12 Mar

We all want to breathe clean air, drink safe water, and to be able to provide sustenance and a healthy, dignified life for our families. Human survival and well-being rests on a biodiverse and healthy environment and a safe climate. Environmental human rights defenders help us to achieve that - they defend the planet and their communities from the impact of harmful resource extraction or pollution by unscrupulous companies or governments. Their work is essential to attaining the sustainable development goals and ensuring that no-one is left behind.  

13 Mar

If the Human Rights Council cannot speak out against arbitrary detention and enforced disappearance in China, it will give a pass to one of the world's worst human rights violators, and send a worrying message to activists around the globe, ISHR said today. 

07 Mar

The sixty-third session of the Commission on the Status of Women will start today in New York. This session will focus on social protection systems, access to public services and sustainable infrastructure for gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls. It is essential that women human rights defenders are part of the conversations and outcomes. 

07 Mar

A cross-regional group of 36 States, including all EU Member States, have called today for the release of detained women human rights defenders in Saudi Arabia, sending a strong message to the Saudi authorities that the Council will hold its members accountable. The joint statement at the Council comes at a critical time as the Saudi Public Prosecution announced last week that some of the defenders will be referred to trial.

07 Mar

Governments and UN agencies and programmes must make the protection of human rights defenders a paramount priority in order to address harmful inequalities and ensure sustainable development for all. 

Interactive dialogue with Independent Expert on Sudan sees States divided


The interactive dialogue with the Independent Expert on Sudan took place over the 19th and 20th of September at the 18th session of the Human Rights Council (the Council). The dialogue began with a presentation from the Independent Expert, Mohamed Chande Othman, of his report on the human rights situations in Sudan and the newly established State of South Sudan. He began by commending Sudan and South Sudan on their successes in the field of human rights, with the successful referendum on the right to self-determination and subsequent creation of South Sudan being of greatest significance. Sudan’s successful participation in the Universal Periodic Review, a reduction in violence and tribal conflict in both Sudan and South Sudan, and the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement and of the Doha Agreement were also highlighted.

However, Mr Othman’s report also drew attention to the many human rights problems facing the region. These include: an absence of any independent human rights mechanism, the cessation of the human rights forums that had been set up during the Independent Expert’s visits, censoring of the press, unlawful detention, a failure to provide freedom of speech, indiscriminate bombing, forced disappearances, large numbers of displaced persons, the failure of the referendum on the Abyei region, issues of impunity, gender and sexually based violence, and a lack of access to the region for humanitarian workers. Mr Othman called on the international community to seek ways to support Sudan and South Sudan, particularly in the provision of technical assistance and capacity building, so that the States can work towards the successful promotion and protection of human rights.

While all States welcomed the developments made by Sudan and South Sudan and also shared concern over the many human rights issues detailed in the report, they were divided on how the Council should proceed in assisting Sudan and South Sudan on their path to a stable human rights system. Many States highlighted the high concentration of human rights violations in Southern Kordofan, Abyei, and the Blue Nile region. They recognised the need for these to be addressed and for those responsible to be held accountable. However, they were divided as to how this should be achieved. States such as the United States (US), the United Kingdom (UK), France, Slovenia, the Republic of Korea, Belgium, and Spain called for these issues to be dealt with through the creation of an international, independent investigation into human rights violations in Sudan and South Sudan. However, Egypt (both individually and behalf of the Arab Group), the Maldives, the Syrian Arab Republic, and Pakistan (on behalf of the OIC) all argued that there was no need for an investigation of that kind, and that Sudan and South Sudan should be left to deal with these issues on their own terms.

States were also divided as to whether or not the mandate of the Independent Expert should be extended. Sudan argued that the mandate limited its development in other areas as it presented a barrier to the provision of financial assistance from alternate sources. Both Sudan and South Sudan felt they would be better equipped to deal with their human rights issues themselves if they were provided with technical support, rather than having the presence of an Independent Expert. Qatar, Egypt, Bahrain, Kuwait, Ethiopia, China, the Syrian Arab Republic and several other States agreed that the mandate should not be extended. They agreed that, with international support, including technical assistance and capacity building, Sudan and South Sudan should be left in control of dealing with their human rights issues.

Conversely, the European Union, the US, Denmark, Norway, and Switzerland voiced their strong belief that the mandate should be extended for Sudan. They also supported the call for provision of technical support and capacity building. They argued that it was of fundamental importance that there remain a UN presence in the fight against the current human rights violations occurring both in Sudan and South Sudan. This view was supported by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.

