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Report on the 34th Session of the Human Rights Council

by the URG team Blog, URG Human Rights Council Reports

Quick summary 

  • The 34th regular session of the Human Rights Council (HRC34) was held from Monday 27th February to Friday 24th March 2017.
  • On 8th March, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, H.E. Mr Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, presented his annual report on the global human rights situation.
  • number of dignitaries delivered statements during the session’s high-level segment, including inter alia, H.E. Mr Didier Reynders, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Foreign Affairs of Belgium, H.E. Ms María Angela Holguín, Minister for Foreign Affairs of Colombia, H.E. Mr Mikheil Janelidze, Minister for Foreign Affairs of Georgia, H.E. Mr Faiez Mustafa Serraj, President of the Presidency Council of the Government of National Accord of Libya, and H.E. Mr Isaque Chande, Minister of Justice, Constitutional and Religious Affairs of Mozambique. 
  • 9 panel discussions were held during the session.
  • More than 130 reports under the various items of the Council’s agenda were considered.
  • More than 250 side events were held by States and/or NGOs during the session.
  • The outcomes of the UPR Working Groups of the following 11 countries were adopted: Togo, the Syrian Arab Republic, Venezuela, Iceland, Zimbabwe, Lithuania, Uganda, Timor-Leste, the Republic of Moldova, Haiti, and South Sudan.
  • 3 new Special Procedures mandate-holders were appointed to the following mandates: Special Rapporteur on the right to development, Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, and a member of the Working Group on enforced or involuntary disappearances from the Latin American and Caribbean States.
  • 4 members of the Expert Mechanism on the rights of indigenous Peoples (EMRIP) were appointed.
  • HRC34 saw the creation of a new fact-finding mission on the human rights situation in Myanmar.
  • 11 written and/or oral amendments (sometimes known as ‘hostile amendments’) were put forward by States during the consideration of texts and resolutions. None of these amendments was adopted; 7 were rejected by vote; and 4 were withdrawn.
  • 42 texts were considered by the Council: 41 resolutions and one Presidential statement. Of these, 27 were adopted by consensus (62%), and 15  by a recorded vote (36%).
  • 27 of the texts adopted by the Council (64.3%) had Programme Budget Implications (PBI) and 17 required new appropriations not included in previous Programme Budgets. The total costs of the newly mandated activities amounted to a total of $17.698.800.

High-Level Segment

Opening HRC34, the 11th President of the Council, H.E. Mr Joaquin Alexander Maza Martelli of El Salvador, welcomed the largest gathering of dignitaries in the Council’s history. During the three-day high-level segment, over 130 senior State representatives addressed the Council, including two heads of State, 61 ministers, 32 vice-ministers and other senior officials. According to the President of the Council, this is indicative of the significance States attribute to the Council’s mandate and work (link to statement).

The President of the General Assembly, H.E. Mr Peter Thomson, highlighted the ‘growing appreciation at the international level that insufficient attention had been given to prevention,’ and stressed how the promotion of human rights – as well as the prevention of the human rights violations – were integral to the implementation of the 2030 Development Agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals. He noted that the work of the Council was essential to creating an enabling environment for sustaining peace, protecting human rights, and implementing sustainable development (link to statement).

Newly appointed United Nations Secretary General, H.E. Mr António Guterres, emphasised the need for the Council to use its various mechanisms to address the growing disregard for human rights around the world. Faced with multiplying conflicts, violent extremism, and rising inequality between and within States, the Council ‘must make prevention the priority, tackle root causes of conflict, and react earlier and more effectively in addressing human rights concerns.’ In addition, he noted, human rights must be actively promoted, including through building capacity at the national level to help strengthen States, institutions, and civil society (link to statement).

High Commissioner for Human Rights, H.E. Mr Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, recalled the great achievements of the UN and its members over the past seven decades, and in particular the ‘assertion of the universality of human rights,’ in which increasing numbers of people now ‘know they have a right to development; to decent food; water; health; housing; education; and more.’ To protect that progress , he argued, the international community must stand firm against ‘reckless’ political actors that currently threaten to undermine it (link to statement).

The Head of the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs of Switzerland, H.E. Mr Didier Burkhalter, expressed concern at the violations of international law in conflict situations, and the anti-liberal response of States to terrorism and migration. Switzerland proposed three key priorities for dialogue and action at the Council, including: the prevention of conflict and violence; strengthening States’ collective capacity; and combatting impunity for the perpetrators of human rights violations (link to statement).

