Protection of Fundamental Freedoms Weakening, Human Rights Council President Tells Third Committee, Amid Calls to Address Polarized Climate within Geneva-Based Body
The human rights situation was not getting better, but worse, the President of the Human Rights Council told the Third Committee (Social, Humanitarian and Cultural) as delegates discussed ways to counter increasing divisions within that body over the mandates under its purview.
While the 47-member Council’s workload had grown in response to the increasing number of rights violations throughout the world, its resources had not kept apace, Council President Choi Kyong-lim (Republic of Korea) said as he presented the body’s annual report. As the Fifth Committee (Administrative and Budgetary) continued its deliberations about the Organization’s budget, the Human Rights Council was faced with the possibility of reducing its meeting times, which would have negative repercussions on its ability to respond in a timely manner.
Another major issue concerned reports of threats and reprisals against civil society members who had cooperated with the Council, he said. Civil society “provides us a mirror of the realities on the ground”, he said, noting that without their participation, the Council would lack the substantive information and support to effectively perform its mandate. Several delegates offered views on what could be done to address that situation, to which he responded, “I have very few tools in my box”.
During the interactive dialogue – and ensuing general debate - a number of delegates brought up Council resolution 32/2 of 30 June 2016 on protection against violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. The African Group, objecting to the linkage between gender discrimination and human rights instruments, had tabled a resolution to defer consideration of and action on resolution 32/2, said Botswana’s delegate, a proposal which the European Union representative, among others, warned against. The United States’ delegate announced that the Latin American and Caribbean Group would propose an amendment to the African Group’s draft. She urged all States to vote in favour of it, and failing its adoption, to reject the resolution. Chile’s delegate added that attempts to exploit the Council harkened back to problems that had plagued its predecessor, the Commission on Human Rights.
Responding, Mr. Choi urged those delegates pushing for a reversal of the Council’s decision to “think twice”, because the system could lose credibility if the General Assembly in New York reversed a decision made by the Human Rights Council in Geneva.
Speaking on a point of order, Algeria’s representative noted that the Council President had addressed both the General Assembly plenary and the Third Committee today, voicing concern that delegations with fewer resources would be unable to follow deliberations in both bodies, a point echoed by the representative of South Africa.
An official of the Secretariat responded by stating that the situation had arisen due to scheduling reasons and would not set a precedent.
Speaking in exercise of the right of reply were representatives of Saudi Arabia, Syria and Sudan.
The Third Committee will reconvene at 3 p.m. on Tuesday, 8 November to continue its general discussion on the Human Right Council, and to take action on draft resolutions.
The Third Committee (Social, Humanitarian and Cultural) met this morning to hear the President of the Human Rights Council present the report on the Council’s twenty-fourth and twenty-fifth special sessions, and its thirty-first, thirty-second and thirty-third regular sessions (documents A/71/53, A/71/53/Add.1 and A/71/53/Add.2), to be followed by an interactive dialogue and general discussion.
CHOI KYONG-LIM, President of the Human Rights Council, presented the Council’s annual report, highlighting its work on country-specific and thematic areas, as well as the challenges it faced ten years in to its existence.
In terms of its country-specific work, the Council had extended the Commission of Inquiry in Syria, he said, and would conduct a comprehensive special inquiry into events in Aleppo. It also had considered the updates and reports of the Commission of Inquiry on Eritrea and the report of the Independent Investigation on Burundi, where it would also establish a Commission of Inquiry. Two new independent experts would focus on accountability for rights violations in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Additionally, it had established a new Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan and extended country-specific mandates on Belarus, the Central African Republic, Côte d’Ivoire, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Eritrea, Iran, Mali, Myanmar, Somalia and Sudan.
In terms of its thematic work, he said the Council had held 20 panel discussions on topics ranging from climate change to persons with disabilities, and women’s and children’s rights. During the past year, the Council had established two new special procedures mandates: an Independent Expert on protection against violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity and a Special Rapporteur on the right to development. He was pleased to announce that all Member States had participated in the Universal Periodic Review, thanks to a Trust Fund that had enabled small States that did not have representation in Geneva to take part. To ensure that full participation continued, he called for regular and sustained funding for the Trust Fund. While the high level of reporting had been a positive development, he stressed the need for greater implementation of the Review’s recommendations.
In addition to the participation of Governments, he underscored the vital role that civil society played in the Council’s work. Civil society “provides us a mirror of the realities on the ground”, he said. Reports of intimidation and reprisals against individuals who had cooperated with the Council were concerning, as without the contribution of civil society, the Council and its mechanisms would lack the substantive information and support needed to perform their mandates. Another major challenge was funding to support the Council’s growing activities. Without greater resources, it would have to reduce its meeting times and ability to respond to human rights issues in a timely matter would be compromised.
Finally, he expressed concern about the so-called New York-Geneva gap, which undermined the Council’s standing. “Increasingly there is a questioning of its findings and attempts aimed a re-opening issues dealt with in Geneva,” he explained. It was crucial that that Council’s autonomy, as conferred upon it by the General Assembly, be upheld.
When the floor opened for questions, delegations quizzed the President about politicization of the Human Rights Council, with China’s representative asking which measures could be taken to counter it, a question echoed by Egypt’s and Syria’s representatives. The Council’s decision 32/2 was a topic for many representatives, with the European Union strongly cautioning against a proposal contained in the draft resolution on the report of the Human Rights Council.
