Towards an accessible, effective and protective Human Rights Council

29.01.2016

The tenth anniversary of the UN Human Rights Council in 2016 presents an opportunity and imperative to strengthen the Council and make it more accessible to human rights defenders and more effective in protecting human rights on the ground, say President Choi and senior civil society advocates.

On 28 January 2016, ISHR hosted a high-level reception with the current and immediate-past Presidents of the UN Human Rights Council to reflect on the work of the Council and to discuss challenges and opportunities to enhance its impact in the year ahead. Below are edited extracts of the speeches given by ISHR's Director of Human Rights Council Advocacy, Michael Ineichen, the 2016 President of the UN Human Rights Council, Ambassador Choi Kyong-lim and Salma Amer, Advocacy Officer with the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies. Also below is a summary of remarks made by the 2015 President of the Human Rights Council, Ambassador Joachim Rücker.

 

Towards an accessible, effective and protective Human Rights Council

Michael Ineichen, Human Rights Council Advocacy Director, International Service for Human Rights

It is a privilege and honour for ISHR, and for me personally, to welcome you to this civil society reception. We are gathered to congratulate President Choi and his Vice-Presidents on their election to high offices within the UN Human Rights Council for 2016. We are also here to say thank you to the Council's 2015 leadership team, led by former President Rücker.

I say it is a ‘privilege’, for it is a privilege for ISHR and for myself as an NGO activist to be here in Geneva, and to exercise the right to access the Human Rights Council safely and without intimidation or fear of reprisal. Many of the courageous human rights defenders that we work with, train, and support in their advocacy, are not so privileged. Some are denied the right to access the Human Rights Council. Others are threatened or even killed for doing so. Yet others – some in this room – are forced into exile, far away from their families and their struggle.

Yet these activists still come to tell their story. It is our common privilege, and for Member States and members of the Bureau it is a legal duty, to enable them to do so.

It is with this in mind that I want to thank and congratulate you, Ambassador Rücker, for the significant successes you and your bureau led the Council to over 2015. As the diplomatic and NGO community gears up for the Council's tenth anniversary celebrations, 2015 will be remembered as a year of increasingly respectful dialogue, and one during which dissenting views were given more room to be heard. We’ve seen a more systematised and forceful response to reprisals. Within the Council Chamber we’ve seen a reduction in points of orders against civil society speakers. We’ve also seen a genuine commitment on behalf of the Presidency and Bureau to hear the voices of all stakeholders – be it in the Council’s substantive debates or in discussions about institutional tweaking. We understand and appreciate that keeping space in the Council open for civil society and human rights defenders is not always easy, and at times has required significant political capital and personal courage, so thanks to you Ambassador Rücker and to your team.

While your efforts at enhancing the efficiency and effectiveness of the Council certainly bore some fruit, in other areas you planted a seed requiring careful cultivation. I would mention three such areas.

First, as we embark on a celebratory 2016, it is clear that the Council’s capacity to address serious country and thematic situations of concern has to be strengthened, both in terms of the speed and the vigour of the Council’s response. The Council and its Members must no longer allow trade, investment or other political considerations to trump the need and the duty to address gross, systematic and widespread human rights concerns.

Second, the privilege and honour of being a Council member must be given a sharper meaning – both in terms of an increased expectation of cooperating with the Council and its mechanisms, and in making progress on the human rights situation at home.

And third, the space for safe, unhindered and effective participation of civil society remains inadequate, and far from the high bar set by the General Assembly in demanding their ‘most effective participation’ on an equal basis as other observers, such as States that are not Council members.

This brings me to the year ahead, during which the Council will be led by President Choi and his Vice-Presidents.

You all assume office at a critical juncture for the Council. The ten year anniversary should the occasion both to build on success and to reflect on and learn from shortcomings.

Looking ahead, and building on the three challenges just outlined, I’d like to formulate three objectives for the year to come from a civil society perspective.

First, we wish to see a Human Rights Council in which civil society and human rights defenders play a safe and central role and are able to contribute substantively and influentially.

Second, we want outputs delivered by the Council that have a direct and positive impact on the behaviour of States and non-State actors and increase the protection of rights.

Third, we demand greater adherence to Human Rights Council membership standards, and better systems of accountability where that is not the case. It should be unacceptable, and there should be consequences, when Member States flagrantly fail to cooperate with the Council or its mechanisms, or when Member States are responsible for or fail to prevent gross and systematic violations.