A URG analysis of the content of all speeches during the high-level segment, found that certain issues and situations featured particularly prominently. These are summarised in the below ‘word cloud.’  (Read URG’s full analysis of the high-level segment here):

Two high-level panel discussions were also convened during the high-level segment, on: human rights mainstreaming, with a focus on the contribution of human rights to peace-building; and on the death penalty.

Briefing by the High Commissioner for Human Rights 

On 8th March, the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mr Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, presented his annual report to the Council.

While condemning ‘bloodshed at the hands of extremist and terrorist groups,’ he recalled States’ obligations to conduct anti-terror operations in accordance with international human rights and  humanitarian law. 

During his intervention, the High Commissioner expressed his concern at ‘retrograde trends’ vis-a-vis States’  commitment to moratoriums on the death penalty.’ In that regard, he referred to a number of countries including Pakistan, Bahrain, Indonesia, Jordan, Kuwait, Philippines, Turkey, the Maldives, and Papua New Guinea. He also expressed deep concern that four countries, China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan were responsible for around 90% of all executions carried out in 2016.  

The High Commissioner further expressed dismay over human rights violations in Myanmar, DPRK, Burundi, DRC, Mali, South Sudan, and Iraq. He urged the Council to establish commissions of inquiry on Myanmar and the DRC. 

He also remarked on increased threats against human rights defenders in the Philippines, Cambodia, China, South Sudan, Egypt, and Bahrain;  and drew particular attention to the the plight of environment and land rights defenders in Central and Latin America.

He raised further concerns over restrictions on religious and cultural rights in China, Iran, the Russian Federation, the United States, and in Central and Latin America. He also reminded the European Union that people must not be sent back to countries where they may face torture, persecution or threats to their life.

Turning to some positive developments, the High Commissioner noted recent improvements in the Gambia, Tunisia, Uzbekistan, Greece, and China, which included, inter alia, enhanced cooperation with UN mechanisms, access to justice and commitment to rule of law. He also welcomed Togo, the Dominican Republic, and São Tomé and Principe’s accession to the Second Optional Protocol of the ICCPR.

Finally, the High Commissioner underscored the importance of cooperation and commitment to human rights for the realisation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) (link to the statement).

Panel Discussions

A total of nine panel discussions were held during the 34th session of the Council. The panels were on the following topics (click for OHCHR meeting summaries):

Trust fund to support the participation of LDCs and SIDS

The Trust Fund for the participation of LDCs and SIDS in the work of the Council, which was set up in 2012, funded the participation at HRC34 of 11 (six female and five male) government officials from Bhutan, Cabo Verde, Jamaica, the Marshall Islands, Micronesia (Federated States of), Myanmar, Papua New Guinea, Senegal, Timor-Leste, Tonga, and Trinidad and Tobago. For 10 of them, it was the first time they had participated in an HRC session.

During the session, to mark the Fund’s fifth anniversary, two side events were held (on 9th and 16th of March). Supportive States also tabled a resolution to further strengthen the Fund (see below).    

Commissions of Inquiry, Fact-Finding Missions and Investigations

Commission of Inquiry on Burundi

During an interactive dialogue at HRC34, the Commission of Inquiry on Burundi (established under resolution 33/24) presented a report offering some initial observations on the situation in Burundi.

The Chair of the Commission, Mr Fatsah Ouguergouz, noted that the Commission had decided to focus its efforts on the investigation of serious violations of human rights, that may amount to international crimes. He expressed concern at ‘the scale and gravity of the allegations of human rights violations and abuses’ and stated that ‘patterns observed in 2015 and 2016 are persisting.’

Mr Ouguerouz stressed that there is ‘near-total impunity which seems to protect the perpetrators’ of human rights violations, including to the rights to life, physical integrity, and due process.

He further expressed regret that despite its Council membership, the Government of Burundi had refused to cooperate with the Commission, and reiterated the request for the Government to provide information that would be useful for the investigation. 

Burundi, speaking as the concerned country, regretted that the Commission had been established without its consent, and objected to the content of the oral briefing, which contained ‘false allegations’ ‘fabricated by [the] political opposition.’ 

