Report on the 37th Session of the Human Rights Council

by the URG team Blog, International human rights institutions, mechanisms and processes, URG Human Rights Council Reports

Quick summary:

  • The 37th regular session of the Human Rights Council (HRC37) was held from Monday 26th February to Friday 23rd March 2018.
  • On 7th 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.
  • A number of dignitaries delivered statements during the session’s high-level segment, including, inter alia, H.E. Mr Alexander van der Bellen, President of Austria, H.E. Filipe Jacinto Nvusi, President of Mozambique, H.E. Mr Sergei Lavrov, Minister for Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation, H.E. Mr. Abdullah Abdullah, Chief Executive (Chairperson of the Council of the Ministers of the Government of Afghanistan), and H.E. Mr. Eladio Ramón Loizaga Lezcano, Minister for Foreign Affairs of Paraguay. In total 98 high level speakers  including four heads of State, 53 ministers, and 13 vice-ministers and other senior officials addressed the Council during the HLS. 
  • On Friday 2nd March the Council held an ‘Urgent Debate‘ on the situation of human rights in Eastern Ghouta, in the Syrian Arabic Republic.
  • Seven panel discussions were held during the session.
  • More than 95 reports under the various items of the Council’s agenda were considered.
  • More than 260 side events were held by States and/or NGOs during the session.
  • The outcomes of the UPR Working Group reviews of the following 14 countries were adopted: Czechia, Argentina, Gabon, Ghana, Peru, Guatemala, Switzerland, Republic of Korea, Benin, Pakistan, Zambia, Japan, Ukraine, and Sri Lanka.
  • Nine new Special Procedures mandate-holders were appointed to the following mandates: Special Rapporteur on freedom of peaceful assembly and association, Special Rapporteur on the promotion of truth, justice, reparation and guarantees of non-recurrence, Independent Expert on the promotion of a democratic and equitable international order, Independent Expert on the situation of human rights in Mali, three members (one each from the African Group, Eastern European Group, and Latin American and Caribbean Group) for the Working Group on the use of mercenaries as a means of violating human rights and impeding the exercise of the right of peoples to self-determination, and two members of the Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (one member from Africa and one member from North America).
  • The core group of the ‘protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism’ resolution and the core group of the ‘effects of terrorism on the enjoyment of all human rights’ resolution were able to merge their resolutions into a single text on ‘Terrorism and human rights’, which was adopted without a vote.
  • 22 written and/or oral amendments were put forward by States during the consideration of resolutions – one was adopted by a vote; nine were rejected by a vote; and 12 were withdrawn.
  • 42 texts (all resolutions) were considered by the Council. Of these, 26 were adopted by consensus (62%), and 16 by a recorded vote (38%).
  • 24 of the texts adopted by the Council (57%) 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 $11,881,000.

High Level Segment

 

Opening HRC37, the 12th President of the Council, H.E. Mr Vojislav Šuc of Slovenia, welcomed 98 dignitaries during a three-day high-level segment. Four heads of State, 53 ministers, and 13 vice-ministers and other senior officials addressed the Council. According to the President of the Council, this underscores the ‘importance we all attach to the mandate of the Council and to the human rights agenda of the United Nations as a whole’ (link to statement).

The President of the General Assembly, H.E. Mr. Miroslav Lajčák, reflected on the role of the Human Rights Council, which includes inter alia: to set and reinforce norms (not only through resolutions and recommendations, but also through dialogue); have a direct and tangible impact on the ground through its mechanisms and subsidiary bodies; and reinforce other areas of the UN’s work by mainstreaming human rights. In this regard, the PGA underscored the particular relevance of the link between human rights and peace. ‘Human rights violations are the tremors in the ground that can direct attention before it is too late,’ he said – as such human rights play a pivotal role in prevention. (link to statement).

UN Secretary-General H.E. Mr. António Guterres, made clear that the ‘full respect of human rights is the best strategy for prevention,’ as had already been recognised by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) seventy years ago. He acknowledged however that ‘the words of the Universal Declaration are not yet matched by facts on the ground,’ highlighting many issues of concern such as gender inequality, xenophobia, racism and xenophobia, and the shrinking of civil society space. The Secretary-General stressed the need for an increased focus on implementation and national follow-up by States and by the UN as a whole. He commended the standards and guidelines that UN mechanisms (UPR, Treaty Bodies etc) have developed in this regard (link to statement).

