24 Jul

Following a request by ISHR and ACAT France, the UN Committee against Torture (CAT) is urging Morocco to end reprisals against a leading Sahrawi human rights defender who submitted a complaint to the CAT.

08 Jul
Photo of participants of HRDAP18

We look back at all that the 14 dedicated human rights defenders participating in our 2018 Human Rights Defenders Advocacy Programme (HRDAP) achieved during their packed time in Geneva.

06 Jul

ISHR has published a ‘scorecard’ for Iceland that is seeking election to the UN Human Rights Council for 2018-2019.

09 Jul

In high-level dialogues around the third anniversary of China’s ‘July 9 Crackdown’, the European Union must press the Chinese government for the release of detained activists, say human rights groups. 

06 Jul

Civil society groups welcomed significant outcomes of the Human Rights Council's 38th session, including the adoption of resolutions protecting civil society space and peaceful protests. Another success worth mentioning is the adoption of resolutions protecting women and girls from violence,  in addition to Council action on a number of countries such as Eritrea, Belarus, Syria and the Democratic Republic of Congo. 

Human Rights Council holds special session on Syria


On 29 April 2011, the Human Rights Council (the Council) held its 16th special session on the situation of human rights in the Syrian Arab Republic. The provision to call a special session allows the Council to address urgent and chronic human rights situations at any time, outside of its regular thrice-yearly sessions, at the request of at least one-third of member States [1].

The special session, which was initially requested by the United States on behalf of 16 member States and was supported by 21 observer States, concluded with the adoption of a draft resolution [2] entitled ‘the current human rights situation in the Syrian Arab Republic in the context of recent events'. The resolution was adopted by majority, with 26 votes in favour, 9 against, and 7 abstentions. Of the Arab States, Saudi Arabia abstained, while Jordan, Bahrain and Qatar were absent when the vote was held. The draft resolution, while condemning the continuous grave human rights violations in Syria, proposes the establishment of an Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) fact-finding mission, to be appointed by the President of the Council, to investigate all alleged human rights violations.

Speaking as the concerned country, Syria voiced strong disappointment in the convening of the country-specific special session, arguing that human rights issues are being used as a pretext to allow foreign interference in domestic matters. Syria further called upon all States to respect the mandate of the Council (to guide its work by the principle of constructive dialogue, amongst others) without resorting to selectivity and politicisation. Moreover, Syria argued that the proposed draft resolution is an ‘unbalanced text’ that would encourage the ‘saboteurs’, whom it blames for instigating violence in order to damage Syria’s international reputation, and would send the ‘wrong message’ to such ‘extremist’ individuals.

The Deputy High Commissioner of Human Rights, Ms Kyung-wha Kang, along with numerous States, expressed concern over the deteriorating situation in Syria and the continuous disproportionate use of force against peaceful demonstrations as well as the crackdown on journalists and human rights defenders. Violations of fundamental human rights, including freedom of expression and assembly were repeatedly mentioned. Many States called for Syria to cooperate with the UN special procedures mandate holders. States also endorsed the establishment of an international, independent and transparent investigation into allegations of human rights violations, with the aim of bringing perpetrators to justice without impunity (Hungary (on behalf of the EU), UK, France, Uruguay, Chile, Slovakia, Japan, Norway, Belgium, Peru, Denmark, New Zealand, Panama, and Portugal). In this regard, Belarus stressed that an investigation should be carried out by the Syrian government itself. A number of States called upon the international community to acknowledge the recent progressive steps and reforms undertaken by the Syrian government i.e. lifting the state of emergency and granting citizenship to Kurdish minorities (Nigeria (on behalf of the African Group), Palestine (on behalf of the Arab Group), Brazil, Thailand, Chile, China, Pakistan (on behalf of OIC), Bangladesh, India, Peru, Lebanon, Belarus, Iran, Turkey, and South Africa).

Several States, echoing comments made by Syria, maintained that the special session was held against the principle of non-selectivity, as set out in GA Resolution 60/251, and that the attempt to ‘name and shame’  further demonstrated the politicisation and double-standards of the Council (Nigeria (on behalf of the African Group), Ecuador, Thailand, China, Cuba, Russia, Pakistan (on behalf of OIC), Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Honduras, Nicaragua, Lebanon, Bolivia, Indonesia, Venezuela, Belarus, Iran, Paraguay, and Sudan). Referring back to the special session on Libya, Bolivia and Venezuela warned that such sessions risk establishing a precedent at the Council that could be used to further encourage foreign intervention. While supporting the special session held on Syria, and voting in favour of the resolution, Brazil argued that developments in other countries, including Bahrain and Yemen, equally merit the Council’s close attention.

Finally, a large number of States strongly opposed Syria’s candidacy for membership of the Council (Hungary (on behalf of EU), UK, France, USA, Slovakia, Japan, Norway, Belgium, the Netherlands, Australia, Germany, Italy, Denmark, New Zealand, Canada, and Sweden).

