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Rob Fenn

Head of Human Rights and Democracy Department, FCO

Part of FCDO Human Rights

5th November 2014 London, UK

New York and the Human Rights ‘Third Committee’ at the United Nations

I have grounds to be nostalgic about New York, where I cut my teeth on human rights work more than twenty years ago. But I never thought I could be made to feel nostalgic about its “smoke filled rooms” (the root cause of the beige decor at UN HQ). But my colleague, Rhian Checkland, has managed that feat with this vivid account of her recent stint negotiating Third Committee resolutions – helping the UK put the world to rights, comma by comma.

UN General Assembly Chamber

Rhian’s Guest Blog

What a pleasure it was to be back in New York after leaving our posting over two years ago. Such a fizzing, vibrant city. And what a treat to negotiate again in the human rights ‘Third Committee’ at the United Nations. New York and Third Committee are two of the best experiences the FCO has given me so far.

Days start early: checking overnight messages from London while brushing teeth; coffee percolating while instructions are digested; phone calls before early morning EU coordination. It’s essential that we get the EU position right for the day ahead – a significant test of the old ‘delivering through others’ competence. Long days dashing between core group meetings, co-sponsors, informals and informal informals. All the while checking emails and grabbing food when the opportunities arise. Team meetings at the end of the day, then reporting to or tasking London colleagues before heading out to receptions where business is done over canapés. Perhaps there is time for dinner before rolling into bed and waking up to a buzzing blackberry.

Though the delegates may never sleep, the basement conference rooms could really be anywhere else in the world. I spent a lot of time in Conference Room C. It’s a windowless room, as most of the conference spaces in the UN are: even the Security Council draws its curtains so that the East River doesn’t distract from the political wrangling. Conference Room C is the inspirational combination of windowless and beige. The UN refurbishment has moved on but no one can tell if these rooms have been upgraded. The modern, but temporary, North Lawn Building now houses some of the UN Secretariat. The committees are once again demoted to the basement of that famous UN building.

We negotiate in blocks in NY, which, like the city, can make it easier to navigate, though there is always the risk of being led down a dead-end street. Regional or like-minded groupings have had to evolve to cope with the volume of work. Within the EU, either the EEAS or a member state ‘burden sharer’ take the lead on each issue. We cover everything, some 60+ resolutions, plenary, interactive dialogues, side events. We often find the same few countries speaking up at the EU. Partly it’s personalities, partly the issues. There is an expectation for the UK to speak. And usually we have something to say. ‘London’ is feared, respected and cursed by all around the table (including by me, the ‘London’ colleague).

As a visiting delegate, I am only as good as my latest instructions, relationships have to be quickly made and are soon put to the test. Bilingual speakers often call on us for language fixes, though their grasp of English grammar is usually far superior to ours. Fortunately, we managed to intervene before the EU announced its support for ‘human tights’. One Friday evening, I found myself in the Delegates lounge. The UN interns were warming up for a night on the multilateral tiles, while I was dreaming of tea, rather than tequila. Being the only EU member state negotiating the last para with the Group of Latin American and Caribbean (GRULAC) countries, long after London had logged off, was both daunting and exciting. For the first time in my UN career I harnessed the power of the comma to change the sentence enough to satisfy everyone’s concerns. In a city where Skyscrapers are built quicker than paragraphs are agreed, I’m proud of this contribution. I’ve since noticed that the agreement has made it through two informals unscathed, and I will be checking the final text to see if it survived to the end. That’s the UN, progress is made layer by almost-invisible-layer.

Despite the snail’s pace on progress, the theatrics can rival Broadway. Everyone engages in the performance wholeheartedly, playing their roles, rehashing well rehearsed debates in the hope of altering the outcome. It is a master class in diplomacy, a chance to analyse every style and something to learn from every interlocutor. My favourite are those who don’t have to take the credit; those who can plant an idea, allow it to grow, and then concede agreement and even get something in return. ‘The art of letting you have my way’, Bravo!

The UK delegation also plays its part (though thankfully we are not required to negotiate in iambic pentameter). We have one of the largest delegations and we take this stuff seriously. Our Geneva colleagues (also visiting NY) are well known and sought out. Even the newbies and part timers, just covering Third Committee, have picked up the ball and are running to touch down. Sitting behind the ‘United Kingdom’ name plate feels like a great responsibility. We are set to deliver resolutions on our priorities, including countries of significant concern: DPRK, Iran, Syria and Burma. The debate over gaining broad support on the texts versus strong and meaningful language continues to be finely balanced. The triangulation between New York, London and Post is crucial to getting the policy, and the lobbying, right.

Then there are the thematic human rights issues, of which there are too many to go into here. Child rights take centre stage as usual, and surely there is no disagreement on rights for children, it is the most ratified UN convention. Alas it is always one of the most difficult thematic resolutions. Fitting then that the meeting was accidentally advertised with a rogue question mark: Child Rights? It is baffling that we are still hamstrung over the same issues, for example, the nuances over ‘sexual and reproductive health’. And ‘Rights’. And ‘health care’. And ‘health services’. And ‘health care services’. Each having a secret interpretation within these conference room walls. We support references in a broad range of resolutions and this could be one area where EU consensus should be broken because a few national policies are holding back the progressive position of the majority.

Hours before my red eye flight home, I sat, once more, in Conference Room C. Unaware of the rain steadily beating down. I listened to a delegate argue that if we don’t support child and early marriage, then we shouldn’t support early contraception, for how can there be the need for one without the other. When we are working on policy and strategy in London, it is easy to forget how far removed we are from so many ideologies. And how far we have come. For example, supporting additions on LGBT rights when our own organisation, not 25 years ago, had formal restrictions on homosexual staff. We should be proud of our international efforts on human rights. We are making a difference, even if it is comma by comma.

About Rob Fenn

Rob Fenn has been Head of the FCO’s Human Rights and Democracy Department since March 2014. His last formal responsibility for human rights was in the mid 1990s, when he…

Rob Fenn has been Head of the FCO’s Human Rights and Democracy Department
since March 2014. His last formal responsibility for human rights was in
the mid 1990s, when he served as UK Delegate on the Third Committee of
the General Assembly in New York (with annual excursions to what was
then the Commission on Human Rights in Geneva). Recent celebrations of
the twentieth anniversary of the creation of the post of UN High
Commissioner for Human Rights – a resolution he helped pilot through the
GA – came a shock. The intervening 20 years have flown: in Rome
(EU/Economics), in London (Southern European Department), in Nicosia
(Deputy High Commissioner) and latterly in Bandar Seri Begawan.
Julia and their two sons loved Brunei, where British High Commissioners
are made especially welcome. The family’s activities included regular
walks in the pristine rainforest, expeditions upriver to help conserve
the Sultanate’s stunning biodiversity, and home movie making (in Brunei
it is almost impossible to take a bad photograph).
all those saturated colours, Rob worried that the move back to Britain
might feel like a shift into black and white. But the reunion with
family, friends and colleagues, and the boys’ brave reintegration into a
North London school, have been ample compensation. Julia’s main regret
is that, now she walks on Hampstead Heath, she no longer has an excuse
to carry a machete (“parang”).
problem is summed up in two types of reaction from friends outside the
office. On hearing that he is “in charge of human rights and democracy
at the FCO”, some think it sounds like a vast job: what else is there?
Others think it sounds wishy-washy: not in the national interest. Rob’s
mission is to take the Foreign Secretary’s dictum that “our values are
our interests”, and help his colleagues translate it into action in a
world so varied it can contain both Brunei’s clouded leopard and the
civil war in Syria.

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