As COVID-19 Crisis Unfolded, Human Rights Council Moved Fast to Address Evolving Ground Conditions, its President Tells Third Committee amid Calls for Fairness
As the COVID‑19 crisis unfolded into a human rights emergency, the Geneva-based Human Rights Council and its mandate holders quickly mobilized to carry out their work despite multiple challenges, its President told the Third Committee (Social, Humanitarian and Cultural) today, as some delegates raised questions about bias and favouritism.
Elisabeth Tichy-Fisslberger, one of two briefers addressing the Committee in a half-day session, said the Council had “nimbly” tackled the challenges and restrictions caused by the COVID‑19 pandemic. It provided up-to-date information on human rights concerns as well as guidance on addressing them, even during the lockdown. It was the first United Nations body to resume its work programme and in-person meetings in mid-June, adopting 97 resolutions, 4 decisions, and 2 President’s statements “against all odds” during its regular sessions in 2020.
Further, the Council had held two urgent debates during its regular sessions, in response to situations on the ground, she said. The first, held in June, addressed systemic racism, police brutality, and violence against peaceful protests. The second, held in September, addressed the human rights situation in Belarus, and led to a resolution requesting the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) to monitor events and present an interim oral update with recommendations to the Council by the end of 2020.
When the floor opened, an animated virtual dialogue ensued, with several delegates vociferously objecting to country-specific special procedures, which they variously characterized as “unfair”, “selective”, and “politically motivated”. Ms. Tichy-Fisslberger, responding, said such claims are “as old as the Human Rights Council”. She urged States with objections to work with special procedures mandate holders, to enter into dialogue with them and share “your version, your story”. Noting that the Council ensured that its “huge machinery, involving thousands of people” continued to run during the pandemic, she said, “We managed to avoid the broken windows effect: If you don’t put away the little bits and pieces, people will think nobody cares about human rights violations.”
Next, the Committee heard from Edna Maria Santos Roland, Chairperson of the Group of Independent Eminent Experts on the Implementation of the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action, who voiced concern that it is among the least disseminated United Nations programmes. “Most States have not done enough to mainstream this instrument within their human rights efforts and to invest the necessary resources to educate the public” about the world’s most comprehensive guide for combating racism, she said.
The lack of public knowledge about the real content of the Declaration — adopted at the 2001 World Conference against Racism — constitutes a major obstacle towards generating political will for its implementation, she said. In many countries its content has been distorted. “We need to restore the dignity” of the Declaration, she said, calling it a roadmap for addressing racism, xenophobia and related intolerance.
In the ensuing dialogue, only one delegate, from Brazil, spoke. Ms. Roland expressed regret that no Member States wished to address the topic at hand, encouraging them to become familiar with the reports and present proposals for implementing the Declaration in their countries.
The Third Committee will reconvene at 10 a.m. on Monday, 2 November, to continue its work.
Interactive Dialogues — Human Rights Council Report
The Committee began its half-day afternoon session with a presentation by Elisabeth Tichy-Fisslberger, President of the Human Rights Council, before turning its attention to issues of racism and self-determination, with a presentation by Edna Maria Santos Roland, Chairperson of the Group of Independent Eminent Experts on the Implementation of the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action.
Ms. TICHY-FISSLBERGER, introducing the annual report of the Human Rights Council (document A/75/53/Add.1), said the Council and its mechanisms nimbly tackled the challenges thrown up by the pandemic, providing up-to-date information on human rights concerns as well as guidance on addressing them, even during the lockdown. The Council was the first United Nations body to resume its programme of work and in-person meetings in mid-June, and was able to adopt 97 resolutions, four decisions, and two President’s statements “against all odds” during its regular sessions in 2020. Of these, 72 were adopted without a vote. She touched on two urgent debates held during the Council’s regular sessions to respond to situations on the ground: The first, held in June, addressed the theme of systemic racism, police brutality, and violence against peaceful protests, and culminated in a resolution that requests the High Commissioner for Human Rights to prepare a report on violations of international human rights law against Africans and people of African descent by law enforcement agencies, with a view to accountability and redress for victims. The second, held in September, addressed the human rights situation in Belarus. The ensuing resolution requests the High Commissioner to monitor the situation closely, in the context of the presidential election, and to present an interim oral update with recommendations to the Council by the end of 2020.
She went on to note that the thirty-sixth Working Group session of the Universal Periodic Review, slated for May, was postponed, and will be held in a “hybrid format” from next week onwards, unless new restrictions arise. Turning to the impact of the United Nations liquidity crisis on the Council’s work, which has led to the postponement of some scheduled activities, she expressed hope for an improved situation in the coming months, as there had been a 15 per cent reduction in the Council’s meeting time this year, on top of a “considerable reduction” facilitated by previous Council presidents. Against this backdrop, she expressed hope that the Council can continue to deal with both long-standing challenges and new problems “to make sure that they do not get lost in the quicksand of other events”.
When the floor opened for comments and questions, an animated discussion ensued, with representatives falling into two diametrically opposed camps, one heartily endorsing the Council and its mechanisms and the other denouncing country-specific resolutions, which many characterized as “selective” and “politicized”.
The representative of Iceland, on behalf of the Nordic-Baltic countries, said the President’s work has been carried out in a neutral and unbiased way, despite challenges posed by the pandemic and financial constraints, asserting that “any claims by some of political favoritism should be rejected as baseless attempts to discredit the Council’s important work”. While the Council is “not without faults and shortcomings”, with States elected to it neglecting to uphold its main mission to protect and promote human rights, its special procedures and mechanisms shed light on urgent issues, including the situation in Belarus, he said, calling for continued vigilance, given the visible “effort to negate some of the important progress made” both in New York and in Geneva.