Developments at the Security Council

On April 26, the Security Council received a briefing from Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs B. Lynn Pascoe on the deteriorating human rights and humanitarian situation in Syria. However the Security Council failed to act, or even speak out against the continuing violence against peaceful protestors. (Security Council members were unable to reach consensus on a draft joint press statement proposed by France, Britain, Germany and Portugal, condemning the Syrian government’s crackdown on peaceful protestors. A joint statement requires the agreement of all 15 members).

During the open meeting following the briefing, several States strongly admonished the Syrian government for its violent suppression of pro-democracy protests, and reiterated the Secretary General’s call on 22 April for an independent, transparent and effective investigation into the killings of protestors (Columbia, Germany, France, UK, US). Several States rejected intervention by the Security Council in the crisis. Lebanon (which, ironically, spearheaded the General Assembly resolution to remove Libya from the Human Rights Council) expressed support for Syria’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, and Russia insisted that Syria’s current situation did not present a threat to international peace and security. China also focused on how the Syrian government could internally resolve the crisis (including calling on various parties in Syria to resolve their differences through political dialogue and recalling the Government’s national investigation into killings), but also allowed that the international community could provide ‘constructive help under the purpose and principles of the UN Charter.’ Several States recognised that regional bodies, in particular the Arab League of States, should play a key role in helping manage and resolve the situation (Portugal, Gabon, India, Russia, Brazil, and Nigeria). However, given the League of Arab States recent endorsement of Syria’s candidacy to the Human Rights Council, it is questionable whether this body can take leadership on the protection of human rights of Syrian civilians.

Meanwhile several human rights NGOs called for the Security Council to refer the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court, and to consider imposing arms embargoes, targeted economic sanctions and travel bans on individuals involved in ordering or perpetrating serious human rights abuses and atrocities against civilians.


[1] See paragraph 10 in Resolution 60/251, and paragraph 119 in Resolution 5/1

[2] A/HRC/S-16/L.1/Rev.1

Council Alert: Human Rights Council September 2011 session


The Human Rights Council (the Council) held the organisational meeting for its 18th session on 26 August. The 18th session will commence on 12 September and will run until 30 September. Twelve special procedure mandate holders will present their reports to the Council and engage in interactive dialogues. See the draft programme of work and the list of reports for more information. Information for NGOs about how to participate in the session is available here. The 18th session will be the first under the new President, Ms Laura Dupuy Lasserre, the Ambassador of Uruguay.

During the organisational meeting the President presented the programme of work for the 18th session. Under item 4 there are some especially interesting meetings. Of particular significance procedurally is the interactive dialogue with the High Commissioner on the situation in Yemen. This interactive dialogue was requested by the Council through decision 17/117, adopted at its 17th session. The decision requests the High Commissioner to report to the Council on her visit to Yemen, despite the fact that the High Commissioner is fully within her mandate to report to the Council regardless of whether or not this has been requested. The decision may reflect a desire on the part of the Council to be seen to be taking a stronger interest in country situations and demonstrate a stronger commitment to follow-up.

The Council will also follow up on the 16th special session on Syria and the report of the fact-finding mission set up by the Office of High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and will engage in interactive dialogues with the Commission of Inquiry on Libya and the Independent Expert on Sudan under item 4. With the mandate of the Independent Expert of Sudan due for renewal at this session, it will be interesting to see how the creation of South Sudan affects those negotiations, with the potential for an additional special procedure to be created to ensure that both Sudan and South Sudan are covered. Sudan’s UPR report will also be adopted at this session. At the UPR of Sudan, recommendations were addressed to both Sudan and South Sudan in anticipation of the creation of this new country. However, since South Sudan was not in official existence at the time it is unclear how those recommendations will be handled (Sudan did not provide a position on any recommendations at the time of its UPR, and must therefore do so at the 18th session of the Council) and whether representatives from South Sudan will attend the report adoption. Finally, under item 4, the Council will hold an interactive dialogue with the High Commission on her oral report on the situation in Belarus.

The President announced that consideration of the UPR of Libya will be postponed yet again, this time until March 2012. The Council will consider the outcomes of the 16 State reviews that took place during the 11th session of the UPR in May 2011.

Also at this session the Council will consider the Secretary-General’s report on reprisals against those who cooperate with the United Nations, its representatives and mechanisms in the field of human rights. This report was due for consideration at the 17th session, but was delayed for ‘technical reasons’. NGOs have been pushing for the Council to take the issue of reprisals more seriously, in particular by making efforts to follow-up on cases contained in the Secretary-General’s report. While the report this year does include some attempt at follow-up, it remains to be seen whether States will make the effort to draw attention to failures to follow-up on the part of those countries included in the report.

Several key bodies will report to the 18th session, including the Ad-hoc Committee on Complementary Standards, and the Human Rights Council Advisory Committee (the Advisory Committee). The President announced to States that the membership of the Advisory Committee had been extended until October 2011, in order to allow the presentation of their report to the 18th session.

The President also updated States on meetings held by the task force on accessibility, conference services and the use of information technologies, which was established through thereview of the work and functioning of the Council.  The President informed States that two meetings of the task force have been held to date, on conference services and on accessibility, and that it will continue meeting in the next few days to finalise ideas on the issues under discussion.