The High Commissioner for Human Rights, H.E. Mr Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, lamented the fact that ‘time and again, I and my Office have brought to the attention of the international community violations of human rights which should have served as a trigger for preventive action. Time and again, there has been minimal action.’ The High Commissioner also drew the Council’s attention to the fact that the ‘human rights pillar’ is not treated as the equal of the other two UN pillars. This was not only demonstrated by the size of its budget, but also by the condescending way in which human rights are often perceived by certain States, especially members of the Security Council. However, it is the accumulation ‘of unresolved human rights violations which will spark the conflicts that can break the world’ (link to statement).

The Head of the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs of Switzerland, H.E. Ignazio Cassis, reiterated the importance of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In order to achieve peace, all States must engage in dialogue and offer solutions. Switzerland commits, in this regard, to both operationalise synergies between the three UN pillars, and to strengthen the international human rights system by providing it with the financial and political support it needs (link to statement).

A URG analysis of the content of all 98 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):

Figure 1. Top 20 themes mentioned during the HRC37 High Level Segment

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 seventieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action.

Briefing by the High Commissioner for Human Rights

During the second week of HRC37, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, H.E. Mr Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, presented his annual report to the Council.

As 2018 marks the centenary year of Nelson Mandela’s birth, the High Commissioner began his intervention by recalling ‘Madiba’s’ leadership, which he contrasted with the ‘faint humanity’ of authoritarian leaders around the world. 

The High Commissioner noted recent human rights advances in various countries including Ecuador, Saudi Arabia, Gambia, Somalia and Portugal. He also recognised the openness and willingness to engage in dialogue on human rights of a number of countries he had recently visited (namely Libya, Peru, Uruguay, El Salvador, Guatemala, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and Fiji).

Despite these positives, the High Commissioner drew attention to worrying patterns of human rights violations and abuses in many other parts of the world. He emphasised the urgency of two situations in particular, namely Eastern Ghouta and Myanmar.

In the geographic section of his speech, Zeid mentioned more than 60 country-situations where human rights violations or abuses are a particular cause for concern. They included, inter alia, Yemen, Libya, Afghanistan, Cambodia, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, China, the Maldives, Burundi, South Sudan, Turkey, Hungary, Austria, the United States, Venezuela and El Salvador.

Turning to thematic issues, the High Commissioner raised the potential impact on human rights of the ‘War on Drugs’ and called upon States to better implement the Outcome Document of the UN General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on the World Drug Problem.

He also drew the Council’s attention to the impacts of conflicts, climate change and displacement on the enjoyment of economic, social and cultural rights in a number of African States. 

Finally, the High Commissioner underscored the need to ‘stand up for women’s rights,’ including in the wealthiest societies. The #MeToo movement has become a ‘much needed expression of solidarity and a force for dignity’ in this regard. He also commended all civil society movements ‘fighting for decency and respect for human rights’ for ‘the surge of hope they bring.’

Find the full statement here.

Panel discussions

 

A total of seven panel discussions were held during the 37th session. 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 (set up in 2012) funded the participation of 12 (four female and eight male) government officials at HRC37, from Afghanistan, Antigua and Barbuda, Bahamas, Bangladesh, Burundi, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Haiti, Mozambique, Nepal, South Sudan, Saint-Vincent and the Grenadines and Yemen. It was the first time that a large proportion of delegates (one-third) came from States that are currently members of the Council. For 10 of them, it was the first time they had participated in a Council session.

Commissions of Inquiry, Fact-Finding Missions and Investigations

Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar

The Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar composed of Mr Marzuki Darusman (Chair), Ms Radhika Coomaraswamy and Mr Chris Sidoti, presented an oral report during a clustered interactive dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on situation of human rights in Myanmar.  