Pursuant to resolution 33/24, the Commission is due to present another oral briefing at the thirty-fifth session and a final report at the thirty-sixth session.

Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arabic Republic

During an interactive dialogue at HRC34, the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arabic Republic presented its latest report. The report is based on 291 interviews, including with residents of Aleppo, and a review of, inter alia, satellite imagery and medical records. It documents the tactics of the warring parties in the battle for Aleppo between 21 July and 22 December 2016 and outlines the specific ways in which all parties to the conflict have committed serious violations of international human rights and humanitarian law, amounting to war crimes. It draws specific attention to targeted attacks on civilian infrastructure; a deliberate attack on a humanitarian aid envoy; and the use of prohibited weapons, including chemical weapons and cluster munitions.

The Syrian Arab Republic, speaking as the concerned country, criticised the Commission’s use of evidence and stated that some of the allegations, including, inter alia, those relating to attacks on civilians and civilian infrastructure, were ‘unfounded’ and aimed to ‘politicise and manipulate the truth.’ 

Ms Carla del Ponte, as member of the Commission noted how the establishment of the International Impartial and Independent Mechanism to assist in the investigation and prosecution of those responsible for the most serious crimes under international law, in accordance with General Assembly resolution 71/248, would complement the work of the COI. She stressed that it was ‘time to start obtaining justice for the victims.’

Commission of Human Rights in South Sudan

During another interactive dialogue, the Commission of Human Rights in South Sudan presented a report. The report provides an overview of the situation of human rights in South Sudan between July 2016 and February 2017, and assesses the implementation of the provisions on transitional justice of the Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict.

The report further affirms that ‘the conduct of the Government of South Sudan and of other parties to the conflict suggests the deliberate targeting of civilian populations on the basis of their ethnic identity by means of killings, abductions, unlawful detentions or deprivation of liberty, rape and sexual violence, and the burning of villages.’

South Sudan, speaking as the country concerned, stated that the Commission’s report contained ‘exaggerations’ especially in relation to sexual violence, and stressed its disagreement with the call by the Commission to establish an international, independent investigation.

New Fact-Finding Mission in Myanmar

At its 34th session, the Council decided to establish an international independent fact-finding mission in Myanmar, to be appointed by the President of Council. Its mandate is to establish the facts and circumstances of the alleged human rights violations and abuses, by military and security forces in Myanmar and in particular, the Rakhine State, including, but not limited to, arbitrary detentions, torture and inhuman treatment, rape and other forms of sexual violence, extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary killings, enforced disappearances, forced displacement and unlawful destruction of property, with a view to ensuring full accountability for perpetrators and justice for victims. Malta (on behalf of the European Union) put forward the resolution, which was adopted without a vote.

The fact-finding mission will present an oral briefing and a final report to the Council at its thirty-sixth session. 

Universal Periodic Review

Adoption of UPR Working Group outcome reports

The Council adopted the UPR outcome reports of Togo, the Syrian Arab Republic, Venezuela, Iceland, Zimbabwe, Lithuania, Uganda, Timor-Leste, the Republic of Moldova, Haiti, and South Sudan. A total of 2,334 recommendations were made to these 11 States, out of which 1,839 were accepted in whole or in part, and 495 were noted or rejected.

General debate under item 6

During the general debate under item 6, held on 17 March, the UK delivered a statement on behalf of 63 countries that looked ahead to the start of the third cycle of the UPR. In the statement, the States said ‘it is time to focus on the sustainable implementation of recommendations.’ In that regard, they suggested a number of minor technical ‘fixes’ including: further improving the quality of recommendations; ensuring that all responses to recommendations are in line with the Council’s institution-building package (i.e. all recommendations must either be ‘supported’ or ‘noted’); States should continue to exercise restraint in the number of proffered recommendations; States should report back (at mid-term) on progress with implementation; and States should follow-up on recommendations they made during previous cycles.    

During the same debate, Malta on behalf of the EU also encouraged States to increase their focus on implementing previously accepted recommendations. The EU further underscored the important contribution of National Human Rights Institutions (NHRIs) during UPR dialogues, and the important role of NGOs in the implementation of, and follow up to, UPR recommendations.

Tunisia, speaking on behalf of the African Group, noted that further attention should be given to the follow-up and implementation of recommendations. The African Group stressed, however, that effective implementation was dependent on capacity-building and thus further efforts should be made to provide States with the technical assistance they require.