A number of special procedures mandates expire in September and October. The Council will have to decide on their renewal at the 18th session. They include the following mandates:

  1. Independent Expert on the situation of human rights in Sudan
  2. Special Rapporteur  on the situation of human rights in Cambodia
  3. Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Somalia
  4. Working Group on African descent
  5. Special Rapporteur on Toxic Waste
  6. Independent Expert on the human rights situation in Haiti

Thailand announced its intention to introduce a resolution on enhancement of technical cooperation and capacity building of the Council. The delegation stated that this resolution is based on discussions held during the review of the work and functioning of the Council in which States recognised the need to improve the Council’s technical cooperation, and its coordination with other UN agencies. The delegation mentioned that its aim is to generate more constructive discussion under item 10, by turning it into a space for States to ask for or offer technical assistance.

Austria announced its draft resolution on the administration of juvenile justice and will also be facilitating an exhibition at Palais des Nations on juvenile justice and people in detention. The delegation also stated that it is preparing a decision to allow for the convening of a panel on the 20th anniversary of the Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities, which was adopted in 1992

Argentina along with Switzerland and Morocco, informed the Council about its draft resolution to establish a Special Rapporteur on peace, justice, reconciliation, and guarantees of non-repetition.  The delegation from Argentina stated that the main function of the propsoed Special Rapporteur would be the promotion of best practices and lessons learned, and identification of recommendations drawn up on that basis. The draft resolution also includes provision for technical assistance and consultation as requested by States. The delegations will hold the first informal meeting to discuss the draft resolution on 6 September, i.e. one week prior to the opening of the 18th session.

Brazil informed the council that it will re-introduce its resolution on incompatibility with democracy and racism which was last discussed in 2005. The delegation mentioned its willingness to cooperate and engage with other States in drafting the resolution and will be holding several informal meetings to that end.

The full list of resolutions announced by States during the organisational meeting appears below.

Switzerland took the floor with regard to the planned panel discussion on promotion and protection of human rights in the context of peaceful protests. The panel debate is intended to address and consider the ways in which human rights of protestors can be protected in the context of international law. Switzerland also announced that the panel will consider improvements that have been made in protecting human rights in the context of peaceful protests. However it remains to be seen if the panel will focus on specific countries and their situations in regards to peaceful protests.

The Council will also hold an annual discussion on the integration of gender perspective, sponsored by Chile. The delegation indicated that the panel will focus on gender equality and institutional practices, and will analyse how States’ commitment to promote women’s rights can be translated to concrete realities.

In addition, South Africa announced to the Council the planned high level panel on promotion and protection of human rights through tolerance and reconciliation. The panel discussions will focus on issues such as racism, xenophobia, and provide relevant examples of how the values of tolerance and reconciliation have been used to promote change and contribute to reconciliation.

List of resolutions to be introduced at the 18th session as announced by States during the organisational meeting:


  • Enhancement of technical cooperation and capacity building of the Council


  • Human rights and the administration of juvenile justice

Argentina, Switzerland, Morocco

  • Establishment of Special Rapporteur for promotion of peace, justice, reconciliations, and guarantees for non-repetition


  • Cooperation between regional organisations in promoting human rights

Guatemala and Mexico

  • Human rights of indigenous peoples


  • Rights of migrants and indigenous peoples

Spain and Germany

  • Access to drinking water

Philippines and Bangladesh

  • Human rights and climate change

New Zealand, Colombia, Burkina Faso

  • Maternal mortality and morbidity

Egypt and Non-aligned Movement (NAM)

  • Right to development


  • Role of prevention and protection in promotion of human rights


  • Incompatibility of democracy and racism


  • Human rights and international solidarity
  • The use of mercenaries as a means for violating human rights, obstacle to self-determination of peoples


  • Renewal of the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in Cambodia

Special session of Human Rights Council sets up commission of inquiry into the situation in Syria


From 22 to 23 August 2011, the Human Rights Council (the Council) held its17th special session on the situation of human rights in the Syrian Arab Republic. The provision to call a special session allows the Council to address urgent human rights concerns at any time, outside of its regularly thrice-yearly sessions, at the request of at least one-third of member States.

The17th special session, which was initially requested by Poland on behalf of 25 member States and supported by 33 observer States, concluded with the adoption of draft resolution A/HRC/RES/S-17/1 entitled ‘The human rights situation in the Syrian Arab Republic’. The resolution was ultimately adopted by majority, with 33 votes in favour, 4 against, and 9 abstentions. Of Arab States, Djibouti was the only one not to vote in favour of the resolution, choosing instead to abstain. The resolution is in many ways a continuation and expansion of the 16th special session resolution 16/1, which called for the creation of a fact-finding mission by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) to investigate all alleged human rights violations. Resolution 17/1 expresses ‘deep regret’ over the lack of cooperation from the Syrian Government with the fact finding mission, and proposes the creation of an independent commission of inquiry to not only investigate alleged abuses, but ‘where possible, to identify those responsible, with a view of ensuring that perpetrators of violations, including those that may constitute crimes against humanity’ are held accountable.” The commission of inquiry is requested to publish its report as soon as possible, no later than the end of November 2011, and to present a written update on the situation in Syria to the Council’s 19th session, in March 2012.