Mr Darusman stated that from its establishment the Fact-Finding Mission (FFM) had reached out to the Myanmar Government to establish channels for dialogue and to conduct visit the country. However, the Government had denied the FMM’s request to visit in February 2018. Notwithstanding the denial of access to the country, the FMM had conducted more than 600 in-depth interviews with victims and witnesses of alleged human rights violations and abuses during missions to Bangladesh, Malaysia and the UK.

Turning to the situation in Kachin and Shan states, Mr Darusman noted that the recent intensification of the enduring conflict had led to an increase in reported human rights violations and abuses, and violations of international humanitarian law, including, inter alia, extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, destruction of property and pillage, torture and inhumane treatment, rape and other forms of sexual violence, and the recruitment of child soldiers. The intensification of violence had also further exacerbated the already existing humanitarian crisis in both regions. The FMM called on the Government to lift all movement restrictions and ensure free and safe access for humanitarian actors.

Regarding the situation in Rakhine state, Mr Darusman underscored that the conflict had intensified drastically following the attacks in 2016 and 2017 by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army and the subsequent so-called ‘clearance operation’ by Myanmar security forces. The FMM had documented numerous credible accounts of security forces having committed gross human rights violations during those operations.

Myanmar, speaking as the concerned country, stated that the terrorist attacks in Rakhine state in 2017 had changed the state of affairs there, and had adversely affected the daily-lives of all ethnic groups in the region. Myanmar noted however, that the majority of people from various ethnic groups and their villages still remained intact. In conclusion, it stated that the Government was prepared to work with any mechanism established in line with the country’s needs and particular circumstances.

Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arabic Republic

During an interactive dialogue at HRC37, the Independent International Commission of Inquiry (COI) on the Syrian Arabic Republic presented its latest report. Mr Pinheiro, Chair of the CoI, noted an intensification of the conflict in the past two months, meaning over 390,000 people are now struggling to survive. He highlighted in particular the plight of the civilian population of Eastern Ghouta, who had been under siege for five years, and deprived of adequate food, water or medicine. 

The Syrian Arab Republic, speaking as the concerned country, criticised the COI’s work, which it labeled as ‘structurally deficient,’ as the report uses evidence from ‘unknown sources’ and ‘manipulated events,’ and ignores attacks by certain non State groups.

Mr Hanny Megally, a member of the Commission, noted that the CoI was ready to provide the International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism on Syria (IIIM) with evidence to assist in the investigation and prosecution of those responsible for the most serious crimes under international law. The CoI and the IIIM would sign a memorandum of understanding, so that the COI could also benefit from information gathered by the Mechanism as well.

Commission of Inquiry on Burundi

During HRC37, the Commission of Inquiry on Burundi delivered an oral update.

The Chair of the COI, Mr Doudou Diène, noted that the Commission had decided to focus on analysing the justice mechanisms of Burundi in order to make recommendations with the aim of building capacity and preventing future crises. He stated that since last September, the economic, social and human rights situation in the country had not improved.

Mr Diène also called on the Government to engage in a constructive dialogue with the Commission.

Burundi, speaking as the concerned country, rejected the report, noting that it was full of false allegations against the State. It also lamented the use of selectivity and double standards by the Council, which does not improve the lives of people who are victims of conflicts in all countries. 

Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan

During another interactive dialogue, the Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan (CoHR) presented its report. The report focuses on recent incidents in Western Bahr, Central Equatoria and Upper Nile, and on clarifying responsibility for alleged gross violations of human rights in these areas in 2016 and 2017.

Ms. Yasmin Sooka, Chair of the CoHR, highlighted the fact that the Council had given the CoHR an enhanced mandate at HRC34, to collect and preserve evidence with a view of sharing it with the Hybrid Court, a Truth Commission and a reparations body. As such the CoHR had collected thousands of documents and statements from witnesses. The CoHR had also identified several South Sudanese officials who might bear individual responsibility for serious violations of human rights.

South Sudan, speaking as the country concerned, stated that the CoHR’s report was generalised, and was full of repetitions and flaws. It also noted that the security situation in the country had improved since the last update to the Council in 2017, due to the peace process and engagement with local communities.