In his concluding remarks, Mr Othman said that South Sudan had shown that it was open to dialogue and to improving its human rights situation, but that it faced many challenges. He called for the international community to provide assistance so that they could get their law enforcement agencies functioning, reduce human rights violations, and achieve effective, democratic governance. He also recommended the inclusion of a human rights component in resolution 1990 of the Security Council, which asks for the Secretary General to monitor the situation in South Kordofan. In their final remarks, both Sudan and South Sudan repeated their request for the international community to provide technical assistance and capacity building to assist them in their efforts to improve their human rights situations. Sudan asked to be given the autonomy to continue addressing its human rights situation without an extension of the mandate of the Independent Expert. South Sudan also asked for international support in the form of technical assistance and capacity building, but said that there is no need for a mandate for an Independent Expert in its State. This denial from South Sudan that they need an Independent Expert will make it difficult to convince other States to support a call for such a mandate. As the public negotiations on the resolution to renew the mandate get underway it remains to be seen whether the mandate will be renewed and in what form, for example, whether it will be moved from Item 4 to Item 10, with a focus on technical support and capacity building.

Libyan National Transitional Council pledges full cooperation with Commission of Inquiry


On 19 September 2011 the Human Rights Council (the Council) held an interactive dialogue under item 4 with Judge Philippe Kirsch, a member of the Commission of Inquiry on Libya. Despite the significant changes in Libya since June, the debate did not add much new information to what had been discussed during the 17th regular session in June. Substantive dialogue was generally avoided as most States used their allotted time to express their support for the new Libya. Several States called for Libya’s full membership rights at the Council to be reinstated.

Speaking before the Council, Mr Kirsch said that there have been significant changes on the ground in Libya since the Commission’s last report to the 17th session of the Council in June, and that most parts of the country are now under the control of the National Transitional Council (NTC). Mr Kirsch noted that the Commission’s report only contained allegations of human rights violations which have yet to be confirmed by the Commission itself due to its lack of presence in the country.

In his briefing to the Council, Mr Kirsch listed numerous alleged human rights violations committed by both pro-Gaddafi forces and by the NTC. Pro-Gaddafi forces are alleged to have arbitrarily detained, kidnapped, and killed civilians. The Commission also received reports of extra-judicial killings by both pro-Gaddafi and by NTC forces. Mr Kirsch summarised a number of allegations of NTC violations against persons of dark-skin in Libya, many of whom have been accused of being pro-Gaddafi mercenaries. According to reports, Mr Kirsch said, a large number of migrant workers from Chad, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, and Sudan, as well as dark-skinned Libyans, have been arbitrarily arrested by NTC security forces in Tripoli and many have not been brought before judges to review the legality of their detention. Mr Kirsch also mentioned that troops loyal to Gaddafi as well as NTC forces ‘have besieged towns and cities such as Misrata, Tripoli, Sirte, and Bani Walid’, and cut off essential supplies, which has caused considerable hardship to the civilian population. The Commission has recently been unable to send members in to Libya due to the ongoing conflict and due to security concerns. However, Mr Kirsch said that the Commission has received a positive response from the NTC and intends on sending investigators to Tripoli towards the end of September.

Speaking on behalf of Libya, for the first time since the General Assembly’s recognition of the NTC as the country’s representation to the UN, Mohammed Al-Allagi, Minister of Justice and Human Rights of Libya, expressed gratitude to the international community for assisting his nation during the ‘dark’ period in Libyan history. Mr Al-Allagi stated that ‘no sensible person can deny there have been human rights violations’ and that the NTC was willing to fully cooperate with the Commission to investigate the alleged violations. Mr Al-Allagi admitted that rebels were responsible for some of the human rights violations but noted that they did not receive orders from the NTC to carry out violations and that they were individual acts. The Minister also acknowledged the human rights violations committed against African migrant workers and dark-skinned Libyans and stated that although Gaddafi hired mercenaries to fight the rebels, this did not mean that people in Libya should be targeted based on race. Mr Al-Allagi called on the international community to continue supporting his country during its transition, and asserted that the new Libya would protect and promote all human rights. Finally, he extended an invitation to the High Commissioner for Human Rights and all special procedures to visit his country.

During the interactive dialogue, a large number of States expressed support to the Libyan people and the NTC,[1] discussing a wide range of topics.

Most of the comments focused on next steps to be taken in Libya and by the international community. The US urged the High Commissioner to send members of the Commission to Libya as soon as possible in wake of the ongoing crisis in the country. Nigeria urged the NTC to take necessary steps to prevent further human rights violations of black Africans accused of being pro-Gaddafi mercenaries. Norway said that while support from the United Nations was crucial in rebuilding the country, the Libyans themselves must ultimately lead the reform process. Several States also called for an immediate end to violence, and encouraged the NTC to begin the process of national reconciliation. Several States, including Morocco, Qatar, Algeria, Egypt, UAE, Kuwait, Lebanon, Tunisia, and Sudan explicitly or in an implied way suggested that Libya’s membership rights in the Human Rights Council should be reinstated soon.

