Posted by: Castan Centre | March 30, 2017

Hello, and welcome to the Human Rights Council!

By Nicola Silbert

It is my privilege to be writing to you from the International Service for Human Rights in Geneva, where I am interning for four months.  The International Service for Human Rights (ISHR) is an NGO which promotes human rights by supporting human rights defenders and strengthening human rights systems. I’ve spent the last few weeks attending the Human Rights Council of the United Nations, so this post will focus on some aspects of NGO life in the UN human rights system.


The Human Rights Council (HRC) is the United Nations body which is responsible for promoting, protecting and fulfilling human rights around the world. The HRC is an intergovernmental body with 47 member states that are elected for three year terms. HRC member states commit to upholding human rights domestically, and can even be suspended from the HRC if they fail to do so – although membership tends to be overwhelming political and some HRC members have rather cavalier attitudes towards human rights.


Where words are louder than actions

It is a common criticism that the paper-shuffling and word-twisting of the HRC does not have any real impact on peoples’ lives. The work of the HRC in Geneva consists only of words, so can they make a difference to the rights of real people? Over the past few years, we have seen the extreme power of words and narrative. We have seen how a story of victimisation and identity can elect a US President,[1] and how a narrative of human control can cause climate change.[2]


So how do words in the HRC impact reality? One of the most Orwellian examples is when States use language to delegitimise the human rights system. When States complain that human rights are being ‘politicised,’[3] lament the ‘selectivity’ of the HRC[4] or stress that States have the primary responsibility over the human rights of their citizens,[5] they are in fact enacting a specific agenda.  The complaint that human rights are selective, politicised, or infringe on sovereignty generally follows when a State has been singled out for condemnation for human rights violations.


As ISHR interns, we are assigned to areas of concern, one of mine being China. This State is an example of one of the more powerful States impacting the narrative of the HRC. From catchy phrases like the Chinese dream (中国梦) to the complete defining of “Chinese culture”, the Chinese government is known for its use of words. This State is one of the most influential using strategic language to cover over human rights violations.


The problem is that this use of these narratives is more than merely a denial of human rights violations by an individual State, it is aimed delegitimising the UN human rights system itself. This narrative denies the principle of universality of human rights, a foundation of human rights law. The response of other member States is too often to ignore the core of these States’ intentions in using language that denies the universality of human rights in order to justify human rights abuses. And it is at this point that the mere words used during the HRC paint a false picture of the on the ground reality in a State. When real facts of the human rights situation are obscured by narratives aimed at delegitimising the UN human rights system, the desired positive impact on the lives of people cannot be achieved.


But what about the people?

Media, politics and university classes generally focus on the role of States in the HRC. One of my biggest lessons in the past few weeks has been discovering just how important NGOs are in the UN human rights system. Even some of the most democratic of States often do not always represent the most basic interests of their own citizens, and there are many more States who directly oppose the interests of their people.


That is where NGOs come in. A rabble which sits at the back of the Council, they clamour for their speaking time to address the Council. The room often empties at this point as member States, having espoused the benefits of civil society only minutes before, leave the room. But it is at this moment where some semblance of reality enters the HRC. NGOs that speak directly to the very people affected by human rights abuse provide an opportunity for their voices to be heard in the HRC. ISHR works with human rights defenders and provides space for them to engage with UN human rights mechanisms. It is here where the real people, through civil society organisations, are able to reclaim the HRC.


What we do when our beds are burning

Finally, I want to share one of the more surreal experiences of my life. Last week I crossed the square full of protesters in front of the UN building on my way to attend a “multicultural day event”. The UN cafeteria was packed with hundreds of delegates, diplomats and NGO representatives showing off their dance moves. Cameras and press were not allowed, lest they expose the party habits of some poor delegate. Dancing to American pop music, with the sounds of sirens and gunshots mixed over the music, these strangest mix of people took to the dancefloor. Although there were some notable absences of States, I couldn’t help but think that this might just be where the real constructive conversations occur.


[1] Reicher, Stephen, and S. Alexander Haslam. “The Politics of Hope: Donald Trump as an Entrepreneur of Identity.” Why Irrational Politics Appeals: Understanding the Allure of Trump (2017): 25.

[2] Klein, Naomi. This changes everything: Capitalism vs. the climate. Simon and Schuster, 2015.

[3] Egypt, High Level Segment of the 34th Session of the Human Rights Council.

[4] Cuba , High Level Segment of the 34th Session of the Human Rights Council.

[5] Iran, Item 3 of the 34th Session of the Human Rights Council.

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