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Bob Last

Head, UK Mission Political and Human Rights Team

16th October 2023 Geneva, Switzerland

Exhausted nations

If anyone sensible was trying to design a system to get countries from across the world to reach agreement on tricky, highly sensitive issues, then they wouldn’t do it like this. First, call a very long meeting. Let’s say five weeks long. But make sure it comes hot on the heels of two other very long meetings so that everyone already starts tired, grumpy, and slightly sick of the sight of each other. Then make sure everyone thinks they know what they’re going to be dealing with by calling a planning meeting. But then throw in a load of other surprise subjects at the last minute to add to a general sense of frustration, burnout and chaos. And then, just as things are hitting their tetchy crescendo, push people over the edge by turning the escalators off.

On the last day of the Human Rights Council session, Grisselle from Panama, our much-respected colleague, and one-woman phenomenon, read out a joint statement saying things have got to change, and that we’ve got to get our ever-expanding workload under control. It’s bad for everyone but especially so for small delegations and means that many states and human rights organisations cannot engage properly with important parts of the Council’s work. At the personal level, the people who the Council depends on most simply can’t sustain the workload. Many states rushed to sign up to Panama’s statement and hopefully this will be a springboard to start getting things under control from the bottom up.

And yet, despite the sense of frazzle and sleep-deprived mania, the Council ended pretty well, with some surprising areas of agreement. For the first time the Council renewed its Special Rapporteur on Afghanistan without a vote – a clear reflection of the appalling situation in the country, especially for women and girls. We also avoided a vote on a previously contentious resolution covering the protection of the family. In years gone by, resolutions on ‘the family’ have raised concerns about defining families too narrowly, to the exclusion of families outside the supposed stereotype, and for prioritising the family as a unit, over the rights of individual family members. This time around, the carefully balanced wording was enough to bring everyone on board, and hopefully offers a less polarised way forward in future.

There was even a first consensual resolution for a Chinese-led group of states. All China’s previous Council initiatives had been voted, but its resolution covering economic social and cultural rights passed without a vote, following concessions and compromises on all sides.

Things went well on the UK-led resolutions (well done Charlie, Charlotte and Matt). To Somalia’s ongoing credit, Somalia worked in partnership with the UK and agreed to renew the Independent Expert on Somalia for another year. The UK-UAE resolution on girls’ education attracted broad support from all regions and looks set to get around 100 co-sponsors. And the UK, Norway, US and Germany together secured a hard-fought win on Sudan. The resolution responds to the truly dire situation following the outbreak of conflict six months ago, by creating an investigation team to assess the many reported violations and abuses by all sides. Sudanese civil society has welcomed the resolution and let’s hope this helps to bring accountability and end the longstanding impunity which has fueled terrible violations in Sudan for so long.

Team UK (well, most of us)

There was high drama during the voting on the death penalty resolution. As expected, the resolution itself passed comfortably, in recognition of the global majority against capital punishment. But it faced a now standard, but tricky, amendment by states seeking to justify the death penalty’s usage on the grounds of sovereignty. This year the amendment failed on a tie. Tied votes are the very rarest of Council Pokémon cards and well done to Switzerland, Belgium, Benin, Costa Rica, France, Mexico, Mongolia and Moldova for their leadership and holding their nerve.

It’s a tie. Gotta catch ’em all.

Among the new resolutions, the five Central Asian states successfully led a new resolution on education for peace and tolerance, and the Bahamas oversaw a resolution to set up a new human rights office in the Caribbean. It is encouraging to see more states engaging with the HRC and I was happy that the UK could co-sponsor both resolutions.

The final week of the Council was heavily overshadowed by the utterly horrific attacks in Israel by Hamas, and their aftermath. States from all regions used the Council’s closing session to raise concern and state their positions, though events occurred too late for these to be taken up substantively in the session itself.

The final week also saw the election of new HRC members at the UN General Assembly in New York. The main question was how Russia would fare in its election bid after being only the second country ever to be suspended from the Council last year. Russia failed by a long way and rightly so. Russia is subject to both a Commission of Inquiry for violations resulting from its aggression in Ukraine, and a Council Special Rapporteur on the dreadful human rights situation within Russia, which the Council renewed by more votes than last year. Russia added self-inflicted insult to injury by failing with attempted amendments to the important resolution on reprisals led by Fiji, Hungary, Ghana, Ireland and Uruguay. It’s the third session running that no Council member has wanted to take up Russia’s amendments and its standing at the Council appears to be at an all-time low.

I hope all those involved in the Council session will take some time to wind down, relax and find their happy places. I spent the weekend sleeping, spending time with family and catching up with neglected chores. During my trip to the local shopping centre, I found that I couldn’t stop myself from taking a few calming bonus rides on the beautifully functioning escalators. I bet I wasn’t the only one.

In glorious motion

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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.