The debate not only focused on the human rights situation in Libya, but also touched on wider political sensitivities. The Russian Federation expressed concern with the ongoing events in Libya and said that this prolonged conflict would have consequences for the entire region. Cuba (on behalf of Bolivia, Ecuador, and Nicaragua) said that ‘the West’ and NATO had forced regime change in Libya, have used the UN to implement their own agenda, and that NATO had repeatedly ignored calls by the African Union for a peaceful resolution to the conflict. Venezuela condemned the use of violence and did not recognise the NTC because it was propped up by foreign intervention.

NGO voices were also somewhat divided. Human Rights Watch said that the motive of the rebellion against Gaddafi was to overcome human rights abuses and the NTC must make sure it upholds this motive. Others implied that the overthrow of the Gaddafi regime by foreign powers goes against the UN Charter.

Italy, Turkey and Belgium made mention of their financial contributions to Libya. India (on behalf of Brazil and South Africa) commended Tunisia and Egypt for accepting Libyan refugees. The European Union, Norway, and the Republic of Korea welcomed the NTC’s comments on giving women a greater role in Libyan society.

In his responses, the Libyan Minister once again expressed his appreciation to those who have recognised his Government’s legitimacy and reiterated the NTC’s desire to protect and promote fundamental human rights.

Mr Kirsch said that the NTC’s commitment to human rights is encouraging. To conclude, Mr Kirsch offered several suggestions. Mr Kirsch noted that the Libyan constitution is currently suspended so he felt it would not be too difficult for the NTC to include international legislation in the domestic framework. He also stressed that the NTC needs to establish full and complete control over all groups working for it to ensure that further human rights violations are not committed. Mr Kirsch called for international assistance to help Libya put national mechanisms in place to address past violations and tackle impunity, including in particular assistance in documenting such past human rights violations. Finally, Mr Kirsch stated the issue of accountability was not studied extensively during the Commission’s first visit to Libya but was an issue to be addressed prior to the end of its mandate.

[1] Italy, Thailand, Switzerland, Japan, Czech Republic, Morocco, Jordan, Vietnam, France, Egypt (on behalf of the Arab Group), Turkey, the European Union, China, Maldives, Germany, Belgium, Canada, Austria, India (on behalf of Brazil and South Africa), the US, Nigeria, Croatia, Mexico, Chile, Spain, Australia, Denmark, Norway, Qatar, Algeria, Egypt, the UAE, Portugal, Indonesia, Iraq, UK, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kuwait, Lebanon, Slovakia, Tunisia, Sudan, Botswana, Republic of Korea.


States call for extension of mandate of Commission of Inquiry into situation in Libya


On 9 June 2011, the Human Rights Council (the Council) held an interactive dialogue with the Commission of Inquiry (the Commission), which was created under Council resolution S-15/1 adopted at the Council’s 15th special session. The Commission was mandated to investigate all alleged violations of international human rights law in Libya and present a report to the Council's 17th session.

The report was based on field visits to Libya, Egypt, and Tunisia; meetings with high level officials from the Gaddafi regime and with representatives of the National Transitional Council (NTC); victims, witnesses, doctors, detainees, and refugees, amongst others. The report concludes that what started as peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations aiming at reform were met with violent opposition by the Government, escalating into what is now a civil war. The Government's excessive use of force against civilians constitute acts of murder as well as other grave violations of human rights, and are part of a systematic attack against the population. According to the report, these violations amount to crimes against humanity and war crimes. The report also focuses on the violations committed by the opposition but concludes that these violations do not amount to crimes against humanity because they were not considered systematic. In his introductory statement, the Chair of the Commission, Mr Bassiouni, emphasised the need for further investigations into ongoing events in Libya, more extensive field visits, and, most importantly, the need to ensure full accountability if the goals of stability and post-conflict reconciliation were to be met.

The work of the Commission was largely welcomed by States, with some questioning its conclusions in relation to violations allegedly committed by the armed opposition forces and the NATO operations. Towards the end of the session, the Human Rights Council is expected to adopt by consensus a resolution renewing the mandate of the Commission of Inquiry, and asking it to report back to the 18th session of the Council in September. However, it is unclear if the level of importance and the significant demands for resources called for by Mr Bassiouni during the interactive dialogue will be met.

