Human Rights Council: Bachelet's China trip, Ukraine, Afghanistan under the spotlight

Human Rights Council holds special session on Ukraine on May, 2022. (Credit: UN Photo/Jean Marc Ferré)

The human rights body’s first session without Russia as a member will be going over a packed agenda, with updates expected on the war in Ukraine, Bachelet’s visit to China and human rights in Afghanistan.

The Human Rights Council will meet starting Monday in Palais des Nations at UN Geneva headquarters. It will be the Council’s first session since Russia was stripped of its seat in April over the invasion of Ukraine. The meeting comes amid rising tensions between Moscow and Western countries.

The four week session will have a packed agenda to go over with 90 reports presented by some 30 experts, but the UN high commissioner for human rights’, Michelle Bachelet, expected updates on Ukraine’s occupied Mariupol and her contested visit to China on the first day foreshadow a tense first week.

Ukraine war to underpin talks

Opening the session on Monday, Bachelet will report to the council on the human rights and humanitarian situation in the Russian-controlled city of Mariupol, south of Ukraine. The oral update was requested by states during the special session on Ukraine held on 12 May.

Countries will discuss the findings on Thursday, where they are likely to issue strong condemnations against the war. Now that Russia is no longer one of the 47 Council members and has reverted back to being an observer, it remains to be seen how much it will engage in discussions. The state chose to remain on the sidelines of last month’s special session on Ukraine.

The Czech Republic taking over Russia’s seat could also mean “a positive change in vote count”, according to Phil Lynch, director of the Geneva-based NGO International Service of Human Rights (ISHR).

Read also: What does Russia's suspension mean for the Human Rights Council?

With Moscow more isolated than ever and a sweeping crackdown on anti-war speech, a longstanding civil society call for the council to appoint a mechanism to report on human rights in Russia could find an opening.

“A special rapporteur would enable the human rights situation in Russia itself to be the subject of monitoring and reporting, and in the context of the silencing and the criminalization of civil society, would provide a lifeline for embattled human rights defenders in the country,” Lynch told Geneva Solutions.

So far, European countries and other states the ISHR has discussed with have said they would support the proposal, but none have wanted to take leadership, he said.

Bachelet’s credibility on the line

Bachelet’s words will be subject to heavy scrutiny as she is expected to brief the human rights body on her recent trip to the autonomous region of Xinjiang, where one million Uyghurs have allegedly been locked up in detainment camps. Rights groups and several states have accused Bachelet of downplaying the allegations and adopting China’s propaganda discourse.

“With Chinese human rights defenders, we call on the high commissioner to speak out in a way which reflects the gravity of the human rights violations and recognises the enormous body of evidence of such violations,” said Lynch.

Read also: UN's Bachelet faces harsh criticism after Xinjiang visit

There will also be calls on the rights chief to release a report on Xinjiang that has been ready for at least six months, according to Lynch, and which has started to frustrate both campaigners and states. The secrecy Bachelet has maintained over her report and visit have only fueled speculation, dealing a blow to her reputation. Bachelet, who will reach the end of her term as rights chief at the end of the year, has not made public whether she will be seeking reelection.

While Bachelet is currently bearing the brunt of criticism, countries so far have also shied away from proposing an inquiry on human rights abuses in China, and have settled for issuing statements condemning Beijing’s actions.

Call for action on Afghan women

Afghanistan will also be a subject of debate as the rights commissioner presents her findings on the deterioration of human rights in the country. A year after the Taliban seized power, the country’s economy is in shambles, millions of Afghans have sunk into poverty and women rights have receded, as the fundamentalist rulers impose bans keeping them out of the public sphere, work or education.

In a letter published on 25 May, 25 rights organisations, including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and ISHR, called for a special session to be held on women rights in Afghanistan, but so far there are no official proposals from states in that direction.

“So far, we haven't found a state willing to invest the political capital and demonstrate the leadership necessary to bring in a debate and a resolution,” Lynch said, calling it a “betrayal” to Afghanistan’s women and girls, who are suffering “a gender apartheid”.

Sexual rights expert up for renewal

The mandate of the UN independent expert on sexual orientation and gender identity will be up for renewal at the end of the session, as countries are called to vote again for its extension for another three years. Created in 2016 and renewed in 2019, the Uruguay-led proposal is likely to face headwinds like always.

“The renewal of the mandate comes in a context of global regression in the areas of women's rights, sexual and reproductive health rights and LGBTQI rights, I think, associated primarily with rising religious fundamentalism and extremism,” said Lynch, while expecting enough cross regional support for the text to pass.

Costa Rican jurist Victor Madrigal-Borloz, who has held the position since 2018 for two consecutive terms, is a likely candidate for reelection. The official appointment will not happen until the next session in September 2022.

Countries are also expected to appoint UN special rapporteur on torture Nils Melzer’s replacement. The council’s president Federico Villegas has recommended British-Australian international lawyer and refugee specialist Alice Jill Edwards, potentially making her the first woman to hold the position since its creation in 1985.