Though the resolution is strong in calling for the Syrian government to end the violence, resolution 17/1 was met with criticism by a few member and observer States. Speaking as the concerned country, Syria voiced strong disappointment over the ‘inaccuracy’ of the reports that encouraged the 17th special session, specifically in regards to the number of deaths that have occurred. Syria continued by blaming international mass media for fomenting dissent and projecting a biased narrative of the events taking place within the country. This criticism was supported by Venezuela and Cuba, who argued that the US and its allies, together with ‘western media’ had a political interest in destabilising the region. The Syrian Ambassador concluded by reiterating his Government’s commitment to sustained dialogue with its citizens, and noted a promise to grant a general amnesty for those who have committed crimes against security forces if violence ceases.

Syria’s assessment of the human rights situation was markedly different from that of High Commissioner Navi Pillay and the majority of member States. Ms Pillay emphasised the findings of the fact-finding mission which pointed to widespread, endemic human rights violations including murder, enforced disappearances, and destitution of large swaths of the population. The issue of child abuse and torture was also addressed by the High Commissioner and reiterated by several states including the Czech Republic, Belgium, the Maldives, Portugal, and the United States. Since Mid-March, the High Commissioner emphasised, over 2,200 Syrians have been reported killed; 350 deaths occurring during the holy month of Ramadan – a period of reflection and introspection for many within the region. Poland, speaking as the lead sponsor of the resolution (on behalf of the EU), echoed the High Commissioner’s statements and accused Syria of lacking credibility in its effort to arrange peaceful dialogues with its citizens. This assessment was supported by many member States. A few, however,, including Iraq, Venezuela, and Russia, noted progress by the Syrian government in allowing a humanitarian UN mission into the country and appealed to the Council for greater patience in allowing other reforms promised by President Bashir al-Assad to be implemented.

Of the four states to vote against the adoption of the resolution, Cuba, Russia, and China voiced strong opinions over the misguided nature of the resolution, describing it as biased and selective. During the informal negotiations on the draft, both China and Russia called for language to be included to welcome President Assad’s announcement that the military operations were at an end. These countries, along with Venezuela and Cuba, were also unhappy with what they perceived as international interference in the internal affairs of a country. Cuba went so far as to call the adoption of such a resolution setting a ‘nefarious precedent’.

Although general consensus on resolution 17/1 was not reached, the resolution was passed with an increased majority relative to resolution 16/1, with Jordan, Bahrain, and Qatar, who had been absent at the time of the vote on resolution 16/1, voting in favour of resolution 17/1. Saudi Arabia also voted in favour of the resolution after abstaining on resolution 16/1.

Human Rights Council to hold its fourth special session on Syria


On 1 June 2012, the Human Rights Council (the Council) will react to the massacre in El-Houleh in Syria by holding a special session. The special session is the fourth on Syria,[1] and the latest attempt by the international community to come to terms with the ever-deteriorating human rights situation in the country. While previous resolutions of the Council have already condemned these violations, the special session intends to set up yet another fact-finding mission, with an explicit mandate to coordinate with ‘relevant UN mechanisms’. Discussions in the Security Council have not seen a breakthrough since the adoption of Resolution 2043 in April, and the special session in the Human Rights Council may be part of an attempt at moving those talks forward. 

The Council’s 19th special session is on the 'deteriorating human rights situation in the Syrian Arab Republic and the recent killings in El-Houleh'. The request for the special session, was submitted by the European Union (the EU), Denmark, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United States of America and supported by 23 Members of the Council and 33 observer States.

The call for this special session follows last week’s massacre in the town of El-Houleh that drew international condemnation and prompted the US and at least a dozen other nations to expel Syrian diplomats on Tuesday. The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) said that the majority of the 108 victims in El-Houleh were women and children shot at close range, and that entire families were killed in their own homes.

There was no opposition expressed to the calling of the special session. At the organisational meeting, Qatar justified this fourth special session on Syria with reference to last week’s horrific events. Turkey too stressed that the human rights abuses that the massacre represented required urgent attention and action by the Council.

The draft resolution, currently under negotiation, calls for the Council President to establish and immediately dispatch an independent fact-finding mission to conduct an 'immediate and unfettered investigation' into the killings, and to report to the Council's 20th session (to start in June), followed by a full report and interactive dialogue at the 21st session. The draft also calls for the UN-Arab League Joint Special Envoy, Mr Kofi Annan, to brief the Council at its 20th session.