Universal Periodic Review

Adoption of the UPR Working Group outcome reports

The Council adopted the UPR outcome reports of Czechia, Argentina, Gabon, Ghana, Peru, Guatemala, Switzerland, Republic of Korea, Benin, Pakistan, Zambia, Japan, Ukraine, and Sri Lanka. A total of 2,979 recommendations were made to these 14 States, out of which 2,343 were accepted in whole or in part, 3 were accepted partially, and 633 were noted or rejected.

General debate under item 6

During the general debate under item 6, held on 19 March, Togo delivered a statement on behalf of the African Group emphasising that ‘adequate attention should be given to enhancing States’ implementation and follow-up systems ‘through national coordination structures and inclusive approaches.’ Notwithstanding, it also recognised the many challenges facing States with regards to improved implementation, and the crucial importance of technical assistance, particularly for LDCs and SIDS.

Vietnam, on behalf of ASEAN, also acknowledged the capacity restraints facing developing countries when trying to implement accepted UPR recommendations, and underscored ‘the importance of technical assistance and capacity building from relevant UN agencies and funds’ in this regard.

In its statement on behalf of the EU, Bulgaria noted that ‘in order for the UPR to have a real impact on the ground […] a strong emphasis [must be placed] on the effective implementation of recommendations from previous UPR cycles,’ and on the provision of by technical assistance. The EU stressed that effective implementation also requires ‘action-oriented, specific, and measurable recommendations.’ Finally, the EU acknowledged the valuable contributions of civil society organisations in the UPR process, and voiced concerns about reprisals against individuals who engage with UN mechanisms.

During the debate, Jordan, on behalf of the Arab Group, voiced its concerns about the online publication of the follow-up letters sent by the High Commissioner to States after their reviews, stating that ‘while the Arab Group appreciates the efforts of the Office of the High Commissioner to ensure the success of the UPR process, it expresses its reservations as to the publication of these messages on the website based on our firm belief that the UPR process is an intergovernmental process and an exchange among States.’

Special Procedures

Interactive Dialogues

20 mandate holders (14 thematic, six country-specific) presented annual reports to HRC37 (all of which are available here). During 14 interactive dialogues (seven ‘clustered’ and seven individual), 128 States delivered statements (either individually or jointly), of which 22.3% were from the African Group, 26.2% from APG, 14.5% from EEG, 15.4% from GRULAC, 20% from WEOG, and 2.3% from other countries (namely the State of Palestine and the Holy See)

Appointment of new mandate-holders

Nine new mandate-holders were appointed during the session to fill positions on existing mandates. On the final day of the session, the following mandate-holders were appointed:

  1. Mr Albert Kwokwo Barume (Democratic Republic of Congo) was appointed as member from Africa for the Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (EMRIP)
  2. Ms Kristen Carpenter (United States of America) was appointed as member from America of the Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (EMRIP)
  3. Mr Livingstone Sewanyana (Uganda) was appointed as Independent Expert on the promotion of a democratic and equitable international order
  4. Mr Alioune Tine (Senegal) was appointed as Independent Expert on the situation of human rights in Mali
  5. Mr Fabian Salvioli (Argentina) was appointed as Special Rapporteur on the promotion of truth, justice, reparation and guarantees of non-recurrence
  6. Mr Nyaletsossi Clément Voule (United States of America) was appointed as Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association
  7. Mr Chris Kwaja (Nigeria) was appointed as member from African States of the Working Group on the use of mercenaries as a means of violating human rights and impeding the exercise of the right of peoples to self-determination
  8. Ms Jelena Aparac (Croatia) was appointed as member from Eastern European States of the Working Group on the use of mercenaries as a means of violating human rights and impeding the exercise of the right of peoples to self-determination
  9. Ms Lilian Bobea (Dominican Republic) member from Latin American and Caribbean States of the Working Group on the use of mercenaries as a means of violating human rights and impeding the exercise of the right of peoples to self-determination

To inform the appointments, the Consultative Group, made up of representatives of Croatia, Honduras, Malaysia, Mauritius and Norway, scrutinised around 94 individual applications for nine vacancies. The Consultative Group sent its recommendations to the President of the Council on 2 February 2018 for eight vacancies. On 8 February 2018 it sent part II of its report to the Council President regarding the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association. Following ‘broad consultations in particular through the regional coordinators,’ ‘to ensure the endorsement of [his] proposed candidates,’ the President followed the recommendations of the Consultative Group in seven out of nine cases. His proposals were sent to the Council via letter on 22 February. For the Special Rapporteur on the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and the Special Rapporteur on the promotion of truth, justice, reparation and guarantees of non-recurrence, the President decided to put forward a different candidate to the one ranked number one by the Consultative Group.