Along similar lines, Iraq, on behalf of the Arab Group, stated that adequate levels of technical assistance were needed to support States in the implementation of accepted recommendations. Sierra Leone repeated this request, stressing the ‘need for technical assistance to countries, which have the political will, but lack the technical or financial capacity to implement recommendations.’

Georgia, stressed the importance it attributed to the implementation of UPR recommendations and noted that to make progress in this area, it had joined the newly established Group of Friends on National Mechanisms for Reporting and Follow-up (NMRFs) and stated their intention to host the first regional consultation to share experiences and best practice for NMRFs.

Special Procedures 

Interactive dialogues

23 mandate holders (15 thematic, 8 country-specific) presented annual reports to HRC34 (all of which are available here). During 16 interactive dialogues (7 ‘clustered’ and 9 individual), 277 States delivered statements (either individually or jointly), of which 13% were from the African Group, 17% from APG, 18% from EEG, 16% from GRULAC, 36% from WEOG and 1% from other countries (namely Palestine).

Appointment of new mandate-holders

Three new mandate-holders were appointed during the session, to fill positions on two existing mandates, and one new mandate (the Special Rapporteur on the right to development). On the final day of the session, the following mandate-holders were appointed:

  1. Mr Saad Alfarargi (Egypt) was appointed as Special Rapporteur on the right to development

  2. Ms Annalisa Ciampi (Italy) was appointed as Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association

  3. Mr Luciano Hazan (Argentina) was appointed as Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances member from Latin American and Caribbean States

To inform the appointments, the Consultative Group, made up of representatives of Albania, Brazil, Egypt, France, and Thailand, scrutinised around 67 individual applications, for three vacancies. The Consultative Group sent its recommendations to the President of the Council on 31st January 2017. Following ‘broad consultations with States and other relevant stakeholders,’ the President followed the recommendations for all of the three mandates in his proposal to the Council, sent via letter on the 15 February, 2017.

There is now a total of 56 Special Procedures mandates (43 thematic, 13 country-specific), and 82 mandate-holders (58% male, 42% female). 

Special Procedures system’s annual report, presented under item 5

During HRC34, the Chair of the Special Procedures Coordination Committee, Yanghee Lee, presented a report of ‘the twenty-third annual meeting of Special Rapporteurs/representatives, Independent Experts and Working Groups of the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council (Geneva, 6 to 10 June 2016), including updated information on the Special Procedures.’

This report gives a comprehensive picture of what Special Procedures did in 2016, both individually and as a system, in terms of country visits, communications, media outreach, thematic reports, contributions to standard-setting, funding sources, etc. In that regard, the annex to the report now provides impressive detail on:

  • The characteristics of the system (e.g. number of mandates, gender balance and regional balance of mandate-holders, which regional groups are responsible for establishing most mandates). 
  • The extent of State cooperation with the system (e.g. which States maintain standing invitations, which States have never received a visit, overview of country missions.) 
  • Communications with governments (sent, received reply, followed-up). 
  • Themes or issues addressed in Special Procedures reports. 
  • Follow-up activities (e.g. to communications, visits).  

Notwithstanding, in many cases, the analysis of State cooperation is broken down by regional group, rather than by State (e.g. in the context of response rates to communications). 

On the issue of reprisals, the report states that, during 2016, ‘Special Procedures continued to take up cases concerning acts of intimidation and reprisal not only in relation to their work but also to the wider UN system in the field of human rights.’ 

Finally, the report mentions the different topics discussed during the 23rd annual meeting. On the thematic issues discussed, the mandate-holders ‘were briefed on the development of national mechanisms for reporting and follow-up’ (NMRFs), to which they all expressed their support.

A cross-regional group of 67 States delivered a statement welcoming ‘the designation of Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights, Mr Andrew Gilmour [to address reprisals] … This important development will ensure a more systematised and coordinated response to the deeply worrying issue of intimidation and reprisals and will help to put an end to impunity for attacks against those cooperating with the UN on human rights issues.’ 

Resolutions

The 34th session of the Council concluded with the adoption of 41 resolutions and one President’s statement. This represents a slight increase of 5% from the number of texts (40) adopted at the 31st session in March 2016. 

Around 38% of the texts at #HRC34 were adopted by a recorded vote. 