These may sound like ambitious – perhaps unrealistic – goals for insiders in this room. Outside though, on the ground, space for civil society, adherence to rules and respect for rights, are the core minimum expectations communities have of the Council. And from the privileged position that we all share here in Geneva, we have to try and meet them. With mutual respect, perseverance, but also honesty we can move towards them. Our expectation of you, President Choi, and your leadership team, is that you steward the Council in that direction and respect the role of civil society in pushing for course corrections when it goes wrong.

Follow Michael Ineichen on Twitter at @IneichenM.

 

Towards an implementation-focused Human Rights Council

Ambassador Choi Kyong-Lim, President of the UN Human Rights Council

It is a great honour for me to be here today. I would like to thank the International Service for Human Rights for hosting this reception and for giving me the opportunity to speak to you.

I am also very glad to be here today with my esteemed colleagues from the Bureau of the Human Rights Council this year.

First of all, I would like to thank Ambassador Rücker for sharing with us his reflections on his presidency last year.  He and other members of the 2015 bureau did an outstanding job for the cause of promoting and protecting human rights, as well as making the Council more efficient and effective. I am sure that the members of this year’s bureau will join me in expressing a sincere appreciation for the work of Ambassador Ruecker and his bureau and building upon their accomplishments.

Since I was elected as President of the Human Rights Council, many people have asked me what my priorities are as President for 2016. I tell them, in jest but only partly, that my first priority is to lower the expectation for the president. As I said at the outset, Ambassador Rücker had set a very high bar for the presidency and I think that it is not really fair to expect the following presidents to fill his shoes.

I also tell the people who ask about my priorities that I will just continue to do what Ambassador Rücker set out to do at the start of his presidency: strengthening the Geneva-New York connection in the area of human rights, enhancing the efficiency of the Council, and enhancing the effectiveness of the Council’s work on the ground. These are all really important tasks that deserve focused and continued efforts of the Council. Given the complexity of the issues involved, it would be unrealistic to expect that we can finish these works in just one year. And indeed, in spite of the valiant efforts of Ambassador Rücker and his bureau and the significant progress they achieved, it is obvious that we need to continue to work on these tasks. Hence I believe that it would make more sense for me to follow through these unfinished works rather than try to set a different set of priorities of my own. 

This year marks the 10th anniversary of the Human Rights Council. Over the last decade the Council has made great achievements. Being the premier United Nations body dedicated to human rights, the Council has been crucial in promoting universal respect for the protection of human rights as well as addressing critical situations of human rights violations. We mandate strong independent mechanisms such as Special Rapporteurs and Commissions of Inquiry (which examine, report, monitor and provide recommendations) as well as operate a unique peer-to–peer review mechanism in the form of the Universal Periodic Review. Also, we have been able to identify protection gaps and advance in the broader recognition of international standards. However, I believe there is ample room for improvement.  In particular, progress has been less than stellar when one looks at how many of the Council's declarations and recommendations are put into action and translated into realities. As I said at the Council when I was elected last December, we should be more implementation-focused for the years to come.

Since I arrived in Geneva I also have heard a great deal regarding the unsustainable increase in the Council’s workload. I was able to see it myself the first time I was presented with the draft programme of work for the March 2016 session. We should bear in mind that it is not the number of discussions we hold or resolutions we adopt that matters, but rather it is the real impact that our work has on the ground. I think that we have reached a stage where the unreasonably heavy workload of the Council is affecting not only the efficiency but also the effectiveness of its work. This is why we have to continue the efforts to improve the working methods of the Council. 

In the same vein, this year offers an excellent opportunity to look at the Universal Periodic Review mechanism. The UPR will be closing its second cycle at the end of this year. The UPR, considered as one of the most prominent innovations of the Human Rights Council, has proved its mettle. We can take significant satisfaction in its universality. And with the spirit of cooperation that has prevailed since its inception, the UPR has shown itself as a powerful tool to promote changes and reflection on sensitive issues for each community, region and country. As the third cycle approaches, it is therefore a right moment to direct our efforts to consider possible ways to improve the UPR mechanism, including enhancing its impact on the ground. 

In our common efforts to promote and protect human rights, civil society actors, including human rights defenders, play a fundamental role. They provide a unique perspective throughout all stages of our work. And for us to work well, all voices must be heard, even if at times when we might not like what we hear. It is precisely the balance of perspectives that ensures our strength as a body. It is therefore of vital importance for the Council and its members to continue to ensure a safe and enabling space for civil society to effectively participate in our work.

