HRC40 | Key issues on agenda of March 2019 session


The 40th session of the UN Human Rights Council, from 25 February to 22 March 2019, will consider issues including the protection of human rights defenders, freedom of religion or belief, protection and promotion of human rights while countering terrorism and the right to food. It will also present an opportunity to address grave human rights situations in States including Sri Lanka, Venezuela Syria, South Sudan, Burundi, Iran, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Myanmar, Eritrea, Honduras, and Guatemala among many others. Here’s an overview of some of the key issues on the agenda.

The UN Human Rights Council (the Council) will hold its 40th regular session at Palais des Nations in Geneva from 25 February 2019 to 22 March 2019.

Stay up-to-date: Follow @ISHRglobal and #HRC40 on Twitter, and look out for our Human Rights Council Monitor.

Don’t miss these side events organised by ISHR:

  • Protection of women human rights defenders, 1 March from 11:30 to 13:00 in Room XXV
  • Can the UPR advance Freedom of Expression in China?, 13 March from 13:30 to 14:30 in Room XXIII

Read here ISHR’s recommendations on the key issues that are or should be on the agenda of the UN Human Rights Council in 2019.

#HRC40| Thematic areas of interest

Here are some highlights of the session’s thematic discussions.

Protection of human rights defenders including women human rights defenders 

The Council will consider a resolution, presented by Norway, on the situation of human rights defenders working on rights related to land and environment. ISHR calls on States to address the particular threats and attacks against this group of defenders, in particular the specific risks faced by women human rights defenders, to combat impunity for attacks against them, and ensure full civil society participation in development and the management of natural resources.

The resolution should call on States to commit to conditioning the provision of diplomatic support to business - such as export credit guarantees and trade support - on companies’ commitment to respect, consult and protect defenders. It should also acknowledge the increasing willingness of some companies to speak out against threats and attacks on human rights defenders, and to raise the bar on accountability for companies who don’t. 

The Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders will present his report on the situation of women human rights defenders on 28 February.  ISHR calls on States to use the dialogue to publicly recognise the specific risks and threats women human rights defenders face and commit to take further measures to enhance their protection, underline the legitimacy of their work, their specific protection needs and adequate remedies to the specific violations they face.


Reports of cases of intimidation and reprisal against those cooperating or seeking to cooperate with the UN not only continue, but grow. Intimidation and reprisals violate the rights of the individuals concerned, they constitute violations of international human rights law and undermine the UN human rights system.

The UN has taken action towards addressing this critical issue including:

  • Establishing a dedicated dialogue under item 5 to take place every September;
  • Affirmation by the Council of the particular responsibilities of its Members, President and Vice-Presidents to investigate and promote accountability for reprisals and intimidation; and
  • The appointment of UN Assistant Secretary General on Human Rights, Andrew Gilmour, as the Senior Official on addressing reprisals.

However, ISHR remains deeply concerned about reprisals against defenders who try to engage with UN mechanisms, and consistently with previous calls, urges all States and the Council to do more to address the situation.

Item 5 of the Human Rights Council's agenda provides a key opportunity for States to raise concerns about reprisals, and for governments involved in existing cases to provide an update to the Council on any investigation or action taken toward accountability to be carried out.

During the organisational meeting held on 11 February, the President of the Council stressed the importance of ensuring the protection of those engaging with the Council, stressing that their engagement is essential for functioning of the Council, and the obligation of States to prevent intimidation or reprisals.

In line with previous calls, ISHR expects the President of the Human Rights Council to publicly identify and denounce specific instances of reprisals by issuing formal statements, conducting press-briefings, corresponding directly with the State concerned, publicly releasing such correspondence with States involved, and insist on undertakings from the State concerned to investigate, hold the perpetrators accountable and report back to the Council on action taken.

#HRC40 | Country-specific developments


The past year was marked by vitally important monitoring and review of China’s human rights situation by the United Nations human rights system. The upcoming session of the UN Human Rights Council provides a key opportunity for States to reinforce the issues raised over the last year, and express collective concern about worsening rights abuse in China and the government’s failure to follow through on its obligations and commitments. 