27 (64%) of the texts adopted by the Council were thematic in nature, while 15 (36%) dealt with country-specific situations. Of the latter texts, five addressed human rights violations under agenda item 4, five did so under item 7, one did so under item 2, and four sought to protect human rights through technical assistance and capacity building (under item 10).

27 of the texts adopted by the Council (64.3%) had Programme Budget Implications (PBI), requiring appropriations of $17.698.800, not previously covered by the UN regular budget.  

RESOLUTIONS*

*listed in order of L numbers

Agenda Item

Resolution

Sponsors

PBI?

Extra-Budgetary Appropriations

Adoption

2

Promoting reconciliation, accountability and human rights in Sri Lanka

Montenegro, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, United Kingdom, United States $362.000 Consensus 
 Promotion of the enjoyment of the cultural rights of everyone and respect for cultural diversity Cuba  –  Consensus 
Mandate of the Independent Expert on the effects of foreign debt and other related international financial obligations of States on the full enjoyment of all human rights, particularly economic, social and cultural rights  Cuba √   $335,900 

Adopted by vote

(31-16-0) 

 3 Question of the realization in all countries of economic, social and cultural rights  Portugal    –  Consensus 
Mandate of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders  Norway   √  Consensus 
Mandate of the Special Rapporteur on minority issues  Austria, Senegal, Slovenia   √   0 Consensus 
The right to privacy in the digital age Austria, Brazil, Germany, Liechtenstein, Mexico, Switzerland  √   $229,900   Consensus 
 4 Situation of human rights in Myanmar   Malta (on behalf of the European Union)  √ $3,150,100   Consensus 
 3 Effects of terrorism on the enjoyment of all human rights  Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Saudi Arabia ✗   –

Adopted by vote

(28-15-4) 

 3 Combating intolerance, negative stereotyping and stigmatization of, and discrimination, incitement to violence and violence against, persons based on religion or belief  Pakistan (on behalf of the OIC)   √  $72,100   Consensus
7  Human rights in the occupied Syrian Golan

Pakistan (on behalf of the OIC) 

 –

 Adopted by vote

(26-3-18)

Adequate housing as a component of the right to an adequate standard of living and the right to non-discrimination in this context  Brazil, Finland, Germany, Namibia √   0  Consensus
 10  Cooperation with Georgia Georgia  – 

 Adopted by vote

(18-5-24)

 Human rights and unilateral coercive measures Venezuela (on behalf of the NAM)     –

Adopted by vote

(32-14-0) 

 3 Freedom of religion or belief  Malta (on behalf of the European Union)     – Consensus 
 The negative impact of the non-repatriation of funds of illicit origin to the countries of origin on the enjoyment of human rights, and the importance of improving international cooperation Egypt, Libya, Tunisia (on behalf of the Group of African States)    – 

Adopted by vote

(30-1-16) 

 4 Situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran   Republic of Moldova, Sweden, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, United States of America √  

 Adopted by vote

(22-12-13)

 10 Technical assistance and capacity-building to improve human rights in Libya  Tunisia (on behalf of the African Group) √  $638,100  

Adopted by vote

(22-12-13) 

10  Assistance technique et renforcement des capacités dans le domaine des droits de l’Homme au Mali  Tunisia (on behalf of the African Group)   0  Consensus
 3 Human rights, democracy and the rule of law  Morocco, Norway, Peru, Republic of Korea, Romania, Tunisia   $8,100  Consensus 
 3 Right to food  Cuba  – 

Adopted by vote

(45-1-1) 

 3  Right to work Egypt, Greece, Indonesia, Mexico, Romania  √   $32,200  Consensus 
 4 Situation of human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea  Japan, Malta (on behalf of the European Union) $1,783,000   Consensus 
 3 Birth registration and the right of everyone to recognition everywhere as a person before the law   Mexico, Turkey √  $85,400   Consensus 
 3 Rights of the Child: Protection of the rights of the child in the implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development   Malta (on behalf of the European Union), Uruguay (on behalf of GRULAC)  $335,700   Consensus
Regional arrangements for the promotion and protection of human rights    Armenia, Belgium, Mexico, Senegal, Thailand $303,100   Consensus 
 Freedom of opinion and expression: mandate of the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression  United States of America  √ Consensus 
 Establishment of the Forum on People of African Descent Tunisia (on behalf of the African Group) Consensus 
 Mandate of the Intergovernmental Working Group on the Effective Implementation of the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action Tunisia (on behalf of the African Group)  √  0