The representative of Mexico said that as Vice Chair of the Council, he had offered to help improve the Council’s accountability and efficiency, and asked the President how connections can be strengthened between the Council and the Security Council, in order to place human rights at the heart of efforts to prevent armed conflict. On similar lines, the representative of Switzerland, speaking on behalf of a group of countries including Australia, Canada and Norway, asked how to ensure greater coherence between the Third Committee and the Council, as well as other United Nations bodies.
The representative of Ukraine expressed concern about the results of the recent Human Rights Council election, asserting that it must be “an uncompromising platform” that upholds all human rights, including of those suffering under Russian occupation in the occupied regions of Crimea and Donbass. He welcomed the Committee’s interactive dialogue on the situation and hoped the General Assembly will work on the “gross human rights violations perpetrated by Russia as an occupying force”.
In a similar vein, Colombia’s delegate welcomed the recent report of the Council’s Fact-Finding Mission on Venezuela, which outlined events that have occurred there since 2014. She welcomed the renewal of the mandate for another two years and called on the international community to condemn the facts contained in the report.
Meanwhile, a number of representatives, including those of Eritrea, Philippines and Cuba, objected to country-specific mandates, which they called “confrontational”, “selective” and “politicized”.
The representative of Syria similarly asserted that the resolution on her country was unfair and confrontational, and promoted the airing of unfounded allegations by other States. The representative of Iran likewise called country-specific mandates “unjustified, meaningless and destructive”, and said the Council’s work must be conducted in a transparent, non-politicized manner. The representative of Venezuela rejected the statement by Colombia’s delegate, as well as the “politicization” of the Council.
The representative of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea condemned the “anti-DPRK” resolution adopted by the Council in June, which contains “deceptions and fabrications intended to overthrow our social system”.
The representative of the Russian Federation expressed concern about the broadening of powers of the President and the Bureau, which “contributes to the politicization of the Council”. “It has used electoral issues as a tool to change governments,” he stressed.
The representatives of China and Malaysia echoed these concerns and said the Council should do more to strengthen the right to development.
Ms. TICHY-FISSLBERGER, responding briefly, said it is important for United Nations bodies in Geneva and New York to foster dialogue, compare notes and exchange analyses and information. “Each body has a different role, and we fight different challenges,” she said, “But nobody cares out in the world if it’s one body or the other, so it’s important that we are on the same page.” Turning to the Council’s “hybrid” working methods during the pandemic, she said the digitalization of the system has enabled gains in efficiency and effectiveness. It has saved money on costs for conferences and travel, and its virtual meetings have facilitated participation by thousands of civil society members from around the world. Moreover, the pandemic has led to mandate holders working together far more than they have in the past, which added value. Further, the Council will hold a stock-taking meeting, and reflect on lessons learned.
Turning to claims of politicization, she said such debates are “as old as the Human Rights Council”. She called for more collaboration and dialogue from countries who objected to the “wrong information” spread by mandate holders. “Tell us your version, your story,” she said. It is the duty of the Council President to ensure that the body’s rules and infrastructure is working. “I do not have a political role and cannot change its general set-up,” she emphasized. On the COVID‑19 crisis, she said, “We managed to avoid the broken windows effect, and hope we can continue to do so. If you don’t put away the little bits and pieces, people will think nobody cares about human rights violations.”
Also speaking were the representatives of Qatar, Croatia, Lithuania, Netherlands, Poland, Eritrea, Austria, Colombia, Spain, Switzerland, Argentina, Germany, Philippines, Malaysia, Afghanistan, Indonesia, Algeria, Myanmar, India, Portugal, Republic of Korea, Pakistan and the United Kingdom.
Observers from the European Union and the Sovereign Order of Malta also spoke.
Durban Declaration and Programme of Action
Ms. ROLAND, noting that the Group of Independent Eminent Experts had held annual five-day sessions in Geneva in 2018 and 2019, said the 2020 annual meeting has been postponed to December 2020, and will be held, most likely, in a virtual format. Voicing concern that the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action is among the least disseminated United Nations programmes, she stressed that the lack of public knowledge about the real content of the Declaration constitutes a major obstacle towards generating political will for its effective implementation. Most States have not done enough to mainstream this instrument within their human rights efforts, and in many countries its true content has been distorted. “We need to restore the dignity” of the Declaration, she said, calling it a road map for action to address racism, xenophobia and related intolerance. The twentieth anniversary of the Declaration must become a global undertaking and she called on the General Assembly to reiterate its request that the Human Rights Council adopt a multiyear, adequately funded outreach programme to mobilize global public support. She also expressed regret that budget resources for such activities have been shrinking at the United Nations and warned that this undermines the implementation of mandated activities.
In the absence of questions from the floor, Ms. ROLAND continued her remarks, stressing that the Declaration is especially relevant to the current moment. Noting that its implementation is crucial to confronting the COVID‑19 pandemic, she added that if the international community does not tackle the structural problem of racism, it will have to be prepared for many other challenges. Also expressing regret that no Member States wished to engage in dialogue on this subject, she encouraged them to become familiar with the reports and come up with proposals to implement the Declaration in their countries, as well as organize regional activities to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the Declaration in 2021.
The representative of Brazil underscored the importance of the Declaration to fighting racism and xenophobia and reaffirmed his country’s commitment to it. He also highlighted the value of translating the Declaration into concrete actions.