Human Rights Council: spotlight on Afghanistan, Covid and indigenous rights

The UN human rights council chamber. (Credit: KEYSTONE/Salvatore Di Nolfi)

The Human Rights Council kicks off its 48th session on Monday. The four-week meeting will discuss close to 90 reports, convening a week longer than usual.

Recent events in Afghanistan loom large over this session of the council. An update on the situation in the country is among the first things on the agenda.

Rapid developments in Afghanistan triggered a special session on 24 August. The Taliban claimed on 7 September to have taken the last resistance holdout and has been solidifying its control of the country.

Afghanistan’s medical system is close to collapse as donors boycott the Taliban government. Food insecurity is at an all time high as Afghans are stripped of their livelihoods.

Last week, women led protests in several cities against gender-based exclusion from the interim government. The Taliban has used whips and sticks to beat protesters.

On Wednesday, the government banned all demonstrations that are not Taliban-approved. The UN council will address the human right to peacefully protest, during the session.

Nicaragua, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Ethiopia under the spotlight

The human rights commissioner or the UN secretary-general will also brief the council on the situation in Nicaragua and Sri Lanka on day one.

In Nicaragua, forced disappearances of dissenters and journalists are growing, with several presidential candidates imprisoned in recent months ahead of elections in November.

Rights groups have also warned about growing violations of indigenous rights. There is increasing encroachment on their ancestral lands, and the government is letting violence against them go unprosecuted.

As for Sri Lanka, the civil war that ended in 2009 is still reverberating. Forced disappearances were rife during the war, and in January, the government shut down the programme that provided interim relief to families of the disappeared, according to Amnesty International.

The human rights organisation reports that the government is allowing perpetrators of war crimes to evade justice and that law enforcement officers investigating violations and abuses are being targeted.

Also slated for discussion on Monday is the independent investigative mechanism for Myanmar. The military takeover in February cut a fault line through Myanmar’s diplomatic community. There continue to be two applications for Myanmar’s seat at the Human Rights Council, a situation that emerged at the last session, where discussions went ahead on Myanmar with the country’s seat unfilled.

Council president, Nazhat Shameem Khan, confirmed to journalists on Wednesday that a decision on the competing applications can only be made at the General Assembly, which will open on 14 September.

The country’s Rohingya population continues to face human rights violations, and humanitarian access remains difficult.

Day one is set to conclude with a debate on the conflict in Tigray, Ethiopia. The UN continues to struggle to get aid into regions controlled by Tigrayan forces. Martin Griffiths, the new UN aid chief, recently warned that no less than 100 trucks a day need to pass the checkpoints. Only 10 per cent of what is needed is getting in, the World Food Programme (WFP) said last Tuesday.

The council will also hold a debate with the group of experts on Yemen, where a dire shelter crisis is putting lives at risk. There are four million displaced persons in the war-torn country. Talks between the coalition government and the Houthi rebels have so far yielded little.

Belgium, Canada, Ireland, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands have tabled a draft resolution on the human rights situation in Yemen that would renew the group of experts on the country.

Indigenous rights, Covid, healthy environment, and gender

The rights of the world’s indigenous peoples will be another focus of the session, with several reports due to be presented, including on the impact of Covid on indigenous communities.

Like in previous sessions this year, inequalities that Covid-19 is cutting deeper will also be featured at the meeting. Many high-income countries are continuing with booster shots, despite the World Health Organization (WHO) calling on 4 August for a booster moratorium until 10 per cent of the populations of all countries are vaccinated with a first dose.

Environment related topics will also feature prominently during discussions. Two reports will focus on climate change. UN experts will present their findings on hazardous wastes and on water and sanitation.

This session might be the one at which the right to a healthy environment is recognised at UN level. A draft resolution has been tabled by Switzerland, Costa Rica, the Maldives and Morocco.

Other items on the council’s agenda concern the right to development, as well as truth, justice and reparations.

The council will also discuss the human rights of women and girls during and after conflict. Girls are less likely to escape conflict-ridden countries than boys and are more likely to be trafficked, according to a recent UNICEF report.

Covid-19 precautions

The session will take place in-person and online, with members of civil society only being able to attend virtually. Rights groups have warned they feel sidelined from debates since the council moved to online mode at the beginning of the pandemic.

Ambassador Khan told reporters on Wednesday that the  council will be conducted with Covid-19 precautions in place. “We will continue to do our best to ensure that the session is inclusive, that it allows for the effective participation of all stakeholders, including civil society and presenters.”