As of today, there are 56 Special Procedures mandates (43 thematic, 13 country-specific), and 82 mandate-holders (58% male, 42% female). 

General debates under item 5 and item 10

During the general debate under item 5, held from 14-15 March, Portugal delivered a statement on behalf of the Group of Friends on national implementation, reporting, and follow-up (NMIRFs), noted that ‘there is no better way to mark the 70th anniversary of the UDHR than to reaffirm our commitment to the domestic realisation of the universal norms set down in that historic document.’ The Group of Friends concluded that ‘recommendations of the UN human rights mechanisms must be weaved into UN action at all levels, but especially at the level of national planning and delivery through UN country teams.’

Indonesia, speaking on behalf of ASEAN, proposed, inter alia, that ‘new mandates should only be created with strong justification, broad support, and for a limited period,’ and called for a serious review of the proliferation of mandates. ASEAN also requested that the Council allow more time for interactive dialogue between States, a concern which was echoed by numerous other delegations during the debate.

In its statement, the US voiced concerns about the increasing number of Council meetings, as well as their length and attendant costs, and called on States to agree on and implement efficiency measures as soon as possible. It stated that ‘taking several sensible measures to improve the efficiency, membership, and agenda of this Council would substantially improve its ability to promote human rights.’

During the general debate under item 10 on technical assistance and capacity-building, Sierra Leone delivered a joint-statement on behalf of more than 70 States from all regional groups on the implementation of the Council’s prevention mandate as set forth in paragraph 5f of General Assembly resolution 60/251. The group of countries highlighted the two inter-connected and mutually reinforcing elements of the Council’s prevention mandate. Namely, ‘to contribute towards the prevention of human rights violations and abuses at root-cause level by working with all States, through cooperation and dialogue, to help build national human rights capacity and resilience’, and ‘to respond promptly to human rights emergencies, notably to prevent a widening or deepening of the emergency’. They also set out their vision on how this initiative could be taken forward – via a process of inclusive consultations steered by a group of experts. 

Bulgaria, on behalf of the EU, voiced its appreciation forthe responsive approach of the OHCHR to increasing requests for technical assistance and capacity-building, despite the obstacles that the Office has to surmount in terms of allocation of sufficient resources.’ 

Also during the item 10 general debate, Antigua and Barbuda delivered a statement on behalf of the 2018 beneficiaries of the LCDs/SIDS Trust Fund, in which it thanked the supporters of the Trust Fund ‘for their continued and kind support to facilitate our participation in this programme, which allows us a unique opportunity to gain insight into the important work of the Council.’ It closed by stating that ‘without the Trust Fund, we would not be here and our voices would not be heard.’

Resolutions

The 37th session of the Council concluded with the adoption of 42 texts (all resolutions). This is one more than the number of texts (41) adopted at the 34th session in March 2017. This represents the joint highest number texts adopted by the Council during a March session (jointly with 2012, 2014 and 2017).

Around 38% of the texts at HRC37 were adopted by a recorded vote. 

28 (66.7%) of the texts adopted by the Council were thematic in nature, while 14 (33.3%) dealt with country-specific situations. Of the latter texts, six addressed human rights violations under agenda item 4, five under item 7, and three sought to protect human rights through technical assistance and capacity building (under item 10).

24 of the texts adopted by the Council (57.1 %) had Programme Budget Implications (PBI), requiring appropriations of $11,881,000 not previously covered by the UN regular budget.  