ISHR and almost 40 other organisations are calling on the Council to adopt a resolution addressing human rights in China, with particular focus on Uyghur Muslims and other ethnic and religious minority groups, over a million of whom are being interned and detained in Xianjiang region alone. The resolution should call on the government of China to: 

  • Provide unfettered access to all parts of the country, and in particular areas populated by ethnic and religious minorities, to international human rights experts 
  • Promptly reform national security legislation to meet international standards, and to stop using such laws to criminalise dissent and exercise of the fundamental rights to freedom of expression, assembly, association and public participation
  • Release unconditionally any individuals unjustly or arbitrarily detained, including in extralegal facilities such as Xinjiang's internment camps
  • Express support for the OHCHR and UN Country Team to take steps to expand, improve and regularise monitoring and reporting of the situation in China.

Saudi Arabia

The upcoming March session provides a key opportunity for States to collectively press for the immediate and unconditional release of detained women human rights defenders in Saudi Arabia. If the international community is serious about contributing to advancing women’s rights in Saudi Arabia, it should recognise Saudi women human rights defenders as agents of change and urge the Saudi authorities to take all necessary measures to guarantee a safe and enabling environment for them to continue their vital work. ISHR recalls that in November 2018, Saudi Arabia underwent its Universal Periodic Review where at least 23 States called for the protection of human rights defenders and journalists in the kingdom. Over 170 organisations from across the globe have previously called for the Council to hold an inquiry into human rights abuses in the country. 


At last Council session, the Council renewed the mandate of the Commission of Inquiry on Burundi, who will present its oral briefing on 12 March at 12:00. ISHR continues to remain highly concerned about the human rights situation in Burundi and its refusal to cooperate with the Council’s mechanisms. For more information on the situation of human rights defenders in Burundi, check ISHR Briefing Paper for the UPR here.

Other key thematic reports and country situations

Thematic reports

The Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief will present to the Council his annual report on blasphemy and religious insult with a focus on online spaces, in addition to his country visit report to Tunisia. While the Special Rapporteur on the right to privacy in the digital age will present his annual report on intelligence oversight mechanisms, alongside the reports of his visits to the United States of America, the United Kingdom and France. 

The Council will also consider the promotion and protection of human rights while countering terrorism on several occasions. The High Commissioner will present a report on the issue and the Special Rapporteur will present her annual report focused on national security restrictions on civic space, as well as reports of the visits to TunisiaSaudi Arabia, Sri Lanka,  France and Belgium. 

The Council will consider several reports on torture, including the annual report of the Special Rapporteur, the reports from his visits to Serbia and Kosovo, Ukraine, and Argentina, and two reports by the Secretary General on the United Nations Voluntary Fund for Victims of Torture and the Special Fund established by the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment

At this 40th session, the Council will discuss a range of economic, social and cultural rights in depth through dedicated debates with mandate holders alongside the annual report of the Secretary-General on the realisation of economic, social and cultural rights globally. These include interactive dialogues with the following: 

  • The Special Rapporteur on the right to food on her annual report which focuses on fishery workers, and her country visits reports to Viet Nam, Indonesia and Argentina. 
  • The Independent Expert on the effects of foreign debt on the guiding principles on human rights impact assessments of economic reforms and his country visits reports to Sri Lanka and Ukraine. 
  • The Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment on his first annual report. 
  • The Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights on the tenth anniversary report of the mandate as well as her country visit report to Malaysia. 
  • The Special Rapporteur on the right to adequate housing on her annual report and country visits reports to the Republic of Korea and Egypt. 

