Human Rights Council: picking up after global human rights abuses

Human Rights Council on opening day of its 52nd session, 27 February 2023. (Geneva Solutions/Paula Dupraz-Dobias)

Opening at a conjuncture of UN and global anniversaries, the 52nd session of the Human Rights Council points to a growing number of rights violations that the body has to take on.

A new normal may have set into meetings at the United Nations since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, but despite a hybrid set-up, dignitaries and diplomats still arrived in droves at the Human Rights Council on Monday ready to denounce and defend rights records, as top UN bosses presented a dire scenario.

“We have been acquainted (with) a prototype of the Anthropocene era crisis,” Csaba Kőrösi*,* president of the UN General Assembly, said in an opening speech, employing a term used to describe the moment that humans began massively impacting the environment to depict the global state of human rights. “We are facing unprecedented, cascading and interlocking crises.”

Many countries are struggling with debt as they barely recover from the pandemic and disasters, while women’s and girls’ rights regress in many parts of the globe and sustainable development goals are no longer on track to be achieved.

Volker Türk, the UN high commissioner for human rights, reminded delegates of gains achieved since the UN Declaration of Human Rights was signed 75 years ago. Colonialism was pushed back, while anti-apartheid movements, feminism, Indigenous rights and climate justice achieved successes.

“We have a treaty-based system, and a whole institutional architecture for the promotion and protection of human rights,” Türk said, pointing to the 47-member council itself, and various mechanisms allowing for reporting on countries’ rights records and thematic issues. “There is far greater awareness today of the values and commitments that underpin them.”

In recent years, the council has been requested to investigate human rights abuses in several countries, including Venezuela and Myanmar, and, since last year, Ukraine through a commission of inquiry expected to present its report on 20 March.

“The Human Rights Council is now a victim of its own success and popularity,” Marc Limon, director of Universal Rights Group, a Geneva-based think tank, told Geneva Solutions. He said a proliferation of special rapporteurs has diluted interactive dialogues and resolutions as less time is devoted to them, rendering them “meaningless”.

Nonetheless, he said: “It is by far the best functioning part of the UN system now.” The Security Council has “failed over the past year to take any significant decisions”, while as for another New York-based UN institution, the Economic and Social Council, “people don’t pay attention to it anymore” since the adoption of the UN’s 2030 Agenda, he added.

“It’s good, but at the same time not good,” Limon concluded about the council’s overall performance.

Unlike the Security Council, which requires all permanent members to vote in favour of a resolution to become binding, decisions in the council only require a simple majority to be adopted.

Proposals to condemn Russia’s actions against Ukraine have repeatedly been vetoed at the Security Council by Russia, one of its five permanent members.

On the first day of the high-level segment, heads of state, ministers and other senior diplomats at the council highlighted several key themes for the five-week session.

Headlining Ukraine

Swiss foreign minister Ignazio Cassis was the first on stage as the host country representative to stress the serious violations committed by Russia since invading Ukraine a year ago last week. He indicated a UN inquiry listed multiple violations of international humanitarian law, including the killing of civilians, sexual violence, torture and deportation of children.

Cassis later told journalists that Switzerland nonetheless believed strongly that multilateralism could provide channels for dialogue to resolve conflicts. He said that while the government condemns the Russian aggression, “it doesn’t mean that we stop talking to Russia”.

On Monday afternoon, ahead of speeches scheduled for later in the week by the foreign ministers of Ukraine and Russia, France and Costa Rica hosted a well-attended side event together with the Ukrainian mission to the UN to reaffirm support from its council allies in condemning the invasion.

“We will raise the issue of accountability and impunity at all relevant thematic sessions (at the council),” Ukrainian ambassador Yevheniia Filipenko told Geneva Solutions. She said another side event would call for the establishment of a special tribunal for the “crime of aggression” similar to the Nuremberg trials following World War II.

Keeping climate justice in focus

Kitlang Kabua, the foreign minister of the Marshall Islands, was one of the leaders speaking at Monday’s Ukraine event. “Some may not see the geographic ties and relevance, but war affects all of us,” Kabua told Geneva Solutions, adding that the last world war had profoundly affected the island country, the site of repeated nuclear weapons testing by the US.

Read more: Marshall Islands takes US nuclear legacy to the Human Rights Council

She said that as a champion in efforts to seek climate justice within the UN climate summits (link), the Marshall Islands “will voice the need not to be distracted by events such as the war in Ukraine and will continue to push and fight for everyone to take part in finding solutions for climate change”. The Pacific Ocean nation successfully spearheaded efforts in the council to appoint an expert on climate change in 2021.

Meanwhile, an impassioned speech by Silvio Luiz de Almeida, Brazil’s new human rights minister, echoed a warning by a leader of the Yanomami Indigenous community, where children were found earlier this year to be starving as the result of extractivist policies implemented by former rightwing President Jair Bolsonaro in the Amazon basin. “We are facing a ‘fall from the sky’. Let us(…) redouble our efforts for ways of life that allow us to live in peace with our planet,” Almeida said.

He saluted both the UN human rights declaration on its 75th anniversary as well as the 30 years since the signing of the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action, a reaffirmation of the former that enhances the focus on issues such as poverty reduction, development and humanitarian aid.

Ignazio Cassis briefing journalists following his delivery at the Human Rights Council, 27 February 2023. (Geneva Solutions/Paula Dupraz-Dobias)
Pushing for drug policy reform

Last week at a press briefing, Switzerland’s ambassador Jürg Lauber, said the government would be calling on the council to work on the issues of the human right to a healthy and sustainable environment as well as the respect of human rights in the implementation of drug policies.

He recognised that while a majority of countries still have policies of repression, Switzerland had learned from its earlier experiences in the 1990s when people overdosed publicly at Zürich’s Needle Park, before it shifted its approach to drug addiction.

In a video recording, Colombian President Gustavo Petro said the country was launching a new policy towards drugs, leaving behind prohibition and tackling the root causes, including poverty and “institutional weaknesses”. Petro came to office in 2022 on promises to deliver “total peace” following years of armed conflict often driven by drug trafficking.

“We want to generate regulation based on the respect for life with a differentiated regional preventative and environmental focus,” he said.

Calling out women’s rights abuses

Women’s rights in Iran and Afghanistan were brought up by delegates, including Norway, whose foreign affairs minister, Anniken Huitfeldt, expressed her outrage at Iran’s response to the death of Mahsa Amami in police custody and the repression of protesters that followed.

“This forum should not be abused to go against our collective efforts to hold each other to account,” Huitfeldt said, speaking directly after Iran’s foreign minister, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian.  Some NGO representatives walked out of the hall in protest during Amir-Abdollahian’s speech. Huitfeldt called for meaningful reform in the country and an end to executions of government critics.

Taking the floor, Catherine Colonna, foreign minister of France, which is a council member, condemned the Taliban’s policies banning women from public life, including working in delivering aid, which many women in need and their families are now unable to access. “The intolerable has its roots in intolerance,” she said.

Over the next five weeks, the council will consider reports on Iran and Afghanistan. Other reports are expected on Myanmar, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Sudan and Ethiopia, as well as on themes such as access to Covid-19 vaccines, foreign debt and food.

Limon said that if any issues may be losing out at the session, it would be due to politics, where US-China rivalry has been felt in the council in recent years, before opposition between Russia and western countries took over, adding to frictions between China and the West.

“Developing countries have often said that it is taking attention from issues important to them, particularly regarding human rights and development, and social and cultural rights,” Limon said.