Federico Villegas: Human Rights Council needs a new social contract

Federico Villegas, president of the Human Rights Council. (Credit: Geneva Solutions/ML)

Ahead of the Human Rights Council's 51st session next week, president Federico Villegas warns about the risk of countries becoming more polarised at the UN body and reaching a stalemate.

States are gearing up for a third Human Rights Council underpinned by the war in Ukraine and its ripple effects, which have plunged millions of lives into turmoil. The meeting, held from 12 September to 7 October at Palais des Nations, will address dire human rights crises, including in Myanmar, Afghanistan, Venezuela, Syria and Ukraine. Climate change, Covid, technologies, sanctions and mercury are some of the global issues that will also be discussed throughout the four week session.

But with geopolitical tensions at an all-time high and world powers locking horns at every turn, can the Council address the growing human rights plights of the world?

Geneva Solutions spoke to Human rights Council president Federico Villegas about the challenges the human rights body has to overcome if it is to have an impact on the lives of victims on the ground. The Argentinian ambassador to the UN in Geneva, with 30 years of diplomatic experience, recalls some painful lessons from the past.

GS News: Are you worried that polarisation of countries, which are essentially aligning into two opposing groups, could eventually paralyse the Human Rights Council in its ability to function properly?

Federico Villegas: Definitely, we always have that risk. We saw in the past how human rights became hostage to the Cold War – and that was part of the failure of the former Commission of Human Rights. When I was elected president of the Human Rights Council, I said that one of my priorities would be to do as much as I can to diminish politicisation, to avoid it becoming polarisation, and then paralysis. These are the three stages. Politisation is very difficult to avoid at 100 per cent. Human rights issues have a political context, in each country, in international relations and in the middle of a wider geopolitical context, with three world shaping events – climate change, the pandemic and the war happening in the heart of Europe. What we have to do collectively is to avoid moving to the next stage of polarisation.

How far from that stage of polarisation are we?

If you look at the patterns of voting and at some of the statements of certain countries, you could suspect that, if we don't manage the Council well and remember why we created it in the first place, we are in the presence of elements that could lead to polarisation. That's why my priority is to keep the dialogue with everybody going and foster cooperation with all the mechanisms of the Council.

What measures can you take as council president to push countries to cooperate with its mechanisms and with each other?

I’ve put my actions where my mouth is – I said this at the beginning and that's what I tried to do almost every day. I maintained a constant dialogue with rapporteurs, mechanisms, countries and NGOs. Every time that a rapporteur came to this office to explain their frustration of not being able to access a country, immediately after that meeting I had a conversation, in person or by phone, with the ambassador of that country to explain the importance [of the visit]. Several cases were complicated because [the country] was reluctant, but I also have several success stories.

Do you have an example?

I can tell you about the Commission of Inquiry that I appointed for Ethiopia, mandated by a special session at the end of 2021. If you look at the voting of the creation of that commission, Ethiopia was very clear that it did not want it. But look at what happened at the last session. The Commission presented its report and the Ethiopian delegation asked for the floor to express publicly that, after conversations and getting to know the members of the commission, they decided that they would cooperate with them. And the commission visited Ethiopia recently. For me, it's one of the cases where dialogue can make a change.

The outgoing UN high commissioner for human rights issued her report on Xinjiang last week. How do you foresee that it will be addressed at the upcoming session of the Human Rights Council?

The report issued by the high commissioner was not mandated by a resolution of the Council. It was her prerogative. But this is a multilateral democratic body, and that means that it is member driven. It's up to members to decide how to address human rights situations.

It's very recent. I have no information so far of anything that will be raised in the next session, but let’s just say that it’s an important issue and China is a member of the Council.

With a rising number of crises across the globe and an ever growing agenda for the council to go through, how can it stay focused and ensure that it has a meaningful impact on the ground?

There is not a single human rights challenge that can be addressed with a single instrument. It's part of a bigger picture of complementary mechanisms. You can have a resolution on a country addressing a specific situation, but you also have the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of that country with recommendations that, if followed and implemented, can prevent some of those violations. There is a huge early warning potential for the Council to help prevent violations of human rights.

But the Council’s agenda is so wide that we never have time to see the details of what is going on. To stay focused, the best way is for each action to have a benchmark that we can measure in time. That's why the UPR is so important. You can see how many important things have been changing on the ground after a country accepted a recommendation. If you look at recent news about Singapore (Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced the country would end its gay sex ban – ed.), or at the tremendous achievement of the Supreme Court of Justice in India of widening the concept of family and recognising the rights of single parents, or Sierra Leona abolishing the death penalty, these were commitments made by the countries before the Council.

What does this huge potential to prevent human rights violations entail?

I'll give you an example. In April 1993, when the Commission of Human Rights was around – I used to attend the commission at that time as a diplomat – there was a special rapporteur on extrajudicial executions, saying before the commission, in a report like the ones we have today, about what was happening in Rwanda between Hutus and Tutsis and about the Radio of the Thousand Hills, which was talking about “cockroaches” that needed to be killed. That person was here in Geneva one year before the genocide started on 7 April 1994, warning that this could happen.

But the system was not prepared to connect the dots. It was only a commission under the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) and the UN Security Council didn't care much about it. I carry that Rwanda case in my heart as an unfortunate deafness of the international community towards such an important mechanism that was clearly warning about what was happening. We weren't able to listen and act on it. If we had, maybe we could have prevented 800,000 people from being massacred.

Some of the human rights crises due to be discussed at this session, such as Syria, Yemen, Myanmar, Venezuela or Palestine, have dragged on for years if not decades. Is there anything else the Council can do or is there a limit to its reach?

There's no limit to what we can do, because it's up to the political will, but it is true that we need a new social contract among council members for a collective attitude of responsibility. There's one systemic problem that we have to overcome, which is that some delegations feel that because they voted against a resolution, it doesn't apply to them. I insisted in the last two sessions that it's absolutely legitimate to have very harsh discussions during the negotiation of a resolution – and that's what happened with the mandate on sexual orientation – but once the multilateral democratic body approves something, by vote or by consensus, we all have to be behind the decision. It's like a democracy, you might not vote for somebody to be the president, but once that person is president, they’re your president too.

There are rumours that you’re on the shortlist to become the next UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. Are these true?

It's a confidential process, so I have no comment on those rumours.