 Adopted by vote

(46-1-0)

Mandate of the Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia, and Related Intolerance  Tunisia (on behalf of the African Group)   Consensus 
Elaboration of International Complementary Standards to the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination  Tunisia (on behalf of the African Group)  

 Adopted by vote

(31-4-12)

 3  Torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment: mandate of the Special Rapporteur Denmark   √   Consensus
Human rights and the environment Costa Rica, Maldives, Morocco, Slovenia, Switzerland  √    $184,900  Consensus 
 4 Situation of human rights in South Sudan   Albania, Paraguay, United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, United States of America $3,434,600    Consensus
10  Promoting the Voluntary Technical Assistance Trust Fund to Support the Participation of Least Developed Countries and Small Island Developing States in the work of the Human Rights Council  Barbados, Burkina Faso, Djibouti, Maldives, Mauritius, Morocco, Netherlands, Norway, Senegal, Singapore, Switzerland, Turkey  $32,200   Consensus 
 3 Human rights of migrants: mandate of the Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants   Mexico  √  0 Consensus 
 4  The human rights situation in the Syrian Arab Republic France, Germany, Italy, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, United States of America   √ $6,711,500

 Adopted by vote 

(26-3-18)

 7  Ensuring accountability and justice for all violations of international law in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem  Pakistan (on behalf of the OIC), State of Palestine – 

Adopted by vote

(30-2-15) 

 Right of the Palestinian people to self-determination Pakistan (on behalf of the OIC), State of Palestine    – 

Adopted by vote

(43-2-2) 

 7  Human rights situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem Pakistan (on behalf of the OIC), State of Palestine   –

Adopted by vote

(41-2-4) 

 7  Israeli settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem, and in the occupied Syrian Golan  Pakistan (on behalf of the OIC), State of Palestine – 

 Adopted by vote

(36-2-9)

 

Decisions and President’s Statements

Agenda Item

Decision/President’s Statement

Sponsors

PBI?

Extra-Budgetary Appropriations

Adoption

 10

Situation des droits de l’homme en Haïti  HRC President  √   – $1,124,800   Consensus

 


Analysis and conclusions

Ahead of the session, many observers expected HRC34 to be a particularly difficult meeting. Some even suggested the Council might teeter on the brink of collapse. These forecasts reflected concerns, among members of the international human rights community, at wider geopolitical developments that have seen nationalist-populist political movements call into question the post-World War Two international liberal order – an order that has underpinned peace, sustainable development and human rights for over half a century.

Linked with these developments, the election of President Donald Trump in the US loomed large over the 34th session. The new President’s comments on the campaign trail and since taking Office, about the UN and especially about any UN body deemed overly critical of Israel, hinted at a return, after the Obama administration’s decision to become a member of the Council in 2009, to a more antagonistic American approach. There was also apprehension that early policy announcements by the new US President, such as a ban on persons from some Muslim majority States entering the US, would lead to confrontations between the US delegation and leading members of the Like Minded Group (LMG) and Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC).

In the event, these fears were largely unrealised. On the contrary, the US remained engaged (for now, at least) and key US allies from both the developed and developing world were careful not to ‘rock the boat’ – i.e. they appeared keen to avoid political disputes and, conversely, to show the Council in its best possible light.

The result was a remarkably positive session. Previously difficult or contentious thematic debates and resolutions passed with little problem, many country-specific resolutions and mandates were adopted/renewed by consensus, a wide range of States brought forward new positive initiatives or proposed useful political reforms, and voting went relatively smoothly.

Diplomats and other delegates at HRC34 deserve credit for these achievements.

Or the calm before the storm?

While recognising the broadly positive character of HRC34, a number of observers saw the session somewhat differently: as the ‘calm before the storm.’

Again reflecting wider misgivings about the commitment of key world governments to the international human rights regime (both the UN and regional regimes such as the European Court of Human Rights, and the Inter-American system), these commentators claimed that the atmosphere at HRC34 would be better described as ‘strange’ or ‘unsettling,’ rather than ‘positive.’