The special session is to start at 11 am on Friday, 1 June in Room XX of the Palais des Nations in Geneva. ISHR will provide a report on its website. You can also follow the special session on Twitter

[1] This session follows the first special session on the human rights situation in Syria on 29 April 2011, the second on 22 August 2011, and the third on 2 December 2011


Ad Hoc Committee on Complementary Standards holding its 4th meeting in Geneva


The Ad Hoc Committee on Complementary Standards (the Committee) began its 4th session on 11 April 2012 in Geneva and will continue meeting until 20 April. The Committee is mandated by the Human Rights Council (decision 3/103) to elaborate complementary standards in the form of either a convention or additional protocols, to the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. In contrast to previous sessions, a programme narrowly focused on xenophobia was adopted swiftly and without objection. However, the threshold issue of defining xenophobia, alongside the more fundamental question of whether complementary standards are necessary at all, may impede fruitful discussion of the content of any complementary standards based on xenophobia. Basic divergences surrounding the Committee’s mandate emerged almost immediately, with Cuba accusing the European Union (EU) and the US of attempting to sabotage the work of the Committee, and strengthened throughout discussions. At this stage, firmly entrenched theoretical views have left representatives talking at cross purposes: while Senegal and Egypt approach xenophobia from a legal standpoint, stressing the importance of concrete definitions for criminal proceedings, the EU characterises it as a cultural and social phenomenon to be addressed primarily through education. Underpinning the debate about definition was the question of whether there are gaps in the existing international legal framework - whether complementary standards are even necessary.

Are there gaps in the existing legal framework?

The question of whether complementary standards are necessary at all has resurfaced from previous sessions, leading Ms Patricia Nozipho January-Bardill (member of the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD)) to urge all participants to ensure that whatever their views on the question, they approach it with an open mind. The debate has two components: first, should xenophobia be addressed through national or international legislative mechanisms, and second, whether existing standards are sufficient. The issue reached an uneasy peak when expert Mr Duncan Breen (Human Rights First) presented his paper on practical domestic measures that governments can adopt to tackle xenophobia. His remarks touched on the assertions by the EU and Ms January-Bardill that bias-motivated violence can be effectively addressed through prevention and education campaigns. Debate was hampered by the fact that no complete discussion has been had about how national measures and international standards should interact. While there was agreement on the fact that a general interplay is necessary, it was complicated by divisions on whether the existing international standards are sufficient to deal with xenophobia. Egypt suggested that the mere occurrence of xenophobic violence, in spite of existing national legislation, is proof of a gap in international law, pointing to the need for complementary standards. Mr Breen, however, emphasised the importance of implementing existing standards, suggesting that countries should develop and share good practices rather than adopting new complementary standards.

Is a definition of xenophobia necessary?

Various definitions of xenophobia were floated by experts who addressed the Committee, but all insisted that xenophobia is a fluid concept and that any concrete definition would need to be debated and agreed upon by the members of the Committee. Senegal’s appeal for a firm legal definition to enable courts to identify xenophobic motivations behind criminal acts was acknowledged by some members of the Committee. However, the discussion was ultimately limited to tangential debates on whether xenophobia can be cured, whether identity and culture should factor in the concept, and the degree to which complementary standards should focus on victims. Thus far, States have demonstrated reluctance to tackle the underlying question, as posed by the expert Mr Patrick Thornberry (CERD): ‘Are we, in practice, handicapped by the lack of a definition?’. Mr Thornberry suggested that a definition could limit the scope of any complementary standards by excluding some victims of xenophobia based on technical definitions. Overwhelmingly, however, there seemed to be a consensus that problems surrounding a legal definition should not restrict the Committee from protecting victims of xenophobia, particularly in light of the precedent that CERD deals with issues surrounding indigenous rights without defining a class of indigenous people. Yet with some States still insisting on the need for a concrete definition, it remains uncertain how far the Committee can progress in developing complementary standards on xenophobia while avoiding the concerns surrounding its definition.


While discussions have been circular thus far and failed to address fundamental questions, the issues being raised are crucial to the eventual discussion of the content of any complementary standards on xenophobia. Debate could progress based on a flexible definition of xenophobia, but is likely to reach a stalemate given that ultimately, participants have failed to address the question of whether complementary standards are needed at all.

Videos: the highs and lows of the 19th session of the Human Rights Council


We are pleased to provide you with these short videos summarising some of the key country-specific and thematic developments at the 19th session of the Human Rights Council. A written summary is also available here.

The first clip focuses on country-specific developments, including on the situations in Sri Lanka, Syria, Libya, Eritrea, Myanmar, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, and others.

The second clip focuses on many of the session's main thematic developments. These include the UN's first panel discussion on sexual orientation and gender identity; resolutions on the promotion and protection of human rights in the context of peaceful protests, and human rights, democracy and the rule of law. Freedom of expression on the internet and the issue of reprisals are also discussed.

A reinvigorated Human Rights Council ends its 19th session


On 23 March the Human Rights Council concluded its 19th session. The four weeks of meetings in Geneva were marked by a series of positive developments, particularly with regard to the Council’s response to country situations. After the Council’s 18th session, when momentum appeared to have stalled following the body’s initial engagement with and follow-up to the events of the ‘Arab Spring’, this session saw the Council respond to various situations with renewed vigour.

Perhaps foremost amongst the initiatives taken at this session was the adoption of a resolution on Sri Lanka. At the last session of the Council, Canada withdrew its attempted resolution on the situation, to the great disappointment of human rights defenders who have been urging action on the serious situation in the country for several years now. The adoption of a resolution at this session is therefore a breakthrough. While most Asian member States of the Council voted against the resolution, India remarkably voted in favour. This is a significant shift from a State that until now had been an uncritical ally of Sri Lanka’s, although India made clear that it still held to its position that Sri Lanka’s sovereignty should be fully respected, and that the role of the international community should be to support Sri Lanka’s own efforts.

