What Happened at the 21st Session of the Human Rights Council?

October 10, 2012|By Ryan Kaminski, Leo Nevas Human Rights Fellow
On September 28, 2012, the 21st Session of the Human Rights Council concluded its work.  Besides extending the mandate of the International Commission of Inquiry on Syria for another six months, the Council also considered human rights developments in Sudan, South Sudan, Mali, and other areas.  The United States was also able to pass a resolution on the “Rights to Freedom to Peaceful Assembly and Association” and supported many other country-specific and thematic resolutions.

Taking on the Situation in Syria

During the 21st session of the Council, the body overwhelmingly passed a resolution that extended the mandate of the International Commission of Inquiry (COI) on Syria for another six months—only Cuba, Russia, and China voted against the resolution. Additionally, Carla del Ponte, former UN chief prosecutor for the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, and Vitit Muntarbhorn, former special rapporteur for North Korea, were both appointed to join the COI alongside Paulo Sergio Pinheiro and Karen Abuzyad.  Many believe the human rights violations documented in the latest report of the COI will be used for a potential war crimes tribunal regarding the situation in Syria.  Along these lines, the United States and other delegations also hosted a side-event during the 21st session of the HRC entitled, “Bearing Witness: Human Rights and Accountability in Syria,” which featured “direct testimonies” by those affected by ongoing violence in Syria

As deaths and casualties in Syria continue to mount amid new reports Syrian authorities bulldozing homes in the city of Hama, the work and findings of the COI will undoubtedly remain critical for ensuring accountability for ongoing human rights violations in that country .   

Advancing the Rights of Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The United States also secured passage of a resolution on the Rights to Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association, one its key priorities for the 21st session of the Human Rights Council. Adopted by the HRC by consensus, the resolution reaffirms the Council’s 2010 resolution on the same topic as well as the role of the Special Rapporteur on Rights to Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association.  Notably, it calls for the protection of rights “online as well as offline,  including in the context of elections, and including persons espousing minority or dissenting views or beliefs, human rights defenders, trade unionists and others, including migrants, seeking to exercise or to promote these rights.” Given both ongoing turmoil across the Middle East as well as an growing acknowledgement that the Internet and social media can promote human rights, the passage of this resolution was particularly noteworthy.

Other Developments

The Council also extended the mandate of the independent expert on Sudan for one year and also passed a resolution related to providing technical assistance for the protection of human rights in South Sudan.  Furthermore, Council broke new ground in passing a resolution on the Human Rights of Older Persons, which followed the conclusion of the UN Third Session of the Open-Ended Working Group on Ageing. While not calling for a new UN human rights convention on the rights of older persons, the resolution requests that UN treaty bodies and special procedures, and countries submitting national reports to the HRC Universal Periodic Review mechanism to do more to integrate the human rights of older persons in their work. The Council also addressed many other diverse human rights issues including the needs to prevent maternal deaths and morbidity, business and human rights, the safety or journalists, and the need to ensure people everywhere have access to clean water, among other topics.

The Bigger Picture

In addition to the passage of key country-specific and thematic resolutions, the end of the 21st session of the Human Rights Council was also significant as countries like China, Cuba, and Russia will be now be moving off the Council due to term limits. Not only have these three countries consistently voted against resolutions condemning serious major rights abuses, they have also sponsored or supported resolutions which could hinder efforts to promote and protect universal human rights rather than the opposite. One example was the Russian Federation-sponsored, “Traditional Values of Humankind” resolution—which the United States and many other delegations opposed—which still managed to pass the Council last September. 

Finally, considering all the United States and its friends and allies have accomplished on the Human Rights Council thus far—whether helping to establishing special rapporteurs for countries like Iran, advancing the human rights of women and girls, or responding to emergencies in Libya and Syria—it will be important to carefully monitor and assess the final outcome the HRC elections currently scheduled for November 2012.  With the United States running for reelection on the Council, all eyes will likely be on the UN General Assembly, the UN body which elects HRC members, come November.

Read a report from the U.S. Department of State on the accomplishments at the Human Rights Council 21st Session.

Labels: Advocacy