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Third Committee of the General Assembly Weighs Variety of Pressing Human Rights Issues

October 21, 2011|Deborah Brown, Leo Nevas Human Rights Fellow
Earlier this month, the Third Committee of the General Assembly—one of the lesser known human rights bodies in the United Nations system—began its work in New York. This year, 33 independent human rights experts are scheduled to present reports and hold dialogues with the Third Committee on a wide range of issues, from specific country situations to thematic issues, like human freedom of expression and human trafficking. The Third Committee, which deals broadly with Social, Humanitarian Cultural Affairs, spends a significant amount of time deliberating reports and resolutions relating to the promotion and protection of human rights.


Of the 50 estimated resolutions that are anticipated at the Third Committee, only a handful are related to specific country situations. Consistent with recent years, the Committee will consider resolutions on Iran, Myanmar, and North Korea. Even though these resolutions have been voted on for several years, a robust debate can be expected relating to developments in each situation. For example, this will be the first year that the Committee will hear from the Special Rapporteur on Iran, whose mandate was created by the Human Rights Council, but who has yet been permitted to enter the country.

Rumors are circulating that a resolution on Syria is possible; however no member state has proved willing to take the lead. After failure to pass a resolution in the Security Council on the deteriorating situation in Syria, a resolution at the Third Committee would only be tabled if it was guaranteed to pass.

The U.S. is expected to revive a thematic resolution that was last passed in 2003 concerning women’s political participation. With the goal of giving a nod to the Arab Spring, the resolution is expected to include new language in the resolution that focuses on “countries in political transition.” The U.S. will also put forward its biennial resolution on “Strengthening the role of the UN in enhancing periodic and genuine elections and the promotion of democratization.”

One issue almost certain to spark debate at this year’s Third Committee session is defamation of religion. At the Human Rights Council (HRC)in March, the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) decided not to run its polarizing resolution on defamation of religions. Instead, the Council adopted by consensus anOIC-sponsored text on combating intolerance and incitement to violence against persons based on their religion or belief, which had no references to the defamation of religion. The defamation of religions concept, which was introduced at the UN over a decade ago, was widely criticized for running counter to human rights principles such as freedom of expression.  It is unlikely that the OIC will bring a divisive defamation of religions resolution to the Third Committee this fall.

The defamation of religions concept, which was introduced at the UN over a decade ago, was widely criticized for running counter to human rights principles such as freedom of expression.  It is unlikely that the OIC will bring a divisive defamation of religions resolution to the Third Committee this fall. However, there may not be enough political will among OIC countries to bring the positive language of the HRC resolution to New York.

In recent years, one of the most divisive issues of the Third Committee has been the rights of lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, and transgendered people. While there is no resolution on this issue, LGBT rights are often highlighted in the reports of independent experts and discussed at interactive dialogue sessions. This year, the report of the Special Rapporteur on Independence of Judges and Lawyers underlines the extreme vulnerability of transgender persons imprisoned in detention facilities and recommends measures to avert the further victimization of transgender persons in the justice system.

In June, the HRC passed a watershed resolution supporting equal rights for all, regardless of sexual orientation, and commissioned the first-ever U.N. report on the challenges that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered people face around the globe. Many will be watching to see if discussions around LGBT rights reflect the progressive attitude of the Council or if members of the OIC and African Group continue to resist efforts to discuss this issue.

Over the past year, the HRC in Geneva has proven itself more willing to address urgent human rights situations, divisive issues like defamation of religion and LGBT rights, and create thematic mandates. But as the only UN human rights mechanism with universal membership, the Third Committee has a unique role to play in the international human rights framework, especially when it comes to reinforcing decisions of other bodies. As this session proceeds, it will be interesting to see if the Third Committee will continue to build on the Council’s momentum, and bring its weight to bear as the universal body.


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