Posted by: isabellaroyce | March 17, 2014

Week One of the UN Human Rights Council

Last week marked the beginning of the 25th Human Rights Council at the United Nations. The Council convenes three times a year for a minimum of ten weeks and is responsible for strengthening the promotion and protection of human rights internationally and addressing specific human rights violations through dialogues, side events and recommendations. The Council has several mechanisms to assess human rights situations in UN member states, including the Universal Period Review, the Advisory Committee (the Council’s “think tank”,) the Complaint Procedures (allowing individuals and organisations to bring complaints of alleged human rights violations to the Council) and Special Procedures (independent experts, working groups and special rapporteurs who report on specific thematic issues in specific countries.)

This March session lasts for four weeks and I have been so fortunate to be attending the Council every day. My days involve meeting with our ICJ UN Representative in the morning in the UN ‘Serpentine Lounge’ (the coffee lounge where I am told most of the ‘cafeteria diplomacy’ actually occurs) and setting our agenda of events to attend. Throughout the day in the main plenary room is where the so-called ‘interactive dialogues’ take place, where the President, High Commissioner for Human Rights and Special Rapporteurs present their annual reports on various issues, followed by short pre-submitted statements by the States and NGOs. Where the ‘real action’ perhaps occurs is in the side events, which take place concurrently to the plenary. These are events hosted by various States and NGOs on a range of issues, some merely ‘for show’ you could say (to demonstrate that that State is actively participating in the ‘promotion of human rights’,) whereas most are extremely interesting in providing interactive forums for discussion, as well as drafting proposed resolutions.

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The first week was so full of exciting events and speakers it is difficult to recap on it all, but here are some specific highlights:

The plenary sessions

In this first opening session where States presented their main issues of concern, it was particularly fascinating to hear the Russian Federation Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov defend Russia’s actions of deploying armed forces to Crimea, contending that the autonomous Crimean government had called on Russia to protect its population who the Minister claimed, are “at risk of human rights violations in the region” by anti-Russian protestors.

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Lunch with Ban Ki-moon

After hearing an opening address from UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, I was treated to my first experience of seeing diplomats, ambassadors and high representatives of civil society dive, elbows flaring, for the free lunch supplied by the Thai Mission. It appears that all diplomatic training is forgotten when it comes to asserting one’s Right to Pad Thai, and I stood in shock as the hoards of the ‘world’s finest’ squabbled over their position in the queue and the appropriate number of spring rolls to take.

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Event on the Convention Against Torture Initiative

This side event began with an opening address by the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Ms. Navi Pillay, who asserted that universal ratification of the CAT is a priority of her mandate.

This was hosted by panellists from Denmark, Chile, Indonesia, Mexico and Ghana, with Denmark being particularly vocal on the issue and urging all states to sign the CAT in order for it to become a truly international convention.

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Discussion on the constitution of Tunisia

This was an extremely interesting and insightful discussion with a step-by-step recount of how the drafters came about forming the Tunisian Constitution. The panellists explained that the Constitution, which is now largely seen as a ‘success story’ of the Arab Spring, began with a ‘blank page’ rather than working from a pre-existing draft Constitution. Drafters insisted on starting by referring to Constitutions elaborated by countries newly democratised, as well as those entrenched in democracy, and actively engaged the population through a free exchange of thoughts to incorporate their values and ideas.

Discussion on the right to privacy in the digital age

A panel discussion hosted by the Council of Europe stressing the importance for a global legal instrument for the protection of individuals in regards to the processing of data; particularly interesting in light of the NSA and Edward Snowden revelations.

Enforced disappearances in the Southeast Asia region

This event was hosted by the ICJ and was a very moving discussion outlining the dire situation in Indonesia, the Philippines, Laos, East Timor and Thailand concerning enforced disappearances and the widespread impunity of government officials that obstructs attempts from families of victims to find their loved ones. Panellists included inspirational human rights activist Angkhana Neelapaijit, whose husband has been missing for over ten years, and a video interview with the wife of prominent Lao civil society leader, Sombath Somphone, missing since December 15 2012.

Pussy Riot documentary

Separate from the UN yet part of Geneva’s International Human Rights Film Festival, I attended a screening of the documentary Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer, followed by a Q&A with former band member Maria (Masha) Alyokhina. With Russian translation through headsets, Masha spoke of her near two years spent in a Russian penal colony, where she recalled inmates were forced to sew police force uniforms for 12 hours a day, were subjected to physical abuse and were given inadequate food and clothing. It was truly inspiring to hear of her courage and defiance of the status quo, and of her new campaign for prisoner’s rights in Russia. Amazingly, she attended the session just three days after being physically assaulted by local youths in Moscow.       IMG_8094 IMG_8104


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