By the terms of that text, several delegates said, the General Assembly would re-open for consideration the Human Rights Council’s decision to establish a mandate for an Independent Expert on protection against violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Representatives of, among many others, Brazil, Ireland, Germany, Ethiopia, and the United States expressed concerns that that action would set an unwanted precedent. Many representatives, including of Morocco, Republic of Korea and India asked how the Council’s efficiency could be improved, as well as the coordination between New York and Geneva.
Mr. CHOI responded that the international community must think about what “politicization” really meant with regard to the Human Rights Council. Human rights issues were fundamentally political, as they were about protecting freedoms from repression, giving people rights and protecting those rights. The international community would never be able to remove all political aspects from the Council’s discussions. But, he added, there were instances where delegations had not engaged in genuine discourse on human rights issues, but rather, in political propaganda. To reduce those instances, the international community must build a culture of trust. That such a culture did not exist all the time in the Human Rights Council reflected the global atmosphere. The Council’s safeguard against selectivity was the Universal Periodic Review, and as all countries were subject to review, and no country had missed its turn, he urged States to exercise caution in pointing out selectivity and double standards.
On the need to rationalize the Council’s work program, he pointed out that its heavy workload was a result of a worsening global human rights situation. Noting that numerous delegates had referred to the risk of reopening resolutions or decisions that had been adopted in Geneva, he said that when one part of the system said one thing, and another part said something else, the system would lose credibility. It would lead to a very dangerous precedent if a reversal of a decision was seen. He reiterated his appeal to “think twice” before even considering whether to reopen decisions that had been fully discussed in Geneva.
Also participating in the interactive discussion was Algeria, China, South Africa, Argentina, United Kingdom, Costa Rica, Republic of Korea, Brazil, Maldives, Ireland, European Union, Mexico, Germany, Russian Federation, Liechtenstein, Canada, Hungary, Iraq, Sudan, Denmark, Indonesia, Ethiopia, United States, Palau, Morocco, Egypt, Switzerland, Syria, India and Burundi.
CHARLES T. NTWAAGAE (Botswana), speaking on behalf of the African Group, said cooperation and genuine dialogue aimed at strengthening States’ capacity to comply with their human rights obligations was extremely important. While the Council and Universal Periodic Review were the most effective bodies in that regard, there was a need to rationalize the Council’s mechanisms and special procedures, he said, expressing support for agenda item 10 of the Council. He stressed, however, that item 10 should not be abused for other objectives, such as monitoring and investigation. Advisory services on human rights issues should only be upon the request of the State concerned, based on national ownership and with full respect for sovereignty and political independence.
The African Group was concerned by attempts to introduce new notions that were not internationally agreed upon and by the attempt to focus on certain persons on grounds of their sexual interests. He called on all States to refrain from giving priority to the rights of certain individuals, which could result in negative discrimination at the expense of other internationally agreed rights. Alarmed that the Council was delving into matters that fell within States’ domestic jurisdictions, he said the notions of sexual orientation and gender identity should not be linked to existing international human rights instruments. He announced that the African Group had tabled a resolution to defer consideration of Council resolution 32/2 of 30 June.
STEFANIE AMADEO (United States), noting that her delegation had been elected to Human Rights Council for the 2017–2019 term, welcomed that body’s important work in 2016 to address human rights violations in Syria and elsewhere. She expressed disappointment at the Council’s disproportionate focus on Israel, which she said indicated a structural bias that her delegation would seek to end. She supported the Council’s resolution 32/2 on protection against violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, and decried efforts by some to reopen a Human Rights Council mandate under the guise of legal concerns. Such an action would set a dangerous precedent. She urged support for an amendment to a resolution proposed by the African States Group on the report of the Human Rights Council. If that amendment, to be tabled by the Latin American and Caribbean Group, did not pass, she called upon States to vote against the resolution.
CRISTIÁN BARROS MELET (Chile) called on the Council to assist countries in building capacity to observe human rights. He expressed concern about attempts to undermine the Council through inappropriate questioning of its decisions. Attempts to exploit the Council for purposes outside its purview harkened back to problems that had plagued its predecessor, the Commission on Human Rights. Chile was committed to the Council’s work and procedures, and would be running for a second term from 2018-2020.
Right of Reply
The representative of Saudi Arabia, speaking in exercise of the right of reply to comments by his Syrian counterpart, said that the alliance had intervened in Yemen on the basis of a United Nations resolution. He considered it ironic that Syria’s representative had accused his country of human rights violations, given their use of banned chemical weapons.
The representative of Syria responded that he had not sought the views of Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia should answer to the “reality” of its incursion in Yemen.
The representative of Saudi Arabia clarified that he had sought the right of reply in response to observations made by Syria’s delegate. Saudi Arabia had intervened in Yemen on the basis of a United Nations resolution and at the request of the legitimate Government of Yemen.
The representative of Syria responded that Saudi Arabia’s rights violations in Yemen had been documented by the Special Rapporteur, Leila Zerrougui, who, in her presentation to the Committee, had referred to Saudi pressure to withdraw paragraphs from her report describing the demolition of schools and hospitals and the killing of children. He had posed a question to the President of the Human Rights Council about the lack of action on that issue, but had not received an answer.
The representative of Sudan, responding to comments by the United States’ delegate, recalled his country’s commitment to its dossier in the Human Rights Council despite more than two decades of unilateral sanctions imposed on it by the United States.
The representative of Saudi Arabia called his Syrian counterpart’s words “groundless”, stressing that Saudi Arabia had not pressured Ms. Zerrougui to withdraw any part of her report. Moreover, the coalition in Yemen had not demolished hospitals; such demolitions had been perpetrated by the Houthis.