Costa Rican ambassador to the UN: ‘We want to be bridge-builders’

Shara Duncan Villalobos, Costa Rican ambassador to the UN in Geneva, lays out priorities for its three-year as a member of the Human Rights Council. (Credit: Geneva Solutions/Michelle Langrand)

For the second time since its creation, Costa Rica is joining the Human Rights Council. Ambassador Shara Duncan Villalobos tells Geneva Solutions how it plans to push for its priorities amid heightened tensions between leading powers.

Costa Rica was among the 12 countries elected on 11 October to join the Human Rights Council from 2023 to 2025, beating Venezuela after a failed attempt to challenge Caracas in 2019. This will be the second time that the Central American country takes part in the UN rights body since its creation in 2006.

One of the countries to spearhead efforts for the UN to recognise the right to a healthy environment, Costa Rica has championed environmental issues at the UN rights body.  As one of the few countries in the world without a standing army, it has also pushed for peace-related issues, including sponsoring resolutions on conscientious objection to military service and, at the council’s last session, the human rights implications of autonomous weapons.

Ambassador Shara Duncan Villalobos is Costa Rica’s deputy permanent representative before the UN in Geneva. Geneva Solutions spoke to the career diplomat about its plans as the newest member of the council.

GS News: Costa Rica was just elected a member of the Human Rights Council. What are your priorities for the next three years?

Shara Duncan Villalobos: For us, it's very important to continue our work with vulnerable populations, for example, people of African descent, indigenous peoples and persons with disabilities. In our country, we have a problem with violence against women and girls and we will be working on this issue here on the council as well as nationally.

Another one of our commitments is to continue to deepen the knowledge and the human rights perspective when it comes to discussing environmental, climate change and biodiversity loss issues, which make up the triple planetary crisis. Also, we want to be bridge-builders. The council is very, very politicised right now, so we think that there's work to do right there to help people communicate better. Sometimes, in the rounds of conversations that we have had, it was very evident that some countries don't feel listened to. It's important to rebuild trust.

Did you feel that during this last session, with western states opposing China and Russia, that it was harder than ever to work together and leave some of the politics aside?

We cannot think that we're in a vacuum and that we will ever be able to keep politics outside the council. I don't think that helps the council – it's not grounded in reality. Nevertheless, we should make an effort to be able to speak with each other and say whatever we want to say, but continue to work together. What cannot happen is that we're so polarised that instead of talking, we blame and shame, point the finger [at each other] and nothing gets done. Even in the most complicated of political circumstances, we should always continue the dialogue. And you cannot have a dialogue if all the parties are not at the table.

One of your priorities is women and girls. It used to be an issue that all countries at the council could agree on but it is also becoming a politicised issue. What are your plans to work on this topic?

The pushback on language on women and girls is absolutely heartbreaking. But the biggest problem that we have right now is not only that conversations and points that were already settled and that we thought we would not reopen are being reopened, but how that translates into violence against women and girls on the ground. We need to be as strong and work closely together to not let that happen. I would rather have a vote on a language, than water down the text just to have a consensual resolution, especially on things that we had already decided.

‘The pushback on language on women and girls is absolutely heartbreaking.’

From our part, we'll start working with the Democratic Republic of Congo in the very near future, to make the international case for a new treaty specific on violence against women and girls. We have the CEDAW [The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women] but the mandate is very wide. Violence is just one of the many issues that they cover. There are regional protocols too but 75 per cent of the women on Earth are not covered by any regional or international protocol [an instrument that creates a legal obligation, often adjacent to a treaty – editor’s note].

Where did the idea come from?

There's a group of women from all around the world that have been working on this idea for a very long time [Every Woman Treaty – ed.]. They reached out to the DRC and ourselves, and we believe that it's important what they're doing, and we will try to be the ones leading this exercise.

Costa Rica has offered to host informal discussions on autonomous weapons, which have stalled at the Convention of Conventional Weapons for years. What can you tell us about it?

In the last session on LAWS [Group of Governmental Experts on Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems], we made the announcement that we were going to host a two-day conversation on this topic from 23 to 25 February, in San Jose. The idea is to have a space where the region and some extra regional countries which have voiced some kind of like mindedness can come together and have a conversation on this issue among themselves, and with civil society. It's a one time thing.

Read also: Autonomous weapons talks once again put to the test in Geneva