The sense that the session might represent the ‘calm before the storm’ was heightened by a letter, sent by US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to a group of nine NGOs in mid-March, which suggested the US will leave the Human Rights Council unless there is ‘significant reform.’ By this, the US administration is thought to mean two things: first, improvements in the Council’s membership; and second, the removal or side-lining of ‘agenda item 7’ on the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT)/Israel.

While no-one outside the White House can be sure, most diplomats and NGO representatives at the UN believe this is no bluff. If they are right, it is clear that any State or NGO that hopes to keep the US engaged at the Council will have to find ways to improve the membership of the Council and to address perceived imbalances in the body’ geographic focus (in the context of responding to human rights violations).

The argument will also have to be (publicly) made that a key reason why there is an entire agenda item dedicated to human rights in the OPT, is because the US (under President George W. Bush) was disengaged at the time of the negotiation of the Council’s institution-building package (IBP) – when the agenda was agreed. On the other hand, after the US (under President Obama) re-engaged with the body, there was an important reduction in the number of resolutions and special sessions focused on Israel and the OPT. There was also an important upturn in the membership and the output of the Council. 

Thematic issues

As noted above, HRC34 saw a notable reduction in the political ‘temperature’ around important thematic issues. This new atmosphere was evident during open informal consultations, which saw topics and resolutions that have in the past ‘been the source of major disagreements,’ pass – in the words of the UK Mission’s Bob Last (in his regular blog) – ‘without so much as a squeak.’ For example, an Austrian-led meeting to renew the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on minorities ‘set a new record by finishing in under 10 minutes, while a resolution by the US on freedom of expression didn’t last much longer.’ The (to some) more positive or (to others) ‘unsettling’ or ‘unpredictable’ atmosphere at HRC34 was also notable during voting on draft texts. For one thing, less than ten ‘hostile’ amendments were tabled and acted upon at HRC34 – compared with over 35 at HRC31 a year ago. What is more, at HRC34, unlike HRC33 and HRC32, no ‘hostile amendments’ were adopted. Finally, although more votes were called this year than at HRC31 in March 2016, on many important and/or sensitive issues, the Council adopted the resolutions by a comfortable margin.  

Another positive development at HRC34 was the emergence of a number of important new thematic initiatives. Two in particular merit attention: namely the (interconnected) joint statements on ‘national mechanisms for implementation, reporting and follow-up’ (NMIRFs) and ‘human rights and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.’ The former statement, delivered by Portugal on behalf of Angola, Bahamas, Belgium, Botswana, Brazil, Colombia, Denmark, Ecuador, Fiji, Georgia, Mexico, Morocco, Netherlands, Norway, Paraguay, Republic of Korea, Seychelles, Slovenia, Sweden, Timor-Leste and Tunisia, reflected on the growing movement, among States, different parts of the UN, parliaments, and civil society (including NHRIs), to build a new ‘implementation agenda,’ including by developing sophisticated NMIRFs. The second statement, delivered by Chile on behalf of Denmark, Ecuador, Luxembourg, Portugal, Rwanda, and Uruguay, announced a new initiative to leverage the mutually-reinforcing and mutually-interdependent nature of human rights and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The links between strengthened implementation of international human rights obligations and commitments, the right to development, and the realisation of the SDGs ‘leaving no one behind,’ were a major focus of HRC34; raised in the context of high-level statements by the Secretary-General, the High Commissioner, and many ministers, in the context of side events, in the context of joint statements, and in the context of resolutions such as the EU-GRULAC text on ‘protection of the rights of the child in the implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.’

Country specific initiatives

On the country-specific side, there was particular focus at HRC34 on the EU-led resolution on the situation in Myanmar. Reacting to recent reports by the High Commissioner’s Office and the Special Rapporteur on the situation in Myanmar, which pointed to alarming human rights violations by the military, especially against the Rohingya minority, the Council adopted a resolution creating a fact-finding mission, to be appointed by the Council President. The resolution was adopted by consensus, although the country concerned disassociated itself from the outcome (meaning cooperation with the mission appears unlikely), and several of its ASEAN partners also expressed severe misgivings.

The case of Myanmar, like that of Sri Lanka, is seen by many as a ‘test case’ for the Council. Can the body effectively protect human rights, including by responding robustly to situations of violations (as it must under its mandate, provided by GA resolution 60/251), while also working through dialogue and cooperation to promote human rights reform and improvement in the long-term? In the case of Myanmar, that means, to put it simply, can the Council effectively investigate the serious human rights violations perpetrated by the country’s military, and secure accountability for those violations; while working with the civilian government, led by Aung San Suu Kyi, to consolidate the country’s democratic transition and promote the full enjoyment of human rights? 