The moderate resolution was led by the US, and simply urges the Sri Lankan Government to implement the recommendations from its own Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission, and ensure accountability for all Sri Lankans. Sri Lanka expressed fierce opposition to the initiative, accusing States of using the small country as a scapegoat. One very concerning result of Sri Lanka’s trenchant attitude were several reported incidents of human rights defenders attending the session being intimidated by members of the Sri Lankan delegation. This was coupled with a vicious campaign in State-controlled Sri Lankan media against what it described as ‘traitors’ in Geneva.

The President of the Council, Uruguayan Ambassador Ms Laura Dupuy Lasserre, responded swiftly to these allegations by issuing a Presidential Statement in which she called on States to immediately put an end to harassment and individuals of groups and individuals attending the session, and announced that all allegations would be investigated. However an outburst from a Sri Lankan minister on the last day of the session in which he threatened to ‘break the limbs’ of human rights defenders, means that the situation is far from reassuring.

The Council’s renewed energy on country situations was marked early on in the session by the holding of an urgent debate on Syria. At the conclusion of the debate a resolution was adopted condemning the continued widespread and systematic violations of human rights and expressing concern at the humanitarian situation. A second resolution on Syria was adopted later in the session in follow-up to the report of the Commission of Inquiry. This resolution is the strongest adopted by the Council to date, calling for international accountability for potential crimes against humanity and referencing the High Commissioner’s call for the Security Council to refer the situation to the International Criminal Court. The resolution also extends the mandate of the Commission of Inquiry for a further six-months.

While Syria’s non-cooperation with the Council and its mechanisms is blatant, there were disappointing signs that other States who had passed through the upheavals of last spring with minimal confrontation at the international level, had not undergone a change of position in Geneva. For example, both Libya and Yemen presented rather weak resolutions on the situations in their own countries. The adoption of a resolution on Libya saw the Russian Federation and Uganda present a series of last-minute amendments, which called for, amongst other things, the High Commissioner to be given a mandate to report on the human rights situation in the country. With Libya rejecting these amendments, many EU States and the US also voted against them. This clearly shows the drawbacks of attempting to proceed through cooperation and consensus.

Egypt too showed no signs of having changed its position in the Council after its own internal upheaval last year. During negotiations on the resolution on ‘Promoting and Protecting Human Rights in the Context of Peaceful Protests’, the delegation attempted to insert language that would give governments greater power to crack down on protestors. The resolution was ultimately adopted by consensus, and tasks the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, with the assistance of relevant special procedures including freedom of assembly and association, freedom of expression, and human rights defenders, to report on effective measures and best practices to ensure the promotion and protection of human rights in the context of peaceful protests. The report will be presented next March, at the 22nd session of the Council.

This session also saw the long-anticipated and first ever panel on sexual orientation and gender identity at the Council, created by the South African led resolution at last year’s June session. The panel was to discuss the report of the High Commissioner, commissioned by the South African resolution, on violence and discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.

It was unfortunate that almost all OIC States chose not to engage in the debate, staging a walkout as the panel began. Pakistan delivered a statement on behalf of those boycotting the debate, in which it put forth its unique interpretation of the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action, according to which culture and religion must be taken into account when implementing human rights standards, and ignoring the further reference to State obligations to promote and protect all human rights regardless of political, economic, or cultural systems.  

The discussion, as a result of the almost complete lack of negative voices, sent a clear message that violence and discrimination directed against individuals on the basis of their sexual orientation and gender identity will not be tolerated by the international community. Further developments on the issue of sexual orientation and gender identity can be expected at the 20th session of the Council in June.

You can read an end of session statement presented by ISHR on behalf of nine NGOs here. A full list of resolutions adopted during the 19th session of the Human Rights Council can be found here.

Special Rapporteur on Myanmar looks ahead to upcoming elections in his dialogue with the Council


In his dialogue with the Human Rights Council (the Council), on 12 March, the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, Mr Tomás Ojea Quintana, commended the newly formed Government for the number of reforms it has undertaken. Following his recent visit to the country in February 2012, he stated his belief that positive developments in the human rights situation have taken place. Nonetheless, he declared that there is also ‘a real risk of backtracking on the progress achieved’.

Mr Quintana, along with several States that took the floor, welcomed new legislation, including the new Labour Organisations Law;1 the upcoming by-elections on 1st April; the newly created National Human Rights Institution; and the release of prisoners of conscience. However, they underlined that there remain challenges if these developments are to be fully realised.

At the conclusion of its 19th session, the Council renewed the mandate of the Special Rapporteur for a further year by consensus, with Thailand and Indonesia joining that consensus. Indonesia stated, however, that the draft did not sufficiently recognise the progress made in Myanmar. It also called for the situation in Myanmar to be considered under Item 10 (on technical assistance and cooperation, rather than the generally more politicised Item 4). China, Cuba, India, the Philippines, and the Russian Federation all dissociated from the consensus position, claiming that the resolution was not constructive and does not acknowledge the progress made in Myanmar. During the interactive dialogue several States including the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea, Cuba, and Venezuela voiced their opposition to the principle of country specific mandates and stressed that they believe that the UPR can achieve the same goals in a more objective and non-selective manner. 

