Human Rights Council to investigate Belarus, South Sudan and Nicaragua

The 49th session of the Human Rights Council at the Palais des Nations in Geneva (Credit: UN Photo/ Jean Marc Ferré)

The Human Rights Council concluded on Friday one month of discussions in Geneva, as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine continues to shake the world of multilateralism. The 47 member body voted to create a group of experts to investigate alleged violations in Nicaragua and to extend the mandate of the existing probing mechanisms for Belarus and South Sudan.

Despite tensions being at their highest since the cold war, the HRC, which currently hosts the five permanent members of the UN Security Council – Russia, China, the United States, France and the United Kingdom –, adopted 34 decisions to keep tabs on human rights crises in specific countries as well as the human rights implications of vaccines, counter-terrorism, family reunification, sanctions, disinformation and other issues.

Under the HRC’s microscope

South Sudan rights monitoring renewed. The first resolution to go through on Thursday was a British-led proposal to renew the Commission of Human Rights on South Sudan for another year, with 19 votes in favour, 17 against and 11 abstentions. Since its creation in 2016, the group of three experts has interviewed victims and witnesses of rape perpetrated by all armed groups accross the country, describing it as “hellish existence for women and girls”.

UK ambassador to the UN, Simon Manley, told the Council that those testimonies were proof that the commission “remains absolutely necessary” and that it played a vital role for “a durable peace” in South Sudan, as the country struggles to end years of violent conflict. The Council also approved another text tabled by the African group of states, with the consent of South Sudan.

“The decision by the UN’s top human rights body to renew its investigative mandate on South Sudan sends a powerful message to the country’s leaders that accountability remains essential to the transition process,” said John Fisher, Human Rights Watch Geneva director.

Rights experts appointed on Nicaragua. Twenty members of the Council voted in favour of a Latin American proposal to create a group of three experts to conduct investigations into rights abuses in Nicaragua since the start of a government crackdown on protests and political dissent in 2018. The resolution cranks up a notch the Council’s response to president Daniel Ortega tightening grip on power.

Latin American countries, including Chile and Paraguay, condemned widespread detentions of opposition leaders, journalists, lawyers and rights defenders and sham elections in November 2021. Along with France and the European Union, the states urged the Central American country to release political prisoners.

Belarus experts to continue probe. Three experts tasked last year with reviewing abuses in Belarus in the run up to the 2020 elections were asked to continue their probe for one more year. Presenting the proposal, France on behalf of the EU regretted that Belarus had failed to cooperate with UN human rights commissioner Michelle Bachelet and that the level of widespread arbitrary arrests had only increased, with more than 40,000 people having spent time behind bars since the protests in 2020.

Resolutions on Myanmar, Iran, Syria and Israeli settlements in Palestine were also cause for division among council members.

UN experts renewed. All 47 members voted in favour of renewing for another three years the mandates of the special rapporteur on freedom of religion and belief, the special rapporteur on counter-terrorism, the special rapporteur on food.

The Council also decided to extend the mandate of the special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in North Korea.  Tomás Ojea Quintana, a lawyer from Argentina who has been serving as special rapporteur since 2016, warned in his report last week that the country’s deteriorating human rights situation was tied to its increasing isolation and urged the country to enact policies to improve conditions.

Disinformation and sanctions debate bring up war in Ukraine. The special rapporteur on unilateral measures, such as sanctions, was asked to continue her work for another year, despite opposition from the US, the UK, Ukraine and other European countries. Defending the proposal, Russia blasted the wave of “unlawful” sanctions imposed on its economy as well as sports boycotts as retaliation from its ongoing invasion of Ukraine.

As countries voted on a resolution on cultural heritage, Ukraine reminded members of the ongoing assault against its country and warned that the destruction of the seven world heritage sites it hosts, including those in annexed Crimea, would not only be “a great loss for Ukraine but also for the whole world”.

The invaded country also led a proposal on the negative rights impacts of misinformation, as western countries accuse Russia of crackdown on independent media in the country and deploying a fake news campaign about the war in Ukraine.

New experts in the house. The Council nominated a number of experts to fill open positions to oversee human rights in Afghanistan, Burundi and Palestine. Experts on issues of arbitrary detentions, enforced disappearances, mercenaries and indigenous rights were also appointed.

The first ever special rapporteur on climate change was also appointed.  Former UNFCCC negotiator Ian Fry is a well-seasoned climate negotiator who represented the Tuvaluan government in many climate COPs for around 20 years.

The Australian academic is known for having voiced strong opinions on the responsibility of wealthy countries towards poorer ones to help them financially to face the impacts of climate change – a history that has some western diplomats worried about the potential for it politicising the debate, according to sources.