Key follow-up questions, in that regard, include: what are the benefits – especially in terms of securing ‘truth’ and accountability – of a fact-finding mission, beyond what is already provided for by the existing protection mechanism established for Myanmar (i.e. the Special Rapporteur), including in a situation where the government is unlikely to cooperate with the mission?; will the decision to establish the mission strengthen or undermine the ‘moderate’ or ‘democratic’ forces in the country; and what tools does the Council/UN possess to maintain and strengthen channels of political dialogue/cooperation with the civilian government? 

Beyond item 4, there were also interesting country-specific developments at HRC34 related to human rights in Haiti and Libya (under item 10 on capacity-building and technical cooperation). Regarding the former, at the request of the country concerned, the Council discontinued the mandate of the Independent Expert on Haiti, after 22 years. In replacement, a Council Presidential statement (PRST) called on the Government of Haiti, with the assistance of OHCHR and UN Special Procedures, and in close consultation with civil society, the NHRI and other stakeholders:

  • To prepare a plan of action to implement the recommendations of the international human rights mechanisms (Special Procedures, UPR and Treaty Bodies), including those made by the Independent Expert on Haiti; and
  • To establish a national mechanism for reporting and follow-up (NMRF), to coordinate the implementation of the plan of action, to set targets and deadlines, to apply human rights indicators in order to monitor progress, and to clearly identify technical assistance and capacity-building needs.

The PRST also encourages development partners to support Haiti, in a coordinated manner, with the implementation of recommendations from the international human rights mechanisms, and of its national plan of action; and calls on OHCHR to report to the Council on progress with domestic implementation after one year.

As with so much else at HRC34, this new Council approach for ‘item 10,’ which emphasises international support and cooperation for the domestic implementation of all existing UN human rights recommendations, rather than the generation of more recommendations (i.e. via an Independent Expert), represents an important test case for the Council and its ability to fulfil its mandate as per GA resolution 60/251.

The Council’s latest resolution on Libya (again under item 10) also introduces important innovations to the Council’s methods of work and mechanisms. Operative paragraph 27 of the text welcomes Libya’s decision to extend a standing invitation to all Special Procedures, and then requests the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights ‘to coordinate with mandate holders relevant to the present resolution to undertake visits to Libya … throughout 2017, in support of his work and that of the UN Support Mission in Libya, and in particular to assist efforts to ensure individual accountability and to prevent further human rights abuses and violations, and to make recommendations to improve the human rights situation through targeted technical assistance.’ Thus the resolution promotes, in principle, the efficient use of existing UN resources and mechanisms, individual accountability, the prevention of violations, and strengthened implementation through targeted technical assistance. 

Institutional issues 

Finally during HRC34, a number of States tabled a resolution to mark the fifth anniversary of the creation of the ‘Voluntary Technical Assistance Trust Fund to Support the Participation of Least Developed Countries and Small Island Developing States in the Work of the Human Rights Council’ (A/HRC/34/L.35). The ‘SIDS-LDC trust fund’ has become an important success story for the Council, funding the participation of over seventy delegates or fellows (39 women and 31 men) from 51 UN Member States (21 LDCs and 30 SIDS), and enabling universal participation at sessions of the Council (at the 32nd session). 

Resolution L.35, adopted by consensus, requests the secretariat of the Trust Fund to continue its activities and to conduct workshops in different regions of the world to reflect on its achievements and further improvements. 


Feature photo: Secretary-General Antonio Guterres (left) Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein (centre) High Commissioner for Human Rights and Didier Burkhalter (right) Federal Councilor and Head of the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs of Switzerland during the High Level Segment of the 34th Session of the Human Rights Coucil. 27 february 2017. UN Photo / Jean-Marc Ferré, licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Photo 1: Secretary-General Antonio Guterres speaks during the High Level Segment of the 34th Session of the Human Rights Coucil. 27 february 2017. UN Photo / Jean-Marc Ferré, licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Photo 2: Mr. Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, speaks during the High-Level-Segment of the 34th Session of the Human Rights Council. UN Photo / Elma Okic, licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.