#HRC33 | Wrap up

05.10.2016

ISHR's Human Rights Council Advocacy Director, Michael Ineichen, takes a look at the highs and lows of the September session of the Human Rights Council.

The return from European summer holidays is generally marked by an intense month of negotiations for the diplomatic community in Geneva. The result of this intense labour, in 2016, is considerable, with a whole series of politically tough resolutions adopted at the conclusion of HRC33. A group of leading international and regional NGOs, including ISHR, delivered its verdict on the key outcomes of the 33rd session of the UN Human Rights Council with this statement and here's an overview of some of the highlights.

New expert on sexual orientation and gender identity appointed

It came last, but was not at all the least of achievements of #HRC33. Just before closing the session, the Human Rights Council President appointed the first ever United Nations expert on sexual orientation and gender identity. The appointment of Vitit Muntarbhorn takes the UN a step closer to addressing the important protection gaps faced by LGBT people.

While some States – Russia and Saudi Arabia – took the opportunity to announce publicly that they will flout Human Rights Council membership standards and refuse to cooperate with the new expert, the appointment itself faced no opposition.

Given the clear adoption of the resolution creating the mandate in June 2016, and the smooth appointment of Mr Muntarbhorn, it is expected that he will take up his work immediately. While it cannot be ruled out, we hope that States will not engage in further political manoeuvring to seek to hamper his work.  

 Commission of Inquiry on Burundi

The Council has followed with rare consistency many of the recommendations made by the experts of the United Nations Independent Investigation on Burundi, and has created a Commission of Inquiry. The task of the COI will not only be to do a ‘a thorough investigation into human rights violations and abuses’ but also to assess whether international crimes have been committed.

The COI will lay the basis for accountability, and since it is specifically tasked to identify perpetrators of human rights violations, may have some deterrent effect on future violations.

Despite the plea by one of the experts, the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial executions, that a COI “would not be an attack, but a lifeline for government and people of Burundi”, the delegation of Burundi tried until the very end to torpedo this crucial step towards accountability.

Accordingly, hopes for full access for and cooperation with the COI, once named, are low. As a member of the Human Rights Council, Burundi was even in a position to request that the resolution be put to a vote, which showed the overwhelming support of the Council for increasing the pressure on the Government. While not explicit, the resolution hints at the potential negative consequence of continued non-cooperation by Burundi on its membership in the Council. A further special session of the Council would be a possible format to consider suspension. 

Yemen – mixed reviews of an overall timid resolution

Once again, the Council tried to play its part in ending the violations and civilian deaths in Yemen, a situation it failed to properly address in its September 2015 session. The final outcome mandates continued monitoring and public reporting by OHCHR investigators, and closer scrutiny by the Council.

However, it is far from a full-fledged Commission of Inquiry, as has been demanded by civil society for several years. An alternative resolution on Yemen – presented by Slovakia on behalf of the EU – was withdrawn during the negotiations in favour of the text suggested by Sudan on behalf of the African Group. Some elements of the, stronger, Slovak text were retained, but overall the weaker resolution reflects the difficult political dynamic around Yemen, and the weight of Saudi Arabia and its allies in the region and beyond. 

Should the violations continue with the current intensity, the Council must convene before the next session, and consider how to strengthen international accountability for crimes in Yemen.

Strong engagement on the Democratic Republic of the Congo

The Council adopted a resolution not only responding to recent violent clashes in the context of the delayed Presidential elections, but also providing the High Commissioner with a standing invitation to inform the Council of the evolving situation ‘as and when appropriate’.

This will enable Mr Zeid to report back to the Council even before the next session in March 2017, should the situation escalate further. He is also mandated to report specifically on the DRC to every Council session in 2017.

It is to be hoped that the early attention to the deepening crisis in the electoral context in the DRC will help remove some of the tension, which sadly the Council failed to do in other instances, such as Burundi.

Safety of journalists

Picking up the increasingly dangerous situation faced by journalists around the world, Austria, Brazil, France, Greece, Morocco, Qatar and Tunisia have ‘broken new ground’ in terms of the Council’s calls on States to step up their efforts to protect journalists including from attacks, violence, arbitrary detention and intimidation.

Notably, the resolution pays particular attention to the situation of women journalists, as a group facing specific threats and risks.

Going forward, like for so many of the resolutions of the Council, it’s critical that States not only adopt grand statements, but actually apply them in practice. This should involve calling out the States where journalists remain in detention, such as Turkey, Egypt and Iran, or that the Council pays closer attention to the actual implementation of protective laws – such as the Mexican Law for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders and Journalists.

HRC@10 - a missed opportunity?

Disappointingly, the last session of the 10th anniversary year of the Human Rights Council did not witness any advance in the Council’s ability to consistently respond to situations which require its attention, such as through the use of independent factors in deciding to place situation formally on the agenda.

While welcome, the statement delivered by Ireland and 31 others at the conclusion of the June session should be put to the test. This could have been done by responding to the escalating crackdown on human rights defenders in Egypt, a situation the High Commissioner has spoken out on previously.  

In terms of enhancing Council membership through competitive elections, it was disappointing to see Malaysia dropping out of the race. In addition to the Western European and African Groups, this means the Asian Group will also present the only one candidate per vacant seat, thereby removing any heat from the elections.  

This presents the General Assembly with another impossible choice: instead of having a range of Asian States to choose from, it will now automatically elect China and Saudi-Arabia. Both States score low in terms of the criteria for membership, and, in the case of Saudi Arabia, have formally pledged to not cooperate with some of the Council’s mechanisms.

I’ve written more about the Council elections with my colleagues in an opinion piece here.

Other resolutions

The Council also renewed the mandate of the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention for a further three years, rejecting a last minute change suggested by Kyrgyzstan which would have made it optional for States to release those arbitrarily detained based on findings of the Working Group.

The resolution cultural rights and the protection of cultural heritage maintains calls for States to ensure that defenders of cultural rights are safe and protected, despite Russian-led efforts to remove these protections.

You can follow Michael Ineichen on Twitter at @IneichenM