Avatar photo

Bob Last

Head, UK Mission Political and Human Rights Team

Part of UK in Switzerland

24th September 2018 Geneva, Switzerland

Growing Awkward

I’ve often thought that children make the best negotiators. Kids seem to know better than anyone how to stay focussed on what they want and strike home when defences are down. If you ever need a lesson for succeeding in a multilateral negotiation, I’d recommend spending some time observing supermarket check-out queues on a Saturday afternoon. Browbeaten parents pushed to their physical and emotional breaking points are no match for the pre-planned ambush of their sugar-addicted offspring, as they force an extra chocolate treat into the weekly shop.

I feel like I’ve spent all week having to play the role of the parent determined to say no, and it’s been quite awkward.  I’ve come close to losing my temper in public more times this week than I usually would in a year and it’s made me wonder whether becoming extra shouty is a lesser known medical side effect of being forced to give up lactose.

Most of my obduracy has been related to defending the European Union’s call for a firm response to the report by the UN Fact Finding Mission on Burma. For the last 2 weeks, the EU and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation have spent many hours trying to merge their respective draft resolutions and finally reached a compromise on Thursday morning, shortly before the tabling deadline. In a historic achievement, the two groups have jointly presented a Council resolution for the first time on any topic, with the combined political support of almost 100 countries. The resolution proposes the strongest mechanism ever to be created by the Council – a new independent body that would collect and preserve evidence and prepare case files to prosecute those responsible for the shocking violations committed in Burma. It is to the credit of both groups that they have been able to bridge differences and agree a common text. This was something which the nature and scale of atrocities against the Rohingya and other minorities clearly demanded.

It isn’t often that I feel close to crying in the Council Chamber, but when the Fact Finding Mission presented their report on Tuesday it was a struggle to hold back the tears. Introducing the report, the Mission’s Chair, Marzuki Darumsan said,

“With a heavy heart and deep sadness we have drawn conclusions, on the basis of the facts, that we never expected would be as grave as they are. What we have found are not only the most serious human rights violations, but crimes of the highest order under international law”.

Mr Darusman described how the Burmese military separated men and boys for execution, set people on fire in their homes, and systematically subjected women to vicious and mass gang rape on an appalling scale. His statement backed up their report’s finding of genocidal intent by Burma’s military leadership and left a tangible chill upon the room. Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing and other senior leaders were named for their particular responsibility and there can be no doubt that all those identified must be prosecuted.

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon meets the members of the Burma Fact-Finding Mision: Marzuki Darusman, Radhika Coomaraswamy and Chris Sidoti

While I was waiting in line with my EU and OIC colleagues to formally table the resolution, I spotted a few of my UK teammates a little further on in the queue,  who I’d hardly seen in recent weeks. One of the strange things about the Council, is that you end up existing in a parallel universe to your colleagues, in which you simultaneously go through difficult negotiations in relation to different topics. While I’ve been taken up with Burma, others in my team have been busy leading tricky resolutions on Syria and Somalia, and working with the African Group to renew much needed monitoring of the situation in Sudan. Agreement has been reached on both Somalia and Sudan, though regrettably Syria looks set to be voted once again.

So far a compromise has not yet proved possible on Yemen, on which the Arab Group and a group of western countries led by the Netherlands have presented competing resolutions for the second year running. The main point of contention is around what should happen with the group of experts which was set up the by the Council last year, and it will be important to find a consensus between the different positions. Let’s hope that the texts can be merged, that the mandate can be renewed, and the necessary examination of the conduct of all parties to the conflict is allowed to continue.

The last week of any Council session is always a test of stamina, nerve and patience. Right now I’m trying to decide whether to harness the experience I’ve gained through more than 7 years parenting or to channel my inner seven year old. There may be some more awkward scenes along the way.

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.

Follow Bob