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Bob Last

Head, UK Mission Political and Human Rights Team

7th October 2019 Geneva, Switzerland

Zombie Wonderland

Council sessions often drive a temporary wedge between delegates and their families. The heavy hours estrange us from our partners and children and conversations tend to become rushed and reduced to topics of basic functional necessity.  So I was slightly thrown when my son wouldn’t let me get out of the door early one morning until I’d given him an answer to a question of pressing urgency: would I rather fight a chicken-sized zombie or a zombie-sized chicken?

It was a question that kept coming back to me as we slogged our way through the voting on the final days of the session. By the time we’d hit the third of three heavily sleep-deprived weeks, I felt much more zombie-like than human and, judging by the wild-eyed stares and sallow complexion of most of my colleagues in the Council chamber, I wasn’t alone.

Slowly reducing people to an undead resemblance of their former selves has never struck me as the best way of carrying out international negotiations, particularly given the serious nature of the subjects we tackle here. Thankfully, help may soon be at hand. The delegations from Rwanda and Iceland are among the most hard-working of anyone in Geneva and they are leading the latest process to improve how the Council works. We really need to change how we go about our business and I hope they can broker an agreement before we meet again next March.

Nevertheless, the Council ended with some very good results. Sudan made history by agreeing to open a new UN Human Rights country office- the first time we’ve achieved this through a Council resolution. This marks a remarkable transformation in approach. In recent years Sudan has resisted Council attention but the new Government has committed to work in partnership with the UN to address the huge challenges facing the country after decades marked by grave violations and misrule. The outcome is a testament to what can be achieved through long-term attention by the Council and the new Office will be a crucial source of support to Sudan’s Government in its transition towards a democracy which respects the rights of its citizens.

High Commisisoner Michelle Bachelet and Sudanese Foreign Minister Asma Abdalla agree to open an OHCHR country office

The outcome on Myanmar was also positive, and the EU and OIC maintained their partnership which was formed one year ago. The voting margin was the strongest so far and sent an unequivocal message from the overwhelming majority of the international community that the Myanmar military must cease its violations and that those responsible must be held to account. This was the final session for Anne-Sophie from the EU Delegation who together with Fareena from Pakistan have led the resolution impressively over the last year or so. Thanks for everything Anne-Sophie – we’ll miss you.

Anne-Sophie Stockmarr Becker and Fareena Aarshad wait to table the joint OIC – EU Myanmar resolution

But the main action during voting was on Venezuela. Venezuela’s allies, led by Iran, had done their best to undermine support for a strong and important resolution by the Lima Group by proposing a weaker rival resolution. Both resolutions ended up being adopted, but the Lima Group resolution went through by a stronger margin, and will create a new Fact-Finding Mission to investigate violations and advance accountability. Regrettably, none of this has stopped Venezuela from seeking to join the Council at the elections that will take place in New York on 17 October, but Costa Rica has belatedly decided that it will run in order to prevent Venezuela standing unopposed.

I can’t do justice to the many other important resolutions that went through this session, but I did want to congratulate my colleagues Robyn from Fiji, Joseph from Ghana, Anita from Hungary, Jean from Ireland and Carla from Uruguay, for their skilful handling of the resolution on reprisals against those who cooperate with the UN on human rights. This resolution goes right to the heart of what the Council stands for. It is deplorable that individuals or human rights NGOs cannot travel to take part in Council meetings, or submit information to human rights bodies or meet UN experts without risking their lives. And it is all the more deplorable that according to the report by the UN Secretary General which was presented this session, the problem is getting worse not better. The five countries who led the resolution achieved an impressively strong voting outcome with close to 40 votes in favour. Let’s hope that all countries take heed that such attacks have to stop.

The lights go green for the resolution on reprisals against those who cooperate with the UN on human rights

Before the session finished, I was invited to take part in a podcast, which looks at how the Council works and why it matters. I tried to take this as a compliment that I was still coherent enough to share my views in public, rather than a message that I looked like someone who had a great face for radio.

This was the last regular session before the UK comes off the Council for an obligatory one-year break before running again for membership. It’s been an action-packed six years with more statements, amendments, resolutions, and tricky procedural questions, than I care to think about right now. I’m sure I’ll have my energy back by 2021 when the UK hopes to be back on the Council but for the time being I’m looking forward to a bit of a rest and feeling a bit more human. And to making time to answer all my son’s pressing questions.

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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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