In addition, the Council will hold dedicated debates on rights of specific groups including with:

  • The Special Rapporteur on minority issues on his annual report and his visits to Slovenia and Botswana.
  • The High Commissioner on her report on rights of persons belonging to national or ethnic, religious and linguistic minorities
  • The Special Rapporteur on the rights of persons with disabilities on her annual report and visit to France. 
  • The Special Rapporteur on the sale of children on her annual report and country visits reports to Ireland, Laos, and Maylasia.
  • The Special Representatives of the Secretary General on violence against children and children and armed conflict

Country situations

The High Commissioner will present her first annual report to the Council on 6 March at 10:00. In addition, the Council will consider reports by the High Commissioner and mandate holders on several country situations. The Council is also expected to consider resolutions addressing a range of country situations, in some instances involving the renewal of the relevant expert mandates. The country-specific debates include:

  • Interactive dialogue with the Commission of Inquiry on Syria
  • Interactive dialogue with the Commission on human rights on South Sudan 
  • Interactive dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on Iran
  • Interactive dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea
  • Interactive dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on Myanmar
  • Enhanced interactive dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on Eritrea
  • Interactive dialogues with the Special Rapporteur and the Commission of Inquiry on the Occupied Palestinian Territories
  • Enhanced interactive dialogue on the High Commissioner’s report on the Democratic Republic of Congo
  • Interactive dialogue with the Independent Expert on Mali 
  • High-level interactive dialogue on the Central African Republic
  • Interactive dialogue on the OHCHR report on Sri Lanka
  • Interactive dialogue on the High Commissioner's oral report on Ukraine 
  • High Commissioner oral briefings and Secretary General reports on the following countries: Colombia, Cyprus, Guatemala, Honduras, Venezuela, Yemen and Afghanistan

Adoption of Universal Periodic Review (UPR) reports 

During this session, the Council will adopt the UPR working group reports on Saudi Arabia, Senegal, China, Nigeria, Mexico, Mauritius, Jordan, Malaysia, Central African Republic, Monaco, Belize, Chad, Congo, and Malta. 

ISHR supports human rights defenders in their interaction with the UPR. We publish and submit briefing papers regarding the situation facing human rights defenders in some States under review and advocate for the UPR to be used as mechanism to support and protect human rights defenders on the ground. This session of the Council will provide an opportunity for Saudi Arabia, China, Nigeria and Chad to accept recommendations made in relation to human rights defenders, as proposed in ISHR’s briefing papers. 

#HRC40 | Council programme, appointments and resolutions

During the organisational meeting for the 40th session held on 11 February 2019, the President of the Human Rights Council presented the programme of work. It includes four panels of discussion and 108 reports. States also announced at least 15 resolutions but more can resolutions can be expected.  

Appointment of mandate holders

The President of the Human Rights Council has proposed candidates for four members of the Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (EMRIP), to be appointed in this session. 

In view of the pending appointments, it is relevant to recall that in appointing mandate holders, the President of the Council is required to give particular attention to the need to avoid actual or perceived conflicts of interest. Mandate holders should also be genuinely committed to the independence and effectiveness of the special procedures system, and have a demonstrated commitment to civil society engagement and participation.

Resolutions to be presented to the Council’s 40th session

At the organisational meeting the following resolutions were announced (States sponsoring the resolution in brackets):

  • Rights of Child (GRULAC and the EU)
  • Impact of non-repatriation of funds of illicit origin to countries of origin (Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and African Group)
  • Technical assistance and capacity building to Mali (African Group)
  • Freedom of religion or belief (EU)
  • Human rights situation in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (EU, Japan) 
  • Human rights situation in Myanmar (EU) 
  • Human rights and technical assistance in Georgia (Georgia)
  • Human rights, democracy and the rule of law (Morocco, Norway, Peru, Romania, Republic of Korea, Tunisia) 
  • Promoting reconciliation, accountability and human rights in Sri Lanka (UK, Germany, Macedonia)
  • Human rights situation in South Sudan (UK)
  • Human rights situation in Syria (France, Germany, Italy, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, United Kingdom)
  • Unilateral coercive measures (Venezuela on behalf of the Non-aligned movement) 
  • Human rights defenders (Norway)
  • Human rights situation in Iran (Macedonia, Moldova, UK, Sweden) 
  • Question of the realisation in all countries of economic, social and cultural rights (Portugal)

Furthermore, according to the voluntary calendar for thematic resolutions, it is expected that more resolutions would be presented at this session. Read the calendar here

Officers of the Human Rights Council

Newly appointed members of the Bureau for the 13th cycle comprises of the following Ambassadors:

  • Mr. Coly SECK, President of the Human Rights Council 
  • Ms. Vesna BATISTIĆ KOS (Croatia), Vice-President and Rapporteur
  • Mr. Harald ASPELUND (Iceland), Vice-President
  • Ms. Nazhat Shameem KHAN (Fiji), Vice-President
  • Mr. Carlos Mario FORADORI (Argentina), Vice-President

ISHR organised the annual reception for civil society to welcome the new Council President. You can read Mr. Seck’s opening speech to the participants here.

