressive and tenacious representatives of the many civil society organisations either based in Geneva, or visiting for HRC sessions.
So, so much for steepness of the learning curve: What have I actually learnt? People in the UK Foreign Office always make lists of three. So my three – and a bit – lessons from the last year have been first, that the Human Rights Council matters. The ‘output’ of the HRC, whether resolutions, statements or special procedures, are often technical, sometimes hard to follow, and can come across as somewhat detached from reality. So for me, the trick has been, every now and then, to filter out the superficial noise and diplomatic niceties, and instead bring to my mind images of the countries or the issues that are at stake. That could be children living in conflict zones; inmates facing the death penalty; governments violating the rights of their citizens, in untold manner of ways; or it could be victims, and civil society wanting to know whether the world has forgotten about them. Perhaps it’s because I’m a straightforward northerner, but when I can visualise a connection between the work we do in the meeting rooms of the Palais des Nations, and the people and issues being affected on the ground, I’m convinced that it matters. And if that fails to convince me, then I just look at the lengths that some states to go to avoid being subject to the scrutiny of the HRC. They wouldn’t work so hard trying to undermine or avoid the HRC it if they weren’t threatened by it. It matters.
I’ve already touched on my second lesson, which is that ‘it’s complicated’. The UN, and its rules, procedures and precedents are akin to a foreign language. Attaining fluency is essential, as is knowing where the skeletons are buried. In thinking about the current debate over HRC reform, having an in-depth knowledge of the politics and deals that took place at the time of its creation is essential. That’s why people like Bob are so important, as well as other long-serving experts in New York and in our research department in London.
And my final lesson after a year here, is that this sort of work is never finished. Even for those states like the UK, who work hard to protect and promote the human rights of our citizens, as well as of others, there is always room for improvement. The work is never done. That was clear as the UK completes its third UPR review, and it’s abundantly clear as you look at the country situations being addressed at this Council. The 23rd Syria resolution at the HRC, talking about the horrific use of chemical weapons. Resolutions on Yemen, DRC, Burundi, Sudan, Cambodia, describing a variety of human rights violations and abuses, not to mention the terrible plight of the Rohingya community in Burma.
I have the beginnings of one final lesson, which isn’t yet totally clear. I can imagine having a very rewarding and busy 4 years at the HRC, responding to crises and challenges that appear, and working to ensure that the UK and those who share its values stand up for the protection and promotion of human rights under threat. But I’m not sure that should be enough. There’s an opportunity to go beyond being responsive to individual issues, and to go beyond accepting and living with the institutional challenges of a large and complex multilateral institution like the HRC. My focus for the next 12 months is to try to stop responding so much, and instead to start thinking about longer-term ambitions and activities that might just mean there are fewer fires to fight in the future, and fewer places for states to hide when they fail to protect their citizens.