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Bob Last

Head, UK Mission Political and Human Rights Team

8th April 2022 Geneva, Switzerland

It was 20 years ago today…

On 8 April 2002, I started working at the UK Mission to the UN.  I’d had no diplomatic experience. At all. And I’d never been to a UN meeting. I’d only ever been to Geneva once – for my interview, which I started off by spilling water all over the table (I’ve always had a complicated relationship with manual dexterity). I arrived half way through a brutal 6-week session of the old UN Commission on Human Rights – the Human Rights Council wasn’t even a glint in the UN’s eye –  and was sent straight into negotiations on day one with no idea what to say.  It was a tricky start.

 

(First boss Kevin Lyne (left) saw past my clumsiness, and Paul Bentall who was generally less forgiving)

People here talk a lot about how the negotiating atmosphere has got so much worse in recent times. You should have seen the Commission. It was proper nasty.  Five weeks at the Human Rights Council feels like a trip to a spa in comparison. Well, maybe a cheap spa, with over-used towels and lockers that don’t close properly. Not a Swiss one.

 2002 was the beginning of the end for the Commission. It was the first session post 9/11 and there was a toxic hangover from the Durban World Conference on racism, which regrettably had pushed many states further apart instead of bringing them closer together. Much-needed resolutions on countries like Iran and Zimbabwe narrowly failed with further losses to come in 2003.

(second boss, Caroline Rees and my favourite food)

Since its demise, there have been attempts to re-write the history on why the Commission was de-commissioned. But those failed resolutions on pressing crises, together with the high number of states joining the Commission to shield themselves from criticism, were at the heart of the late, great Kofi Annan’s proposal to establish the Council.

(slightly younger-faced in2010 with boss 3 Becky Sagar behind)

The Council has turned out to be quite a thing. What type of thing, I’m still not entirely sure, but a better thing than the old Commission in its later years.  Unlike the Commission, the membership distribution is not heavily biased towards the west. This makes it a much harder place to do business for a westerner. But it brings much greater legitimacy overall.

 

There have been some big steps forward. During the Commission’s final days, it was still considered a laughing matter when Brazil’s far-sighted attempts to raise the issue of sexual orientation were met with homophobic remarks by a leading Asian Ambassador. It was simply unthinkable back then that we would now have a dedicated (and frankly wonderful) UN expert to address violence and discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity. 

(With the ever brilliant Chris Lomax)

And the Council has been much more responsive to human rights crises than the Commission ever was.  For those who haven’t been paying attention we had five Special Sessions last year, setting up strong oversight mechanisms and keeping the likes of Myanmar, Sudan and Afghanistan firmly in the Council’s spotlight. The Commission only had 4 Special Sessions in its 60-year existence.

  

There have certainly been some bad days too. The early Council’s weak response to mass atrocities in Darfur threatened to eviscerate its credibility before it had really got going. The 2009 Special Session on Sri Lanka was a calamity which took 5 years to revisit, and only after a devastating period of enforced disappearances and extra- judicial killings which remain unresolved. And last year’s narrow loss of the Yemen resolution showed how difficult it still is to muster support for a country-specific resolution in the face of strong regional opposition. 

 

It is hard to feel positive after a year of crises, and many of the Council’s current resolutions look worryingly like the Commission’s in 2002. Afghanistan Belarus, Iran and Sudan are back on the Council’s agenda while Myanmar, and North Korea never went away.  

(Boss number 4, Ian Duddy at HRC national dress day, 2015

But by and large the Council is doing its job. In 2002, one of the resolutions that failed at the old Commission was on Chechnya, where Russian forces were committing utterly terrible violations. A few weeks ago, the Council created a Commission of Inquiry into Russia’s brutal atrocities in Ukraine, with only Eritrea voting with Russia. And just yesterday the UN General Assembly built on the Council’s resolution and suspended Russia’s Council membership by a huge margin. This is the only time this has happened other than Libya in 2011, when even Libya’s own delegates wanted this.  Russia now seems to have ‘decided’ it would rather not be on the Council, but given how hard it resisted the vote on suspension, this was a massive loss for Putin’s regime and a clear sign that the world stands with Ukraine.  

One thing that is definitely going in the wrong direction at the Council is the workload. The Commission was a 6-week slugfest, complete with night sessions, but it was only once a year. For most of the last 14 months we’ve been in pretty much constant Council meetings. This takes a toll on delegates, and our families. There’s no way I would have been able to function without the many sacrifices of my wife, who has been through just as many Council sessions as I have (we’re coming up to 20 years too). And I know many good colleagues are equally grateful to their other (and most probably better) halves.  

(With Boss 5, Matt Forman and the team)

But something that hasn’t really changed has been the type of people I’ve worked with, both inside and outside the office. I’ve been blessed with meeting many wonderful and inspiring people from all parts of the world. This week my Mission colleagues ambushed me with surprise party to mark my 20 years.  It was quite emotional and I had no idea what to say.  But at least I managed to make it through without spilling anything. 

Team 2022

4 comments on “It was 20 years ago today…

  1. I’ve been coming to the HRC on and off since 2011, and Bob’s blog remains one the highlights of Geneva 🙂

  2. Congrats Bob. You really have made a difference on so many issues. And it’s been great working with you.

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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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