The interactive dialogue saw concerns raised regarding remaining restrictive laws, insufficient implementation of new legislation as well as a lack of an independent and impartial judiciary. The Special Rapporteur drew attention to the apparent unwillingness of the judiciary to acknowledge gaps in the capacity or functioning of the system and to implement past recommendations from the Special Rapporteur. Several States, along with Mr Quintana, urged Myanmar to seek technical assistance on this matter.

Particular attention was given to the upcoming by-elections, repeatedly heralded by many States as a key test for the ongoing reform process. Hopes for fair, free, inclusive, and transparent elections were reiterated. The Special Rapporteur also stressed that allegations of campaign irregularities should be immediately addressed and that the credibility of the elections will be assessed on the basis of the entire election process. In the same vein, several States recommended the use of independent election monitors.

The creation of the new National Human Rights Institution (NHRI) this past September was welcomed by the Special Rapporteur. Germany, in particular, pointed out that the NHRI has a big role to play in the national reconciliation process. Nonetheless, its limitations were pointed out by several States, centrally its lack of independence. Myanmar was encouraged to seek assistance from the international community in enabling it to conform to the Principles relating to the Status of National Institutions (the Paris Principles).2

The release of hundreds of prisoners of conscience was commended by the EU, Mexico, and Canada among others. However, concerns for the remaining prisoners and prison conditions in general were raised. Furthermore, it was pointed out that some released prisoners were subsequently monitored and followed. Myanmar was urged to immediately and unconditionally release the remaining prisoners and to ensure that no restrictions were placed on the released prisoners’ rights, including their right to participate in the upcoming elections.

Another pressing issue put forth by most States were the ongoing conflicts in the country, notably the worsening situation in the Kachin state. While the conclusion of peace agreements with nine ethnic armed groups was welcomed by the US, among others, Myanmar was repeatedly requested to allow humanitarian access to the conflict zones and to refrain from using anti-personnel mines. Attacks against civilian populations, extrajudicial killings, sexual violence, arbitrary arrest and detention, internal displacement, land confiscations, the recruitment of child soldiers, and forced labour and portering committed by both State and non-State actors were also condemned.

Myanmar, speaking as the concerned State, claimed that it is committed to the irreversibility of the current reform process. It highlighted positive developments taking place in the State. In addition to those listed by the speakers, Myanmar mentioned the restructuring of the administration, the introduction of universal health insurance, and an increase on health and education budgets. It also underlined the participation of civil service organisations, some newly created, in the current reforms.

Finally, Cambodia on behalf of the ASEAN group, called for the lift of economic sanctions placed on Myanmar. 

1 Effective from 9 March 2012.

2 The Paris Principles lists requirements that should be met by national human rights institutions to effectively fulfill their role.


Right to food dominates annual dialogue with Special Rapporteur on DPRK


On 12 March, the Human Rights Council (the Council) held an interactive dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK).

In his opening statement, the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the DPRK, Mr Marzuki Darusman stated that he was becoming increasingly concerned about the deteriorating human rights situation in the DPRK and that requests made by him for visits to the country had failed to even receive a response.  

The right to food was a key issue raised by Mr Darusman and speakers in the room with an estimated six million people requiring international food assistance. States were concerned at the effect food shortages are having on the vulnerable such as children and lactating mothers. Kyrgyzstan and Thailand welcomed the DPRK’s cooperation with visits made by UN Agencies such as the World Food Programme in October 2011. Ecuador raised concerns about the effects economic sanctions were having on the food situation and requested the Special Rapporteur carry out an assessment on this for his next report. It was emphasised that food should never be used as an instrument of political and economic pressure. 

The Human Rights Council is expected to adopt a resolution on the DPRK expressing its 'very serious concern' about the human rights violations in the country, and renewing the mandate of ths Special Rapporteur for another year towards the end of the session (follow @ISHRglobal for timely updates).

States also raised concerns about the protection of persons seeking asylum in neighbouring countries, as people being returned to DPRK are likely to face harsh punishment. The UK reported that it was disturbed to hear reports of border controls operating a shoot to kill policy against asylum seekers. As a result of comments made by the Special Rapporteur, the EU and the USA, China expressed its dissatisfaction and argued that it believes those entering China are economic migrants whose behaviour is violating Chinese law.

Other issues discussed included the cases of 12 abducted Japanese nationals with States urging DPRK to urgently reinvestigate these cases. In addition, States were keen to see family visits reinstated for those families separated by the Korean War due to the advancing ages of those affected.

Speaking as the concerned country, DPRK strongly stated that it did not recognise the mandate of the Special Rapporteur and held the view that the report on the situation of human rights in DPRK was the ‘product of a political plot’ led by the US, Japan, the EU and other western countries. The delegation rejected the report and stated that this item should be removed from the agenda of the Council.

This view was endorsed by seven additional States[1] who all held strong views that the special procedure mandate was unnecessarily ‘politicising’ the work of the Council and thereby compromising its integrity. The same States argued that the UPR was the only way to achieve a debate with active participation and without politicisation. Many States however welcomed the report and pledged their support to the mandate of the Special Rapporteur. [2]

[1] Zimbabwe, Venezuela, Cuba, Syria, Belarus, Laos and Myanmar.