The dialogue with the Commission had been previously postponed due to a disagreement over whether Libya should be represented as the concerned country, despite its rights of membership in the Council being suspended. The President’s final decision to allow Libya (with representatives from Tripoli) to respond to the Commission's presentation of its report, was questioned by many States throughout the dialogue. Iraq questioned the UN’s recognition of the Government seated in Tripoli given the fact that many of the Council’s member States have actively supported the National Transitional Council (NTC) and the suspension of Libya from the Council. Spain pointed out that Libya is divided in two, with two authorities, and to have only one side represented is ‘not worthy’ of the Council, in particular as Spain recognises the NTC as the legitimate voice of the Libyan people. Conversely, some delegations, such as the EU, Italy, Denmark, and Australia, expressed their appreciation for the opportunity to hear the Tripoli-Government’s statement, explaining that this allowed for a more open dialogue.

Although the NTC was not represented directly, Jordan presented a statement on its behalf, in which it thanked the Commission for its work and commended the report as professional and objective. The NTC expressed its determination to implement the conclusions of the report and investigate allegations, and supported the continuation of the Commission's mandate. Jordan’s statement and its role as the representative of the NTC were met with support and agreement by many other States.

The statement made by the Libyan delegation representing the Gaddafi regime was, in contrast, widely rejected. The Gaddafi-delegation rejected all allegations made in the Commission's report, stating that international community has misunderstood the Libyan situation and this misunderstanding has been exacerbated by the media. The truth, according to the representatives from Tripoli, is that the legitimate protests only lasted for a few hours on 15 February 2011, and were dealt with appropriately, but were then used by criminals and armed rebels as a stepping stone to incite insurgency against the legitimate government. The delegation stated that Gaddafi's government has lodged an official complaint against NATO's alleged targeting of civilians. The Libyan statement was adamantly refuted by the EU, the UK, France, Mauritania, and others. The Maldives made a particularly strong statement against the Libyan regime, condemning it as illegitimate and stating that it was ‘ashamed’ to be in the same room as those who represent such a regime.

Although most States explicitly commended the Commission for its work, several expressed concerns over the credibility of some of the information in the report and questioned some of the conclusions. Nigeria (on behalf of the African Group) was concerned about the report's claim that the violations committed by the opposition do not amount to crimes against humanity. It cited alleged violations committed against African migrants workers suspected of being mercenaries, and requested further clarification of the claim that these were not widespread, systematic attacks against civilians. Both the Russian Federation and Venezuela questioned the impartiality of the report, in particular the failure to hold NATO accountable for violations. The Russian Federation questioned why the Commission had been unable to verify or otherwise information provided about NATO actions, despite the apparent presence of witnesses to the consequences of those actions.

Nevertheless, the majority of the States expressed support for the resolution extending the mandate of the Commission, although some States, such as Malaysia, requested more information on the future aims of the Commission, were its mandate to be extended.

In his concluding remarks Mr Bassiouni set out some of the future plans of action for the Commission, assuming its mandate is extended, focusing on assisting the NTC in reestablishing the rule of law, ensuring accountability and ending impunity. To achieve this, Mr Bassiouni emphasised the Commission's need for permanent observers stationed in Libya, a database of violations and the resources to analyse that data in order to assign accountability as a means of future reconciliation, increased military intelligence including to identify what is and what is not a valid military target, and financial and human resources. In remarkable frankness, Mr Bassiouni emphasised that without adequately allocated resources, the Commission's tasks will become purely bureaucratic which ‘the members of the Commission have no interest’ in carrying out.

Following the dialogue with the Commission of Inquiry, on 10 June 2011, the Council held a short interactive dialogue addressing the High Commissioner for Human Right’s report on the situation in Libya. The report was presented by the High Commissioner, Ms Pillay. Ms Pillay presented her report by reiterating her concern about the continuing human rights violations and, more specifically, the plight of migrant workers, refugees, and children. She highlighted human rights violations such as sexual abuse, torture, and enforced disappearances.

Besides Ms Pillay, the Director of the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, Mr Khalikov, also spoke. He highlighted the need for a permanent solution to the unrest to be found soon and illustrated this need by offering disconcerting statistics concerning the number of people affected by the conflict (such as those who have been displaced, forced to flee, or are in urgent need of help). Additionally, Mr Khalikov noted that the Libyan banking system has collapsed (resulting in a shortage of cash), and that there is also a severe shortage of vaccines and medicines. He too highlighted possible sexual violence. Mr El Hillo, Director of the Regional Bureau for North Africa and the Middle East for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), offered specific statistics on the situation of refugees, stating that, since the beginning of the crisis, an estimated 1 million people have fled Libya to nearby States including Egypt, Algeria, Tunisia, Italy, and Chad.

