What happens in Geneva should not stay in Geneva: How communication, coherence and cooperation can strengthen implementation


Building on the Council’s eventful first decade will need renewed efforts to translate important decisions into action. Addressing the role of the Council, shortcomings of the international system and the primary responsibility of States, such implementation requires transparency and citizen engagement, stronger leadership, resourcing and policy coherence, writes Geir Sjøberg. 


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By Geir Sjøberg, Policy Director for Human Rights, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Norway

Building on the Council’s eventful first decade will need renewed efforts to translate important decisions into action. Addressing the role of the Council, shortcomings of the international system and the primary responsibility of States, such implementation requires transparency and citizen engagement, stronger leadership, resourcing and policy coherence, writes Geir Sjøberg. The author is the policy director for human rights of the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. While the article reflects Norway’s positions, formulations used in the text are his own.

As the Human Rights Council (the Council) turns ten, there will be a lot of debate on how to enhance the ability to better fulfil its role – and rightly so. Moving forward, together we will identify areas in which the Council can, and certainly needs to, improve.

In so doing, let us not forget that whatever happens in Room XX at the Palais de Nations and in the basement of the UN building in Geneva is not the end of the process, it is the beginning.

Why do I say this?

I say this because we must not be sidetracked from the real world by overly focusing on nor relying on the Council to secure the ultimate solutions. It never has, and it never will. Even lifting the Council to the level of an independent UN body – like the Security Council or the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) – would be unlikely to change this.[1] While continuing to seek to improve the Council, we therefore need to focus more on linking its decisions to the actions and impacts of other forces in our societies.

After all, despite all its shortcomings, which may have political, economic, administrative and other dimensions, the fact remains that the Council has – over its ten years – dealt with a number of highly complex issues, by adopting far-reaching, positive and potentially influential conclusions. On paper we have arrived at progressive and constructive decisions supported by a wide group of States from all regions, the resolutions on human rights defenders being a case in point, such as the most recent one on defenders addressing economic, social and cultural rights. The problem lies, as we all know, in the implementation gap.   

This, of course, is mainly the responsibility of States – as the primary duty bearers. However, when stating or pledging in Geneva this or that, when signing on to this or that resolution, while not following through at national level, the question arises: What can the Council do about that?

Better communication and active citizen engagement needed

A first step would be to communicate better to the world what is decided in Geneva. This, I would argue, is a prerequisite for more effective follow-up action on the ground. The media also has a critical role to play here. Whatever happens in Geneva should not stay in Geneva.

Clearly, we need more transparency in the process. Ideally, all States should be obliged to make Council decisions and voting records public at home, at the national level, in local languages, in order for their citizens to get easy access and better understand this potentially highly significant information – concerning their own rights and fundamental freedoms.

In order for accountability to take hold, the knowledge and engagement of citizens and civil society at home is indispensable; which may be exactly why such transparency is not desirable from the perspective of some governments. However, States simply cannot be counted on to ensure accountability without the involvement of their citizens. History has taught us this lesson time and again. There is a move now to map out effective and inclusive national procedures for coordination, follow-up and reporting. Let us collectively pursue such a path. And, in so doing, let us ensure that the work of governments in this area, be it through intra- or inter-ministerial processes, truly benefit from the input of national human rights institutions and civil society.

Starting from a global level, modern means of communication can contribute to transparency and accountability locally. As an example, yourHRC by the Universal Rights Group in collaboration with Norway provides a step towards strengthening the visibility, relevance and impact of the decisions produced by the Council. Nevertheless, much, much more remains to be done.

Cooperation and resourcing

Consider the following: The overall regular UN budget is less than that of the local police department at its main venue (NYPD). Out of this limited global budget, UN Member States allocate less than three per cent to the human rights mechanisms, notably the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, seeking among other things to service the Human Rights Council in its work, in Geneva and beyond. In other words, we are trying to achieve a whole range of highly complex objectives world-wide with – in reality – a level of resources that it is, respectfully, laughable in a global context.

Still, more often than not, we seem to try to create the impression that we are actually addressing the issues before us in a serious way, where the response is proportional to the challenge at hand. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. Take for instance the UN Special Rapporteurs. While having global mandates, the rapporteurs are typically permitted funds and support to carry out two (!) official country visits a year. Despite the important work that they carry out, how can this be even considered providing a satisfactory level of global protection or prevention? Really, it rarely does, and deep down we all know that. Perhaps it is time to stop acting as if it does.

While certain advances can be made in terms of Council working methods, observers frequently point to the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) as a groundbreaking mechanism. In many ways it is. However, it will only be effective to the extent that it generates results on the ground. The Council plays an important part in this process, setting the stage for important follow-up by agents of change at the national level. However, the Council is ultimately unlikely to be a guarantor of real progress.

This is bound to depend largely on actions outside of Geneva. Which prompts the question: is the international system equipped to support this process in a meaningful way? In this light, the effectiveness of the Council agenda item for technical assistance and capacity building (item 10) may need to be re-examined, in order to ensure useful assistance and support to States that display a genuine political will to follow up on the recommendations.

States and heads of UN must provide leadership and policy coherence

Likewise, the impressive Room XX at the Palais des Nations provides an important global theatre for talking about mainstreaming of human rights in the UN system and beyond. In turn, however, the real mainstreaming of human rights across the UN system, regional and bilateral mechanisms, funds and programs, will require leadership in such a direction by the respective management structures involved; the mandated governing bodies and its owners, usually us as States. The sooner we are willing to realise this, the sooner we will be able to place our attention where needed in order to address more effectively the implementation gap.

The new UN Secretary-General, taking office on 1 January 2017, should be a strong advocate for promoting the whole spectrum of human rights globally and strengthen human rights across the UN system.

Setting the path towards policy coherence for human rights, the Norwegian Parliament last year endorsed a White Paper on human rights. We are now working across civil service to ensure its application, as mandated by Parliament. Linking multilateral and bilateral efforts across the different policy sectors and arenas is essential in this regard. While change takes time, we are on an ambitious track in this direction.

Similarly, in tackling the implementation gap, the Human Rights Council must be a catalyst in turning human rights obligations and commitments into broader action. It is that simple and that difficult.


[1] The UN Human Rights Council’s status as a subsidiary organ under the General Assembly is a weakness in the light of the Council’s mandate to safeguard one of the three UN pillars.


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