[2] UK, Slovakia, Spain, Canada, Australia, Kyrgyzstan, Thailand.


Council's discussion of country-specific situations draws criticism from some States


The Human Rights Council (the Council) held its general debate on human rights situations that require the attention of the Council (Item 4), on 13 March 2012. The debate saw the participation of many States and NGOs.

There was obvious disagreement between States on the issues discussed. Those States exercising the right of reply towards the end strongly refuted the allegations or human rights violations made against them, with some accusing Western States of hypocrisy. It was noticeable that the majority of States on the speakers list were from the Western European and Others Group. Major situtaitons discussed included Syria, Iran, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Belarus, and Eritrea.

The situation in Syria was brought up by the vast majority of States. States such as Denmark and the UK expressed their support for the Council’s action so far, and France said it was crucial that the Council continue these efforts to show solidarity with the Syrian population and condemn the barbaric actions of its Government. Canada emphasised the crucial role of the Commission of Inquiry on the situation, and called for President Assad to step down. NGO speakers included a student from Syria who described his arrest and ill-treatment at the hands of authorities. However the Union of Arab Jurists criticised international involvement in the crisis, saying that foreign interference has ‘marred the noble cause of the opposition’.

Comments on the human rights situation in Iran largely echoed the concerns raised in the interactive dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on the country. The US, Belgium, and the Czech Republic made specific reference to the worrying levels of detention of journalists, lawyers, and human rights defenders in the country, and Reporters Sans Frontières made a statement that Iran holds more journalists in its prisons than any other country in the world. The organisation condemned the ‘deplorable’ conditions of detention and said that renewal of the mandate on Iran’s human rights situation is essential. As in the dialogue, the other concerns were extensive use of the death penalty, including against minors, and discrimination against women and religious minorities.

A large number of States spoke about the issue of impunity in Sri Lanka, of particular importance at this Council session considering the US’s proposed resolution on the subject. Norway, France, UK, the Asian Legal Resource Centre, and the International Commission of Jurists voiced support for a resolution on the situation, whilst Belgium and Denmark simply called for Sri Lanka to engage constructively with the Council on the implementation of the recommendations from the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) report. Australia and Canada’s statements revealed a lack of faith in the impartiality and comprehensiveness of the LLRC report, and called for fuller investigations into human rights violations committed by both sides during the hot war ended in 2009. Japan’s statement focused on the importance of dialogue, stating that it had been working quietly and constructively with Sri Lanka on this issue. Sri Lanka responded that it had already briefed the Council on the steps it was taking towards implementation, which it believed to be sufficient. Faced with the possibility of a resolution on the issue, it warned that this would ‘undermine international law’ and turn the Council into a tribunal. It also took the position of the many States opposed to country specific discussions in saying that the UPR is the only appropriate forum to address human rights issues in all countries.

The humanitarian situation in Sudan was raised by several States and NGO Rencontre Africaine Pour la Defense des Droits de l’Homme. However, the State itself refuted claims of a deteriorating situation, claiming there are positive developments and stability in many areas. Its response had an accusatory tone, and referred to the recent massacre of Afghan civilians by a US military officer as a similar situation of human rights violations that needs addressed.

Almost all European countries speaking in the general debate, as well as the US and Canada, made statements calling for the release of political prisoners in Belarus, and expressed concern at the deteriorating human rights situation in the country following the 2010 elections. However Belarus denied these allegations and sought to deflect attention by referring to the ‘harsh repression’ of protestors in the US and EU, and raising other issues in relation to the countries that had addressed it.

Eritrea’s ‘systematic’ human rights abuses (as stated by the Czech Republic) were a concern for many States. Notably, Somalia made a statement on behalf of 44 other States to ‘bring the situation to the attention of the Council’. It spoke of the lack of independent media, serious restrictions on freedom of religion and belief, and a shoot to kill border policy; and called on the State to grant access to the Council's special procedures. Eritrea responded to the joint statement calling it ‘regrettable, confrontational, and unproductive’, adding that the State is a party to all the core human rights instruments and is currently working on implementing its UPR recommendations.

The responses of States in the right to reply section of the debate were defensive, and whilst some explanations were made in response to allegations of human rights violations, responses mostly attacked the ‘political’ character of statements. Zimbabwe in particular launched a strong verbal attack on the UK calling it a ‘systematic violator of human rights’, and saying it was spreading lies in the Council due to colonial ‘bitterness’. The idea that States condemning violations should ‘look in their own backyards’ first was a common sentiment, and formed a part of several States’ denials of allegations of abuses. Interestingly, though, several States used their rights of reply to raise their concerns about the human rights situations in the countries they responded to, instead of simply using the general debate for that purpose.



By Nicolas Agostini, Representative to the United Nations, DefendDefenders 

The world’s top human rights body needs members with a genuine commitment to protecting human rights. Electing States should ensure that candidates with a record of systematically violating rights and failing to cooperate with the Council receive no support in the ballot.

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