Report from the 22nd Session of the UN Human Rights Council

April 1, 2013|By Ryan Kaminski

Arriving in what many referred to as rainy Geneva and making my way to the Palace of Nations, I sought to immerse myself in meetings and official sessions of the Council. This include attending informal meetings on particular resolutions sponsored by UN member state delegations, side events, as well as, of course, official HRC sessions.

Delegates and civil society representatives alike were also able to attend informal sessions where UN members carefully reviewed resolutions literally paragraph by paragraph. I attended informal sessions related to a resolution the “Protection of the Family” and a resolution on “Combatting Religious Intolerance, Discrimination, and Violence,” watching the resolutions evolve over the course of the week. While the HRC main chamber had specific sections set aside for NGO representatives, these meetings allowed people from civil society to sit amongst UN delegations, literally having a seat at the table. In one meeting, for example, the delegation from Mexico sat directly across from me with Switzerland’s representative on my left.

One day, I went to the U.S. Mission in Geneva to interview U.S. Ambassador to the Human Rights Council Eileen Donahoe about U.S. priorities during the Council session as well as other human rights issues. You can read the interview in UNA-USA’s InterDependent.

Fascinating side-events hosted by civil society representatives and other UN delegations occurred as well. One included a discussion about past and present global efforts to fight racism, which featured South Africa’s permanent UN representative, as well as the former UN special rapporteur against racism. Civil society representatives as well as official state delegations were permitted to engage these in panels through questions and comments.

The visit was a great opportunity to meet with several other civil society representatives attending the Council session. This, for instance, included the World Federation of United Nations Associations (WFUNA), to discuss the organization’s recent Civil Society in Human Rights Workshop and other important Council developments. I also had the opportunity to meet with a representative from Human Rights Watch to discuss the Council’s current agenda and even the 23rd session in June.

As the final week of the Council session approached its end, traffic in the picturesque main café, the Serpentine, just a floor below the Council, began to pick up.  With a quick scan of the space one could see a fascinating mixture of civil society representatives, high-level UN member delegations, and other UN officials talking, writing, and battling for the room’s limited seats. The café’s coffee was inexpensive (for Geneva), and clearly greasing the wheels among negotiations taking place.  As daily Council meetings came and went, the café’s large, circular tables were left vacant by scrambling delegates, leaving crumpled pastry tissues and empty cups behind.

One of the most dramatic developments was the Council’s vote to establish an international Commission Of Inquiry (COI) on North Korea. In the weeks prior to the vote, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, the European Union, Japan, U.S., and South Korea publicly called for the establishment of a COI, citing North Korea’s failure to ensure the human rights of its people.  When the time finally came for North Korea to speak—as is custom with countries the subject of country-specific resolutions—the Council became quiet.

Not only did their delegate categorically reject the claims of human rights abuses, it even claimed that North Korea had one of the “best systems” to promote human rights. In an apparent light breach of diplomatic protocol, chuckles and laughter were audible in the otherwise deathly somber room. (Later, this incident would be widely covered by media outlets).

After the speech, the Council voted by consensus to condemn North Korea’s human rights abuses as well as establish a COI to assess rights violations in the country, including crimes against humanity.  It was incredible being at the Council for the establishment of the commission—hitherto largely impossible due to the influence of countries, like China, who had rotated off the body during the 22nd session due to term limits. Having also read the harrowing Escape from Camp 14—which describes North Korea’s horrific prison camps—I knew this was an important and long-overdue move for the Council.

During the same week, the Council also addressed country-situations in Iran, Mali, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, and Syria, among others. Among the highlights was an extension of the mandate for the special rapporteur on Iran, the creation of an independent expert mandate concerning the situation in Mali, a call for accountability and reconciliation process in Sri Lanka, and, finally, an extension of the mandate of the COI focusing on Syria. Many of these resolutions produced intense debate among Council members who argued over everything from the mandate to the Council to the process by which such resolutions were compiled.

Another highlight was seeing the “Protection of the Family Resolution,” tabled by several countries with poor human rights records, dramatically withdrawn from consideration late Friday afternoon as many UN member states and civil groups have expressed concern over the document’s provisions.

On the other hand, it was exciting to watch a much anticipated and groundbreaking resolution on “Protecting Human Rights Defenders” pass the Council by consensus. The Council’s members also passed thematic resolutions ranging from the prevention of genocide to the rights of persons with disabilities.

It was a busy and intensely productive week. In attending the 22nd session I not only watched the HRC make history, I also directly engaged with numerous key diplomatic officials and learned about the Council’s complicated internal machinery and dynamics.

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