ISHR’s Human Rights Council Advocacy Director, Michael Ineichen, takes a look at the highs and lows of the 32nd session.
So another session of the Human Rights Council has concluded – or has it?
A disappointing but steady stream of obstructionist posturing and filibustering resulted in Friday’s sitting stretching well into the evening and the session has been extended into this week to tie up the loose ends.
The big highlight of the Council session of course was the historic vote to create an Independent Expert of sexual orientation and gender identity issues which is a huge win for lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans people all around the world who continue to face discrimination and violence.
It was a fiercely contested vote. Countries like the Russian Federation and members of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation succeeded in inserting some regressive language into the resolution, but thankfully failed to defeat it.
Well done and thanks to the Governments of Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Mexico and Uruguay for presenting the resolution at significant political cost to them, and their diplomats in Geneva, and well done to LGBT rights defenders from around the world who helped to rally the votes.
In addition to the expected ‘dishonorable mentions’ – Russia, Pakistan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Nigeria, it was disappointing to see the ‘rainbow’ nation, South Africa, abstain from the vote. The political choice to stand aside and abstain in this historic moment for the Human Rights Council seems to go against the spirit of the South African constitution which seeks to uphold the rights of all people regardless of their sexual identity.
In case you missed it, check out the great opinion piece our Pooja Patel wrote in the lead up to the vote with Jacobus Witbooi from Pan Africa’s ILGA.
Protecting civil society space
Another win was a call to action for States and the UN to try and reverse the global crackdown on civil society. The 47-member Council agreed to issue a clear policy blueprint for countries around the world to follow to value and protect the important contributions of civil society groups and human rights defenders.
This was following up on the recent warning from the UN’s top rights official, High Commissioner Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, that ‘clampdowns on public freedoms, and crackdowns on civil society activists and human rights defenders, are hacking away at the forces which uphold the healthy functioning of societies.’
In the lead up to vote, ISHR coordinated an open letter to the Council’s members which was endorsed by over 240 civil society groups from more than 90 countries.
Business and Human Rights
A disappointment from this session was seeing the Council fall below the very standard it had set in regards to acknowledging and responding to the risks faced by human rights defenders working on business and human rights issues.
The resolution, although adopted by consensus remains non-specific in relation to key elements of the UN’s own guiding principles on Business and Human Rights about the obligation of States to protect not only victims, witnesses, and whistle-blowers but also human rights defenders who assist them and their communities, and ensure they have adequate legal avenues to seek justice for corporate abuses.
Independent Expert on Côte d’Ivoire
The Council has agreed to renew the mandate of the Independent Expert on Côte d’Ivoire, but with a troubling ‘sunset clause’. The resolution explicitly says that the mandate was extend for the final time, without setting clear benchmarks to measure the success of the mandate in one years’ time, or whether the country needs further assistance to protect rights.
Violence and discrimination against women
The Council adopted good resolutions about violence against women and discrimination against women that highlight women human rights defenders’ contributions and called for attention to their safety and sustainability of their work. A number of amendments proposed by Russia seeking to water-down the text by removing references to human rights defenders, including women human rights defenders were soundly defeated.
The resolutions successfully renewed the two mandates, ensuring continued UN expert attention to these critical issues.
In addition to interpersonal violence, we hope that the Special Rapporteur will also look into the role of non-State actors perpetuating, both directly and indirectly, violence against indigenous women and girls. States have an obligation in this regard to prevent and respond to gender-based violence, for example in the context of large-scale development projects.
The Discrimination against Women resolution highlighted the role of discrimination in access to health care as a serious barrier, including with regard to sexual and reproductive health and rights. It also acknowledged the need to ensure the safety of civil society organisations and human rights defenders advocating for full equality and elimination of violence against women and girls.
Freedom of association and assembly
Another resolution adopted by consensus – this time after oral revisions to downplay the positive roles that professional groups, including for instance lawyers associations, can play for the promotion and protection of human rights, and to delete a call on states to create an environment conducive to their development. The mandate of the Special Rapporteur was renewed for another three years. Maina Kiai, the current mandate holder, will continue in the job until March 2017.
Other Council matters
Other issues of significant attention during the 32nd Council session included:
- Internet freedom. The Council reaffirmed that people should be able to enjoy the same rights online that they hold offline, including in realion to freedom of expression, assembly and association.
- Eritrea. Following intense negotiations, the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on Eritrea was renewed. Tasked to help implement the recommendations of the Commission of Inquiry on Eritrea, the Special Rapporteur will also report to General Assembly. The General Assembly was asked to submit relevant report to other UN bodies, including the Security Council.
- The Council also renewed the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on Belarus
- Migration. In a welcome move, Mexico requested the High Commissioner to report on the promotion and protection of the human rights of migrants in the context of large movements.
- Sri Lanka. The High Commissioner provided an update on the human rights situation in Sri Lanka acknowledging some progress but also highlighting a series of ongoing concerns including foot-dragging on legal revisions, including counterterrorism and witness protection laws. He emphasized the need for international involvement in the transitional justice mechanism, to ensure accountability for both past and ongoing violations.
ISHR will deliver a final joint statement to the Council with a number of partner organisations – including Article 19, International Commission of Jurists, Human Rights Watch, CIVICUS, ILGA, and Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development – reflecting on some of the session’s achievements and failings. A copy of the statement can be read here.