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Bob Last

Head, UK Mission Political and Human Rights Team

Part of UK in Switzerland

29th March 2018 Geneva, Switzerland

Unruly Behaviour

Use wisely

Voting days at the Council have always been stressful, and things don’t seem to be getting any easier with age. The drawback of having been around in these parts for longer than most is that I’m expected to know what I’m doing, especially when it comes to the finer points of the UN’s rules of procedure. As each Council session creeps towards the start of the voting process I get increasingly frantic requests from colleagues seeking emergency tutorials about when they can speak during voting, how many times, the difference between general comments and explanations of vote and the relative advantages of paragraph votes over amendments. If this all sounds extremely dull, it’s because it is. At least it is, when it comes to evening conversation with family. My wife is concerned by how excited I seem to get about a heated procedural floor-fight. She strongly suspects that over-exposure to the Council has killed the thrill-seeking part of my brain and replaced it with bureaucratic neural pathways.

But knowing how the rules work really matters. You never quite know when Ambassadors are going to need to call on you for procedural advice and this is something that requires some supervision.  Letting Ambassadors enter into Points of Order without proper help is like allowing your children to bring their rubber bouncy balls to the hotel breakfast buffet. Both have the potential to be entertaining but with a high risk of a messy outcome. It’s also important to be able to translate the often impenetrable rule-book into plain language and to be able to explain to colleagues back home what nefarious means might be used to undo many weeks of hard work on your priorities. For those wondering, a ‘No Action Motion’ is not a form of constipation particular to UN delegates resulting from excessive sandwich eating, though the experience provokes a similar level of discomfort.

This session there was an unexpected procedural dust-up between Brazil and Venezuela over a lesser known resolution on ‘unilateral coercive measures’. This is one of a number of malevolent Council initiatives whose purpose is to dilute the international human rights framework with irrelevant concepts, while leeching UN resources away from the things that matter. Brazil explained that it would not support the draft due to concerns over its inclusion of a possible future UN Draft Declaration and because of the worrying human rights situation in Venezuela. This provoked much noisy table banging by Venezuela in protest at being name checked, but it was they who were against the rules by seeking to interrupt, and not Brazil.

The session ended with some strong results, especially on Syria, Burma/ Myanmar and South Sudan, on which the Council renewed and strengthened much needed mechanisms to investigate and report back with the aim of holding individual perpetrators of violations to account. In an unwelcome move China put the EU-led resolution on Burma to a vote for the first time. It was encouraging that more than 30 Council members voted in favour, including a good number who normally prefer to oppose country resolutions, but unfortunate to see countries such as Japan and Senegal abstaining.

As always there were many important thematic resolutions. It was heartening to see two competing resolutions relating to terrorism, led separately by Egypt and Mexico, being brought together, though the jury is still out on whether this will prove to be the start of a more efficient way of working that others will follow or a pleasant anomaly. China left the session with some success of its own on the resolution on ‘mutually beneficial cooperation’ (AKA the artist formerly known as win-win). The resolution’s introduction of concepts outside the accepted human rights lexicon caused enough discomfort for 15 member states to abstain though only the United States voted against. All eyes will be on where China takes the resolution from here.

In the days immediately after the Council, most media headlines I saw related to the Council’s ongoing disproportionate focus on Israel under its agenda item 7 which is exclusively focused on the Occupied Palestinian Territories. I’ve talked about this before, and the UK’s view remains that item 7 is wrong, even if Israel warrants some international criticism. There was something of a shift this year, with more member states indicating their preference for addressing Israel under the Council’s standard item for country issues- item 4 – rather than singling them out for extraordinary treatment.

I’m looking forward to some time away from the Council before we take up the reins again in June. My first post-Council weekend wasn’t exactly the restful break I’d been craving though. It was my son’s birthday party and involved a trip to a large indoor play area. However bad things get at the Council, no one does unruly behaviour quite like overexcited 7 year olds. Perhaps they need some rules of procedure of their own.

Time to go home

5 comments on “Unruly Behaviour

  1. Thanks for this overview, Bob. I’m so glad you’re sharing your institutional / procedural expertise with us readers in addition to the Ambassadors seeking you out. Keep the posts coming!

  2. The rule book is indeed impenetrable … good to know it’s you I should turn to for explanations

  3. Sounds like a good session! I used to work at the HRC a few years ago so I really enjoy following the developments at the Council through your blog.

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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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