During the dialogue, Argentina highlighted the importance of the Council continuing to monitor the human right situation in Libya. Palestine and Spain asked for the High Commissioner's views on the priorities with regards to dealing with the ongoing violations. Palestine specifically asked what remedies were envisioned for victims. The UK asked for more information on the impact of the conflict on children and Jordan noted the statements in the report on sexual violations committed against women and asked for more detailed information on this. Additionally, the USA, France, and the EU explicitly condemned all human rights violations against the civilian population.

In her concluding remarks, Ms Pillay emphasised in particular the need to protect and support journalists and the media, since much of the work done by OHCHR is based on their information.

Human Rights Council holds interactive dialogue on Syria


On 19 September 2011 the Human Rights Council (the Council) met for an interactive debate on the human rights situation in Syria. This debate comes on the heels of the Council’s recent 16th and 17th special sessions that established a fact-finding mission and commission of inquiry respectively to investigate human rights violations within the Arab State.

Deputy High Commissioner Kyung-wha Kang addressed the Council on several alleged human rights violations occurring in Syria by the government’s military and security forces. These include military personnel under orders of ‘shoot to kill’ on demonstrators, heavy artillery and tanks as tools for blockades against civilians gathering food and water, restrictions on freedom of assembly and movement, abductions, unlawful detainment and torture of civilians including children, and summary executions without trial. Much of the information in the High Commissioner’s report was obtained by an independent fact-finding mission set up by the 16th special session of the Council. That mission, although denied direct access to the country, verified its information from a collective of Syrian refugees, military and security force defectors, and human rights activists within the country. Ms Kyung-wha Kang continued by reiterating the High Commissioner’s support of a second mission to Syria—established by the 17th special session—this time with a larger scope that would not only gather information on human rights violations, but ‘where possible, to identify those responsible with a view of ensuring that perpetrations of violations (…) are held accountable.’ The Deputy High Commissioner concluded by stating that there is enough credible evidence to warrant an investigation by the International Criminal Court (ICC).

The Syrian response was not more constructive than on previous occasions, and presented no surprise. The delegation continued to hold its previous position, arguing that most of the human rights violations are being carried out by ‘armed gangs’ aimed at overthrowing the Government, with security forces bearing the brunt of the assault. It maintained that the Government’s top priority was to protect its citizens, and that false allegations of human rights violations are being spread by said gangs in order to stir up international condemnation. Ultimately, the Syrian delegation claimed, it was currently the victim of an international ‘media war’ against the Government.

Although the vast majority of States supported the High Commissioner’s report, a few states took a more critical position. Belarus was concerned with the apparent ‘one-sided’ nature of the report, claiming that it needs to give equal attention to all opinions in a conflict situation. In her closing statement the Deputy High Commissioner refuted this accusation, citing that although documents submitted by the Syrian Government were annexed to the report, it was not in the High Commissioner’s mandate to cover all positions, but rather to identify human rights violations in Syria. Belarus also noted promises by the Syrian Government to carry out political reforms, including holding a national dialogue on elections that could come as early as the end of 2011. This was part of a larger argument made by several States, including Iran, Venezuela, Cuba, China, and the Russian Federation, who all claimed that peaceful, internal dialogue between the government and demonstrators is the only way to resolve the crises and prevent further damage to the country. State sovereignty, they argued, must be upheld.

One of the more telling moves at the interactive dialogue was the changing stance of the Turkish delegation. Turkey had voiced its concern for the Syrian people during the 17th special session in August, but the State took a much sharper tone this time around; it condemned the Syrian Government for its human rights violations and extended its support for Syrian refugees – 8,000 of which currently reside in camps on the Turkey-Syria border.

Over the past few months there has been a shift from States merely condemning the actions by the Syrian Government toward claiming President Assad has lost its legitimacy. This was said explicitly by Australia, Portugal, Austria, Botswana, and the Czech Republic. Moreover, the response to those States alleging that the Council is going beyond its mandate and should avoid interfering with internal, national affairs, was best articulated by the Maldives when it averred: ‘we [the Council] are here to protect human beings, not to protect Governments.’

Along with the Deputy High Commissioner, many States and NGOs, also called for the International Criminal Court (ICC) to consider investigating the human rights abuses occurring in Syria. In her closing statements, Ms Kyung-wha Kang reiterated this possibility, noting that the alleged human rights violations committed by the Syrian Government ‘absolutely’ fall within the scope of the ICC and that the OHCHR, if called upon to provide information to the ICC, would definitely do so.

