This is an edited extract of a speech delivered by Bertrand de Crombrugghe, Ambassador and Permanent Representative of Belgium and Vice-President of the UN Human Rights Council, to a meeting of senior civil society representatives on 9 February 2016.
The 10th anniversary of the Human Rights Council is an important opportunity to reflect on its effectiveness and how to strengthen its impact.
In 2015, Belgium was re-elected as member of the Council for a period of three years. We also have been elected to the position of Vice-President and Rapporteur of the Council for 2016 as the representative the Western European and Others Group (WEOG). This shows how much we are engaged in the promotion and defence of human rights. The human rights dimension is one of the pillars of our foreign policy.
Belgium has set for itself a number of thematic priorities: the fight against impunity; the abolition of the death penalty; the fight against all forms of discrimination – including the fight against racism; the fight against extreme poverty; the rights of children; and the rights of women, to name the most important of them. Thus, with Uruguay, we recently launched the Geneva-based ‘Group of Friends on Children in Armed Conflict’ to contribute to the mainstreaming of the topic in Geneva and to support the mandate of the Special Representative Leila Zerrougui.
Human rights are point and centre of Belgian development cooperation efforts. Our Vice-Prime Minister and Minister for Development Cooperation, Alexander De Croo, consistently emphasises the importance of a human rights-based approach to development. Last week he announced the intensification of efforts to strengthen women’s rights, as well as to fight female genital mutilation. This will be achieved by supporting dedicated projects led by UNICEF and UNFPA. Furthermore, specific provisions related to female genital mutilation will be included in development cooperation agreements that are to be concluded or renewed with partner countries.
Belgium’s human rights engagement is further reflected in the significant financial investment despite scarce budgetary resources. I am proud in this regard that Belgium has over the last years continued to increase voluntarily contributions to the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. In 2015 we were ranked as the 10th highest contributor, donating more than USD 3.5 million.
Both as Ambassador of Belgium and as a Vice-President of the Human Rights Council, I recognise the value and role of independent civil society. We know the high importance of your work and are ready to defend it with all our energy. Everyone – but a few that you know – recognises your undisputable contribution to the work of the Council. Personally, I was struck by the impact of civil society last year concerning the grave human rights situation in Burundi, which was a real test case of the Councils’ ability to act preventively. The joint letter you sent to our governments requesting a special session on Burundi helped to move the lines and to raise awareness among members and observers of the Council. This led ultimately to a strong and decisive resolution which includes the decision to send an expert mission to the country. Still, continued pressure is needed to implement this provision.
As far as the other regions of the Great Lakes of Africa are concerned, I particularly appreciate your help in likewise maintaining awareness of the Human Rights Council. Many are tempted to give up on the region because of the persistent dismal record in the area of human rights, but we must not let the people down. Belgium is striving to keep the area on the agenda and you have been a great help in this.
In general, your fresh views on evolving situations keep our minds on alert, not the least on those that do not figure in mass media headlines. I can only encourage you to pursue your efforts.
This leads me naturally to the protection of human rights defenders. We are currently in a kind of standstill after the adoption of Human Rights Council Resolution 24/24 which the New York bodies refuse to follow up. The establishment of a UN-wide senior focal point to promote the prevention of, protection against and accountability for reprisals, as called for in Res 24/24, has not proceeded at all. You are also very much aware of the fact that the latest resolution dedicated to the human rights defenders at the Third Committee in New-York was, for the first time, put to a vote. This trend is worrying. We have the feeling that we are backtracking on this issue instead of progressing. Yet, I can assure you that at the level of the Human Rights Council Bureau, as well as for Human Rights Council President Choi, there is absolutely no ambiguity: there is a strong will to continue hammering on the issue at each and every occasion. The intention is to continue on the line initiated by our German colleague during last year’s Presidency and where appropriate, to name and shame on cases that are brought to the Bureau’s attention.
The primary responsibility to prevent and ensure adequate protection against reprisals lies, at the end of the day, in the hands of the States themselves. Some recent good practices have emerged, such as the adoption of guidelines against intimidation or reprisals by chairpersons of human rights Treaty Bodies, together with the appointment by a number of Treaty Bodies of rapporteurs or focal points on reprisals. But the question remains how to break the deadlock and to achieve a qualitative step. Repeated oral statements can reach a limit in terms of real protection. I think the celebration of the Council’s 10th anniversary provides us with an opportunity to reflect collectively on this issue and to put together some concrete recommendations.
We are at the crossroads in relation to the Universal Periodic Review. The UPR will soon enter in its third cycle. Labelled as one of the more successful parts of the institutional package of 2006, we have here an occasion to assess where we stand and how we can make even better use of this important mechanism. I feel quite comfortable to speak about this topic since Belgium undertook its second review just last month. It was for me an interesting experience and, to judge by the engagement of Belgium Vice-prime Minister and Minister for Foreign Affairs Didier Reynders and of the team of 25 he brought with him, a convincing case about the usefulness of the UPR to improve the human rights situations in our countries. It is a healthy process where our administrations and decision makers are compelled to reconsider inherited prejudices and certainties in the face of criticism formulated by their peers. In the aftermath, Belgium’s Foreign Minister decided to set up in Belgium a national monitoring mechanism for the implementation of UPR recommendations, akin to those we have for the implementation of European Union Directives. He has further resolved to propose the introduction of a similar mechanism in the European Union. It would track the record of fellow Member States in carrying out human rights obligations, much in the way the evolution of their budgetary outlays and public finances are being supervised by the European Commission in the so-called European Semester mechanism.
With the third cycle of the UPR approaching, we should be aware of the risk of falling into routine, where recommendations and answers remain similar throughout successive cycles. We should start thinking of ways to keep the tension in the mechanism. Your colleagues from UPR Info made an interesting study on this subject. They pointed out some issues, such as the overwhelming number of recommendations and the absence of capacity to follow them up, their dubious quality at times, the neglect of recommendations that are noted and not accepted, and so on and so forth. They formulate a number of interesting suggestions. For instance, we could require that more extensive explanations be given by States for recommendations that are not implemented and even for those that are not accepted but only ‘noted’. We could also suggest a focus on more systemic issues with multiplier effects, such as the establishment of independent human rights mechanisms in relevant countries to follow up on the recommendations. We could require a higher quality in recommendations and commitments: avoiding terms like ‘recommends to consider…’, ‘recommends to find alternatives for…’ and instead calling on States to ‘abolish’, ‘ratify’, ‘penalise’, and so on. It would instil more transparency and closer accountability in the process.
I would like to conclude my remarks by stressing the need to make the 10th anniversary of the Human Rights Council an anniversary with content and not just a celebration. It is with this opportunity in mind that I have touched upon some practical and important questions where concrete answers are required to bridge the gap between the resolutions we take and the human rights practice on the ground. Let us together maintain the focus on this challenge.