NGOs worry Covid restrictions at Human Rights Council will leave a mark

Palais des Nations, one of the main buildings of the UN Geneva Offices, 4 June 2020. (KEYSTONE/Martial Trezzini)

As the Human Rights Council enters its second week, NGOs try their best to influence the debates led by states, despite restrictions.

Since the pandemic broke out last year, conferences have had to migrate online, with travel and in-person meetings no longer an option. The Human Rights Council is no exception to this, leaving NGOs with the feeling of getting sidelined. Now they’re worried that the temporary measures that they say are limiting their participation might be here to stay.

Why it matters. Convened three times a year in Geneva, the UN Human Rights Council is the highest-level UN forum where countries discuss human rights violations happening around the world. NGOs can participate in the debates and highlight their concerns by addressing the Council directly at the plenary, by organising side events during the month-long conference or by meeting informally with state representatives.

Since last year, most debates and meetings have gone virtual. During the March session, only Geneva-based NGOs could deliver their statements at the plenary, excluding all other NGOs that usually travel to take part in these meetings.

“One of the key spaces for civil society participation is through statements addressed to the Council. We stressed this to the states,” said Salma El Hosseiny, from the International Service for Human Rights, a Geneva-based NGO who is actively involved in discussions around civil society participation in the multilateral forum, speaking to Geneva Solutions.

After discussions last June, the Council agreed to allow NGOs to deliver their statements through pre-recorded video messages.

In a way, this new format made the Council more inclusive. “In June, we heard a statement by one of the founders of Mothers Against Police Brutality from the United States,” El Hosseiny noted. Giving another example, she said survivors and families of the disappeared and detained from Syria also spoke for the first time ever directly to the Council. “This wouldn't have been possible otherwise.”

A worrying trend. However, the Council has also introduced other measures that NGOs say restrict their participation. For the past few years, discussions have been underway to optimise the work of the HRC and reduce costs. One of the proposals put forward by certain states is to introduce a time limit to general debates. Up until now there was no time limit and any number of NGOs could sign up and address the council at these discussions.

Organisations, including ISHR, have been pushing against this, claiming that this measure would reduce what they see as an already limited space for civil society participation.  Since Covid, this trend has accelerated as the Council struggles to adapt to the virtual format and looks for ways to shorten the meetings. Last week, the HRC Bureau announced that it would limit the number of NGOs that could speak at general debates.

“This sets a very dangerous precedent,” El Hosseiny warned, who also highlighted the risk of having what they call GONGOS, which are NGOs set up or sponsored by states to defend their interests, fill up the NGO speakers lists.

Alessandra Canova, director of the Right Livelihood Award Foundation’s Geneva office, also found that limiting the number of speakers could be a reason to worry if it were extended beyond this session. “We hope that this does not become a trend,” she told Geneva Solutions.

Responding at a press briefing to concerns of civil society not being able to engage as before, Barbara Fontana, counselor and head of human rights at the Swiss permanent mission to the UN, said: “We have effectively seen that given the time restrictions and the need to make as much space as possible in the programme of work, civil society has been bearing a big part of the brunt.”

“Participation has been more limited and it will be even stricter during the general debates. At the same time, we are in touch on a daily basis with civil society. We are monitoring closely the impact of these virtual formats on civil society, and if the impact is indeed too severe, then we will have to rectify that. Civil society is an important stakeholder in Geneva and we don’t want to change the status quo.”

Another cause for concern with meetings going virtual is informal negotiations for draft resolutions. According to El Hosseiny, whilst organisations can listen in to these meetings online, these are not recorded, which makes it difficult for local NGOs in different time zones to be able to follow.

“The impact of that is less accountability for states. When delegations see that civil society is present in the room and is listening to what they say, that is a form of accountability. If civil society is not present, then these meetings become a state to state conversation, which is not the point of the Human Rights Council,” she pointed out.

The human element. Aside from the official channels of participation, NGOs also do a lot of their legwork by meeting with state delegates to try to encourage them to take up their issue. A big part of this has traditionally been done at the infamous Serpentine, a spacious lobby where advocates and diplomats sit in brown-leathered, old-fashioned chairs to have coffee and discuss how to address some of the worst human rights situations across the world.

“Human interaction is really essential, especially if they’re victims or defenders speaking directly to the diplomats. They can create a human connection and at least win their sympathy and compassion so that in turn they try to rally support from their government. Whether the government will listen to them or not is a different story, but at least you can inspire them personally. That human element is really key,” El Hosseiny said.

Activists fly from all parts of the world to come to these sessions and plead their case. With travel restrictions still in place and meetings going completely virtual, local NGOs but also the ones based in Geneva can no longer rely on this option.

Speaking at a press briefing about the difficulty for civil society actors and other NGOs to engage with council members in its virtual format, Jürg Lauber, Swiss ambassador to the UN and other international organisations in Geneva, said ‘it is a big worry’ and noted that this is something he has seen, not just at the HRC but at other UN meetings.

“However, it is also up to civil society members to find creative means to find out what is happening, to contact delegations and to insist on their positions. Everyone has to adapt,” he said.

Asked if she agreed with this evaluation, Canova said that it is up to NGOs to find a way to reconnect with delegate members, but that it is the Council’s responsibility to ensure that NGOs could continue to participate in the plenary debates.

While the exact measures that will remain after the pandemic have yet to be determined, the functioning of the HRC will likely undergo some important scrutiny, particularly with the review of its status by the General Assembly coming up between 2021 and 2026.

“The Director General of the UN in Geneva said ‘the future is hybrid’ and I fully agree with her. We are not going to come back to the working methods that we knew in March of last year. There is an acceleration in the importance of digital platforms, and the time has come for us to ask ourselves, what do we need to adapt?” Lauber said.