The Council will next consider the situation in Syria in March 2012, when it will consider the report of the Commission of Inquiry composed of Yakin Erturk, Sergio Pinheiro, and Karin Abu Zeid appointed by the President earlier this session.

Panel on peaceful protests: China delivers joint statement on behalf of 32 States


On 13 September the Human Rights Council (the Council) held a panel discussion on the promotion and protection of human rights in the context of peaceful protests. The panel was part of the Council’s attempt to start a constructive debate between States, human rights institutions, and non-governmental organisations to address recent events in the Middle East, North Africa and beyond. It was a well-timed discussion, sending a message to governments that peaceful protests should be viewed as an opportunity to connect with the people, understand their concerns, and ultimately improve society, rather than responding to the events by engaging in aggression and violence.

The holding of the panel was mandated by the Council’s decision 17/12 adopted at the 17th session, which requested the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) to liaise with relevant special procedures, States, stakeholders, and UN agencies to ensure their participation in the panel discussion. The decision also called for OHCHR to prepare a summary report on the outcome of the panel discussion.

Switzerland had sponsored the decision convening the panel and invited seven key speakers from government, the UN and regional human rights mechanisms, national human rights institutions (NHRIs) and civil society[1] to provide expert input for the panel. In recent months, the Council has addressed the issue of the promotion and protection of human rights in the context of peaceful protests through its examination of country-specific situations, including in respect of Côte d’Ivoire, Libya, and Syria. It also passed  resolution 15/21 in October 2010 on freedom of peaceful assembly and association, and requested States to respect and fully protect the rights of all individuals to assemble peacefully. Through this resolution the Council established a Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association. At the height of the ‘Arab spring’ in early 2011, efforts to convene the Council in a special session to address several similar situations in Egypt, Lybia, Syria, Bahrain, and Yemen failed, as did a compromise proposal to hold a thematic special session on the promotion and protection of human rights in the context of peaceful protests. The final compromise was the holding of this panel during the 18th session.

The panellists shared a common view that the State has the primary responsibility to protect protestors during peaceful demonstrations. Mr Mohamed Nasheed, President of Maldives, emphasised that peaceful demonstrations allow governments to engage in dialogue with the people and address their demands. In their opening statements, the expert panel referred to the events in Syria and Libya, and highlighted the importance of States refraining from using force against unarmed participants in peaceful demonstrations. In particular, the Special Rapporteur on the right of freedom of peaceful assembly and association, Mr Maina Kiai, reminded the Council about the three obligations that States have under the legal framework pertaining to this issue: refrain from committing violence, protect individuals from non-State actors, and prevent the eruption of aggression.

The panel identified important areas that need to be considered in the Council to promote and protect human rights in the context of peaceful protests. President Mohamed Nasheed, and Mr Canton stressed the urgent need to provide guidance for States on how to deal with peaceful protests, especially in regards to prosecuting those who commit violence against protestors, and making a clear distinction between internal security as a function for the police and national defence as a function for the armed force. The roles of police and media during peaceful demonstrations were identified as two other crucial areas requiring the Council’s attention. In particular, the panellists asserted that the police carry the responsibility to ensure non-violence during demonstrations. In addition, modern communication technology should not be suppressed and citizens should be allowed to mobilise and convey their message to their government.

Most States focused on the concerns raised by the panel and the dialogue was rather constructive. Switzerland and Egypt concurred with the panel’s claim that the State carries primary responsibility to ensure protestors’ rights are protected during peaceful demonstrations, and that governments need to enter into national dialogue with the people.

However, China in a rare display of its mobilising power, presented a joint statement on behalf of Bahrain, Yemen and 30 other States.[2] The statement underscored the sovereignty of States, and emphasised that the international community must not intervene in matters that are within the domestic jurisdiction of States. The statement was also notable in that it acknowledged that ‘governments should earnestly listen to and address people’s legitimate aspirations’. It referred to the use of communication tools and social media in facilitating people’s daily exchanges and promoting freedom of expression. China also stated that in ‘recent social turmoil in many States misuse of social media may become problematic’ and urged the Council to consider ways to address the negative impact of social media while making best use of it, describing this as a common problem faced by all countries.

The Russian delegation claimed that personal interests rather than public often drive demonstrations. It claimed that intervention by authorities is often necessary to prevent the potential spread of anarchy in society as a result of protests spiralling out of control. The vast majority of States who spoke, however, shared the view that peaceful protests are needed for improving democracy and promoting people’s social and political rights. Governments must respond to this in an open dialogue rather than intervening forcefully and attempting to settle uprisings by force.

