17th September 2018 Geneva, Switzerland
Over the summer, I have grown a little bit more intolerant. Not to family holidays, heatwaves or even World Cup exits, but to all things dairy. In many countries, this wouldn’t be especially problematic, but in Switzerland, I am having to rethink my breakfast, lunch and dinner as well as my usual Council mood-enhancer – chocolate biscuits. This has come at a tricky time with a new session upon us. I’m yet to find a suitable replacement, and I’m told it’s making me a bit more grumpy despite my wife’s attempts at buying a selection of lactose-free “treats”.
The Council session began with an introduction to new High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet, who took up the position earlier this month. She enters the role with the strongest credentials of any High Commissioner so far, with two separate terms as President of Chile and as former head of UN Women in between. She also brings personal experience of human rights violations, under the Pinochet dictatorship from which she was able to escape into exile.
The full version of her opening Council statement included many countries, but the version she delivered in the Council chamber focussed on three in particular: Burma, Syria and Egypt. During the summer the Council’s Fact Finding Mission on Burma produced a report with harrowing findings of violations against the Rohingya and in Kachin and Shan states. This is the hardest hitting report in the Council’s history, and includes the finding that there are sufficient grounds to prosecute genocide by Burma’s military. Ms Bachelet endorsed the Fact Finding Mission’s call for a new mechanism to be created to collect evidence of violations and prepare case files in order to advance accountability. Both the EU and the OIC have proposed strong resolutions in reaction to the report and are exploring whether these can be combined to send a united response of condemnation, and to set up the mechanism needed to work towards holding perpetrators to account.
On Syria, the High Commissioner highlighted the great vulnerability of the remaining Syrian population in Idlib. Syria will again by the subject of a resolution this session and the Council will hear an update from the Syria Commission of Inquiry in week 2. It will be important for Council members to keep up the pressure for accountability for the vast level of atrocities which have occurred over the last seven years.
Egypt reacted particularly strongly to their inclusion in the High Commissioner’s statement, which expressed shock over the death sentence verdicts for 75 people following a mass trial. Egypt said this had “blindly undermined the rule of law” and questioned her professionalism. They were not alone in their strong reactions, with China also among those voicing complaints in reaction to a reference to disturbing allegations of large-scale arbitrary detentions of Uighurs in Xinjiang.
The ability to mention individual countries is a key prerogative of the High Commissioner, and it is a role whose independence must be protected with great commitment and vigilance. For some states, this will mean defending the High Commissioner even though they may sometimes be on the receiving end of criticism themselves. No government likes to be publicly criticised, but states should be robust enough to listen to concerns and put forward their responses if they feel this is unwarranted. Attempts to undermine the High Commissioner’s right to name countries seems to be a fate which awaits every newcomer to the post. But such remarks should be seen for what they are – an attack on a crucial cornerstone of the UN system which all states need if we are to move forward in our human rights implementation.
Another of the countries mentioned in the longer version of the High Commissioner’s statement was Venezuela, where the human rights situation continues to deteriorate, and the humanitarian situation is dire. A group of countries led by Mexico and Peru are seeking to respond with a first Council resolution on Venezuela, which is long overdue. The text is moderate and requests reporting back to the Council by the High Commissioner. Regrettably, but predictably, Venezuela is refusing to accept there is a case to answer and have opted for confrontation rather than cooperation with the Council.
I’ll keep you posted over the coming two weeks, in what looks set to be one of the more interesting sessions in recent times. If you see me looking less than cheerful please don’t take it personally or a sign of intolerance to the strain of the Council. I’m just missing chocolate.