Panel discussions

During each Council session, panel discussions are held to provide member States and NGOs with opportunities to hear from subject-matter experts and raise questions. All panel discussions will be broadcast live and archived on Five panel discussions are scheduled for this upcoming session:

  • Annual high-level panel discussion on human rights mainstreaming titled “Human rights in the light of multilateralism: opportunities, challenges and the way forward” which will take place on 25 February at 16:00. 
  • Biennial high-level panel discussion on the question of the death penalty, titled “Human rights violations related to the use of the death penalty, in particular with respect to the rights to non-discrimination and equality” which will take place on 26 February at 09:00.
  • Annual full-day meeting on the rights of the child, titled “Empowering children with disabilities for the enjoyment of their human rights, including through inclusive education”, which will take place on 4 March at 09:00 and at 16:00.
  • Annual interactive debate on the rights of persons with disabilities, titled “Article 26 of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, on habilitation and rehabilitation”, which will take place on 6 March at 16:00.
  • Debate on the mitigation and countering of rising nationalist populism and extreme supremacist ideologies (for the Commemoration of the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination), which will take place on 15 March at 16:00.


#HRC40 | Side events

  • Protection of women human rights defenders, 1 March from 11:30 to 13:00 in Room XXV
  • Can the UPR advance Freedom of Expression in China?, 13 March from 13:30 to 14:30 in Room XXIII

Other key side events at the Council

States and NGOs are holding a series of events. You can download the draft list of NGO events here.

  • Reconciliation, accountability and human rights in Sri Lanka, organised by Forum-Asia, will take place on 28 February, at 14:00 (time and location TBC). This side event aims to provide the international community with information on the Government’s implementation of the resolution 30/1 from the perspectives of civil society, and share proposals for further action by the Human Rights Council.
  • Counter terrorism laws and civic space, organised by the Civic Space Initiative (A19, CIVICUS, ICNL and WMD) and will take place on 1 March at 10:30 (time and location TBC).
  • Escazu and Beyond: Strengthening the global normative framework on protecting environmental defenders, organised by CIVICUS and will take place on 5 March at 11:00 (time and location TBC). The side event aims to bring together civil society representatives, UN bodies and State representatives to discuss their intersecting role in promoting and protecting civic space for environmental defenders. 
  • Saudi Arabia : Time for accountability, organised by the Right Livelihood Award Foundation, to take place on 4 March. 
  • Film screening of the Long Haul: a documentary tribute to human rights activist and professor Sir Nigel Rodley, organised by the International Commission of Jurists and the Permanent Mission of the UK. It will take place on 7 March from 13:00 to 15:00.
  • South Sudan: No sustainable peace without justice, organised by DefendDefenders. It will highlight ongoing grave violations in South Sudan despite the signing of the Revitalised Peace Agreement, lack of domestic accountability, and the need to renew the mandate of the UN Commission on Human Rights (CoHR) in South Sudan to allow it to continue its investigative, reporting, and advisory work. It will take place on 8 March from 13:00-14:00 in Room XXIV (time and location TBC).
  • Human rights in Myanmar, organised by Forum Asia, will take place on 11 March at 16:00 (time and location TBC). Defenders from Myanmar will present their perspectives on the next steps the Human Rights Council should take to ensure justice and accountability for mass atrocity crimes, to address root causes, and provide support for victims.
  • Human rights in Malaysia, organised by Forum Asia, will take place on 13 March at 13:00 (time and location TBC). Following Malaysia's UPR in November 2018, civil society from the country will suggest steps for the government to implement its UPR recommendations, while engaging with civil society and the national human rights institution in the process.

Read here the three-year programme of work of the Council with supplementary information. 

Photo: Jean-Marc Ferre