The panellists acknowledged States’ concerns and made a number of concrete recommendations to the Council. These included  a recommendation  to promote networks of international and regional partners to discuss and share best practices in relation to promotion of peaceful assembly, and urging the design of a comprehensive framework to govern freedom of assembly and to guide States in their response to peaceful protests.  Unfortunately the time for the panel was not well-managed, with just over half of those States signed up to speak able to take the floor. As a result the time given to panellists to respond to States’ comments was very brief.

The discussions allowed the Council to identify important areas for consideration, especially how governments should respond to such events and ensure the protection of the demonstrators’ rights. OHCHR will now prepare an outcome document of the panel discussion. However, further developments relating to the issue will no doubt require more deliberation by the Council on the concrete recommendations that emerged from the panel.

[1] Madame Kyung-Wha Kang, the Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights opened the panel discussions, other statements were made by Mr Mohamed Nasheed, President of Maldives, Mr Maina Kiai, Special Rapporteur on the right of freedom on peaceful assembly and of association, Mr Santiago Canton, Executive Secretary Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, Mr Michael Hamilton, Secretary to the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Ms Lake Tee Khaw, Vice Chairperson of SUHAKAM the Malaysian human rights Commission and Mr Bahey el-din Hassan, General Director, Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies.

[2] Algeria, Bangladesh, Bahrain, Belarus, Bolivia, China, Congo, Cuba, Democractic People‘s Republic of Korea, Djibouti, Ecuador, Iran, Kuwait, Lao People‘s Democratic Republic, Malaysia, Mauritania, Myanmar, Namibia, Nicuragua, Pakistan, Philippines, Qatar, Russian Federation, Saudi Arabia, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Tajikistan, Uganda, Venezuela, Viet Nam, Yemen, Zimbabwe.


Human Rights Council opens 18th session with High Commissioner's update


On 12 September, the Human Rights Council (the Council) opened its 18th session with an update by the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Ms Navanethem Pillay. In her address, Ms Pillay focused on several key issues, including the ongoing situation in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), the food crisis in the Horn of Africa, and terrorism. In the general debate, a large number of States reiterated the High Commissioner’s concerns about the crisis in the Horn of Africa. Many States chose to reference the 10th anniversary of the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks, and Sri Lanka received attention in the wake of Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon sending the report by his Panel of Experts on Sri Lanka to the Human Rights Council.

The Arab Spring remained a prominent topic that was addressed repeatedly in the general debate. Ms Pillay noted that although protests in MENA have resulted in the dawn of a new era in the region, the path to democracy will not be as easy as hoped for. The High Commissioner expressed concern over the ongoing violence in Syria, which according to Ms Pillay, has resulted in an estimated 2,600 deaths. Ms Pillay also stated that OHCHR has been denied access to Syria altogether. The U.S. called on Syria to allow access to the commission of inquiry set up at the Council's 16th special session. Poland (on behalf of the EU) commended OHCHR's response to the situation in MENA, including Syria, and called on the Office to continue to monitor the situation in Bahrain. Austria stated that recent events in MENA have proven that international cooperation is needed on human rights, and that OHCHR has a crucial role to play in this respect. Morocco called on States to help Libya in its rebuilding process including the establishment of democracy and the rule of law, and called on the Council to allow Libya to regain its seat, in wake of the Libyan National Transitional Council’s announcement that it intends to fully incorporate human rights when drafting the country's new constitution.

Several States referred to the violence in the Sudanese province of South Kordofan and the Blue Nile region.  The High Commissioner reiterated her previous call for an international commission of inquiry into the situation, a call supported by the United States, Poland (on behalf of the EU), Italy, Spain, Austria, Norway, Czech Republic, Belgium, and the United Kingdom. Sudan, however, dismissed the need for an international commission of inquiry into South Kordofan, and called on the Council to listen only to well-founded claims in this regard. The US and France called for the mandate of the Independent Expert on Sudan to be extended, while Poland (on behalf of the EU) expressed general support for initiatives aimed at allowing the Council to continue monitoring the situation in both Sudan and South Sudan and to work with both Governments to ensure that they have the capacity to meet their human rights obligations. On the other hand, Egypt (on behalf of the Arab Group) stated that there was no need for international monitoring in Sudan.

With respect to South Sudan, the High Commissioner noted that human rights defenders in the country are at risk, and that a staff member from OHCHR was recently arrested and beaten by South Sudanese police. Along with Poland (on behalf of the EU), France and Austria also made separate calls for a mechanism to monitor the situation in South Sudan. 