As my predecessors, I am committed to do my utmost during my Presidency to ensure that the work of the Council proceeds without any act of intimidation or reprisal against individuals and groups who cooperate or have cooperated with the United Nations, its representatives and mechanisms in the field of human rights.

With regard to the Geneva-New York connection, many believe that there is a significant gap between the two places. Examples abound. Initiatives undertaken in Geneva are not always adequately supported by the budgetary decisions made in New York. Information relating to the discussions under way in New York frequently fails to reach Geneva in time. If we are to enhance the effectiveness of the work of the Council, we cannot let this gap persist. We have to work harder to ensure that Geneva and New York are always connected to and engaged with each other.

The connectivity issue carries added importance this year. As it is solidly rooted in human rights standards, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development provides an excellent platform for the Human Rights Council to continue promoting the mainstreaming of human rights within the United Nations system at all levels. It is crucial that we now make sure that the human rights gains are not lost in the implementation phase. Therefore, this year’s high level panel on human rights mainstreaming at the March session could not be more timely. 

Before concluding, I would like to remind you that against our best hope, this year is going to be an extremely difficult one for human rights. Regional conflicts in various parts of the world, in particular in the Middle East, show no signs of lessening. Terrorism is rampant. In all likelihood, the refugee crisis will continue to intensify. All these developments, by themselves and in combination, create tremendous human sufferings. The photo of the dead body of a small child on a beach and the news of people dying of hunger in war ridden villages are only glimpses of the broad and devastating human tragedy that we face today. It is thus with a heavy heart that I am starting my presidency. It is going to require of all the states and stakeholders a true sense of urgency, spirit of cooperation and willingness to engage in genuine dialogue, if the Council is to help alleviate human suffering in a meaningful way and to protect and promote human rights and fundamental freedoms for all.  It is my sincere hope that we will be able to do so. I count on your support.

 

The Human Rights Council as an institution for national-level human rights protection and accountability

Salma Amer, Advocacy Officer with the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies

I would like to begin by thanking Ambassador Rücker for his service as President of the Human Rights Council over the last year. He served with dedication and a firm but fair approach to the management of Council sessions, and demonstrated a strong commitment to ensuring that reports of reprisals against rights were consistently followed up on by the office of the President.

Second, I would like to extend a warm welcome to the incoming President, Ambassador Choi Kyong-lim. Mr Ambassador, as you highlighted in your speech to the HRC in December, the coming year marks an important milestone for the Council. In your words: 'Now is the time to put [the Council’s decisions] into real effect. The Council should be more implementation-focused in its second decade.'

We fully agree. To achieve this mission we must first recognise that implementation does not take place in the halls of the UN. It can only occur by ensuring that committed individuals and organisations working for human rights progress in countries throughout the world, often at great risk to themselves, are placed at the centre of the Council’s work. In many cases it is them that breathe life into the decisions of the HRC. Without them the Council would likely become little more than an echo chamber of political posturing.  

In this sense, the role of the President in providing protection for human rights defenders who engage with the Council is not simply a self-interested request by NGOs, but a primary institutional responsibility to ensure the genuine implementation of the Council’s decisions. 

The Middle East and North Africa are suffering from unprecedented levels of violence and rights violations. Human rights defenders within the Middle East are under attack like never before. The Human Rights Council has become a critical tool for these defenders to ensure visibility and international pressure at a time when effective national institutions of accountability and protection of rights are almost non-existent.

In this context we believe that more can be done to build off past efforts of the office of the President to combat reprisals and provide protection for these individuals, and we stand ready to assist you in this challenge.

Follow Salma Amer on Twitter at @S_Amer.

 

Summary of reflections from the 2015 President of the Human Rights Council, Ambassador Joachim Ruecker

The outgoing HRC President, German Ambassador Joachim Rücker spoke about the progress made in the last year and the objectives remaining for the continuing year. He commented that the Council has politically outgrown its role as a subsidiary body of the General Assembly, in large part thanks to the support of civil society organisations. Rücker highlighted areas of progress mentioning 2015 as a 'breakthrough for multilateralism' in regards to thematic issues and peace and reconciliation were cornerstones in regards to country-specific issues. He also applauded the progress made in the battle against reprisals and in the overall rights-based approach of the Council. Rücker stressed that certain objectives remained such as discussing efficiency, tracking implementation, regular budget financing, and improving credibility by focusing on membership standards and issues. He concluded by emphasising how civil society organizations are central to the Council’s work and that the Council cannot operate properly if not for civil society organisations