This blog post was published under the 2015 to 2024 Conservative government

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Bob Last

Head, UK Mission Political and Human Rights Team

20th January 2021 Geneva, Switzerland

The Next President

I feel a bit sheepish about not doing a blog at the end of the last session. By the time we’d finished in October it really felt like the less said about the non-stop misery fest that was 2020 the better. I’ll put the fact that not a single person mentioned it down to collective kindness rather than a lack of interest. But for the record, it was quite interesting and probably in my all-time top 23 sessions (I’d be happy to share my full ranking post-COVID, when you’re next stuck in a confined space with me).

And now for 2021.

In case you haven’t been paying close attention, there’s been a momentous Presidential battle going on. It has led to competing claims of victory, accusations of fake news and abuse of process and has caused division of a type rarely seen in these peaceful lands. I am of course talking about the prestigious position of President Fir Tree – the title bestowed on the tallest fir tree in Switzerland. A majestic 58-metre White Fir from nearby Neuchatel was recently crowned the winner only to be stripped of the title for a slightly taller but rather ungainly looking Douglas Fir in far-flung Aargau. I never thought I’d feel sorry for a fir tree, but we’re living in strange times and I can’t help feeling that the better tree lost.

Happily, last week’s election for the next Human Rights Council President has been resolved with a much clearer result. Ambassador Nazhat Khan of Fiji will lead the Council’s meetings in 2021, as the annual rotating Presidency moved from the Western Group to the Asia-Pacific region. This is the first time the President has come from a small island developing state and from the Pacific. And it was the first time the Presidency has come to a vote with the Ambassadors of both Bahrain and Uzbekistan also standing.

The Presidency is an enormous amount of work at the best of times, and given how far we are from the best of times, it was surprising that three Ambassadors were so keen to do it.  Until now, any contests for the role have been resolved discreetly within the UN’s respective regional groups and behind closed doors. While this proved not to be possible this time, let’s hope everyone will now unite behind Ambassador Khan. She was Fiji’s first woman High Court judge and is a hugely respected figure across Geneva with outstanding credentials on both climate change and human rights. And as a former Council Vice-President she knows how it works much better than most.

President Khan takes the reigns.

President Khan takes over from Austrian Ambassador Elisabeth Tichy-Fisslberger. With the possible exception of the Council’s founding year, there has never been a more difficult Presidency than 2020. I’m still not sure how she got through it all – the suspension in March followed by months of uncertainty over whether meetings could happen; budget cuts; brokering agreement around the human rights aspects of COVID; and emergency debates following the killing of George Floyd and the crisis in Belarus. Whatever crisis befell us, President Tichy kept sorting it out and coming back for more. And she never once seemed ruffled. By the time she’d finished as President I was pretty much ready to let her run the planet. Thank you Ambassador and your hugely capable team. We’ll miss you.

President Tichy-Fisslberger signs off

Now that the Presidency has been resolved, one of the big questions in town is whether we’ll see the US re-engage in the Council’s work. They were last seen heading towards the exit door after calling the Council a “cess-pool of political bias” under the previous Government. The Council has functioned strongly in their absence but the US made a huge difference when they were members and it’s clear that the Council would be better off with an actively engaged US team back amongst us. The next Council session is creeping up on us fast, so I hope that a Council return will be one of the early decisions by the new administration.

All the talk of Presidency, both inside and outside the Council, has led to some interesting discussions at home. My wife and I recently asked our kids what sort of examples we set them and what they thought most defined our roles at home.  My wife came off somewhat better than I did, being credited with kindness, organisation, tidiness and determination. I was given high praise for comedy and dealing with yucky stuff. There’s not much doubt who’s considered the leader in these parts.

Stay well in 2021 and stand as tall as you can. You might even end up President. 

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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