Ms Pillay also drew attention to the issue of reprisals against those who cooperate with the UN, its representatives, and mechanisms. She noted that the Secretary-General's report on the matter will be presented at this session, and reiterated his call for States to put an end to this practice and for the Council to undertake investigations into the matter. Several States echoed her call, including Austria, the Czech Republic, Germany, the Republic of Korea, and the US, although some limited themselves to referring to human rights defenders who cooperate with the special procedures. Other States picked up the High Commissioner’s specific call on countries to cooperate with the special procedures, including Japan and Paraguay, with India noting that as it once more takes up membership of the Council, it has decided to extend its standing invitations to the special procedures.

Prior to Ms Pillay’s address, the Sri Lankan Minister for Plantation Affairs and Human Rights spoke out about his Government’s efforts in reconstructing the country after the conclusion of the Sri Lankan civil war in May 2009. The Minister claimed his State’s commitment to human rights was second to none and that efforts were being made to promote a more pluralistic society.  The Minister also claimed that since the end of the conflict in 2009, the number of displaced people in the country has been reduced from 290,000 to the current level of 7000. Sri Lanka was also making efforts to reconcile its differences internally, including through the recent release and reintegration of 11,600 ex-convicts, as well as democratisation efforts in both the north and south of the country.

Speaking in the general debate, Sri Lanka dismissed Ms Pillay’s earlier claim that its counter-terror laws were violating human rights. The delegation categorically denied that these laws were designed without respect to human rights and labelled the High Commissioner’s characterisation as ‘misplaced, distorted, and a crass disregard of context’.  Instead, Sri Lanka argued that it has been working to resettle and rebuild the lives of those in conflict-affected areas and that national institutions in place were working effectively to promote and protect human rights.

The report of the panel of the Secretary-General on the situation in Sri Lanka calls for the immediate establishment of an independent international mechanism. Unfortunately States did not refer to this recommendation during the general debate. Instead several States cautioned against foreign interference in Sri Lanka. China praised Sri Lanka for its efforts and warned that interference by external forces would only hinder the reconciliation process in the country. Cuba expressed solidarity with the Sri Lankan government. The Maldives commended Sri Lanka for transitioning from war to peace and trying to heal its divisions after emerging from a long and bloody conflict. Finally, Algeria said that the imposition of an external will on Sri Lanka was not ideal, especially when an internal process was already in place, and that the country needed time and space to allow implemented strategies to bear fruit. It is crucial that, now that the Secretary-General has chosen to transmit the report of the Panel of Experts to the Council, that the Council should address that report and its recommendations. Failure to do so will result in the Council losing a valuable opportunity to follow-up on its 11th special session on Sri Lanka.

The crisis in the Horn of Africa, Ms Pillay said, was a result of a number of circumstances including natural causes but also the failure of governments to meet basic human rights obligations. According to Ms Pillay, the crisis has been exacerbated by the deliberate obstruction of human rights and obstruction of humanitarian work. Ms Pillay called for a focus on long-term solutions to food supply, and for good governance, human rights, rule of law, and international cooperation to be at the heart of efforts made to ensure long-term sustainability.

Egypt (on behalf of the Non-Aligned Movement) welcomed the attention to the critical situation in the Horn of Africa and urged OHCHR to sustain its efforts in promoting human rights in that region as well as the rest of the world. Senegal (newly speaking on behalf of the African Group) stated that the African Group has been holding meetings to try and address the food crisis. The US also brought attention to this situation, calling for long-term solutions to prevent shortages from occurring in the future, and pointing out that it was the largest contributor to food and assistance in the Horn of Africa, having pledged over USD 600 million to tackling hunger in the region. Other States, including Malaysia, Indonesia, Qatar, Thailand, and Russia expressed their support in addressing the crisis. Cuba called on States to address the scourge of hunger and for NATO to focus more attention on eradicating hunger than on waging war.

The High Commissioner also used her address to commemorate the victims of 9/11 but also those who have suffered from terrorism globally, and condemned the recent attack on the UN office in Abuja, Nigeria.  However, while Ms Pillay was firm in her denunciation of terrorism, she warned against States using counter-terrorism measures that violate human rights. Ms Pillay pointed in particular  at Sri Lanka, stating that a succession of Sri Lankan Governments have undermined human rights in the country over the past three decades. Similarly, the High Commissioner referred to Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan as cases where anti-terrorism measures have resulted in the killing of civilians. Many States also used their statements to condemn terrorism in general including Uruguay, Sri Lanka, Egypt (on behalf of the NAM), Senegal (on behalf of the African Group), Pakistan (on behalf of the OIC), Malaysia, Indonesia, Qatar, Thailand, and Spain.

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




The relationship between any State and its civil society should be one of collaboration and protection, in the interest of all citizens. Yet, it is not easy being a human rights defender or civil society organisation in Nigeria,  as the government continues to interfere with the work of defenders and NGOs through restrictive legislation.

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