Resolutions listed in order of L numbers

Agenda ItemResolutionsCore GroupPBIsExtra-Budgetary AppropriationsAdoption
 4The deteriorating situation of human rights in Eastern Ghouta, in the Syrian Arab RepublicUnited Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland  –

Adopted by vote
(29-4-14)

The right to privacy in the digital ageAustria, Brazil, Germany, Liechtenstein, Mexico  $0Adopted without a vote 
Integrity of the judicial system  Russian Federation$55,800 Adopted by vote
(23-2-22)
Adequate housing as a component of the right to an adequate standard of living, and the right to non-discrimination in this contextBrazil, Finland, Germany, Namibia $252,600 Adopted without a vote
 3Mandate of the Independent Expert on the enjoyment of human rights by persons with albinism Togo (on behalf of the Group of African States)$0 Adopted without a vote  
10 Technical assistance and capacity-building for Mali in the field of human rights Togo (on behalf of the Group of African States) $0  Adopted without a vote
The role of good governance in the promotion and protection of human rights Australia, Chile, Poland, Republic of Korea, South Africa $111,400 Adopted without a vote
Promoting human rights and Sustainable Development Goals through transparent, accountable and efficient public services delivery Azerbaijan, Georgia, Kenya, Thailand – Adopted without a vote
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 Organization of Islamic Cooperation) $29,100 Adopted without a vote
7Human rights in the occupied Syrian GolanPakistan (on behalf of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation)   –Adopted by vote
(25-14-7)
3Human rights and the environmentCosta Rica, Maldives, Morocco, Slovenia, Switzerland $177,200 Adopted without a vote 
3Freedom of religion or beliefBulgaria (on behalf of the European Union) – Adopted without a vote 
3The right to foodCuba –  Adopted by vote
(46-1-0)
3The 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 rightsCuba – Adopted by vote
(27-4-16) 
3Mandate of the Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rightsCuba $0 Adopted without a vote
Question of the realization in all countries of economic, social and cultural rights Portugal – Adopted without a vote
Rights of persons belonging to national or ethnic, religious and linguistic minorities Austria, Mexico, Slovenia – Adopted without a vote
High-level intersessional discussion celebrating the centenary of Nelson Mandela Togo (on behalf of the Group of African States) $82,200 Adopted without a vote
 10Cooperation with GeorgiaGeorgia $29,100 Adopted by vote
(19-5-23) 
Right to work Egypt, Greece, Indonesia, Mexico, Romania $29,100Adopted without a vote
Situation of human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea Bulgaria (on behalf of the European Union), Japan  $0Adopted without a vote
Cultural rights and the protection of cultural heritage Argentina, Cyprus, Ethiopia, Greece, Iraq, Ireland, Italy, Mali, Poland, Serbia, Switzerland $212,600 Adopted without a vote
Promoting human rights through sport and the Olympic ideal Brazil, China, Congo, Cyprus, Greece, Japan, Lebanon, Morocco, Republic of Korea, Russian Federation $65,000 Adopted without a vote
3The negative impact of corruption on the right to be free from torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishmentDenmark –Adopted without a vote
3Rights of the child: protection of the rights of the child in humanitarian situationsBulgaria (on behalf of the European Union), Uruguay (on behalf of GRULAC) $161,400Adopted without a vote 
3Human rights and unilateral coercive measuresBolivarian Republic of Venezuela (on behalf of the Non-Aligned Movement) –Adopted by vote
(28-15-3) 
3Equality and non-discrimination of persons with disabilities and the right of persons with disabilities to access to justiceMexico, New Zealand  –Adopted without a vote
3Promoting mutually beneficial cooperation in the field of human rightsChina – Adopted by vote
(28-15-3)
Promotion and protection of human rights and the implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development Azerbaijan, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Denmark, Ecuador, Fiji, Luxembourg, Portugal, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Thailand, Uruguay $259,500 Adopted without a vote
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 $6,563,300 Adopted by vote
(27-4-6)
Situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran Republic of Moldova, Sweden, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, United States of America  ✓$0 Adopted by vote
(27-4-6)
Situation of human rights in South SudanAlbania, Paraguay, United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, United States of America $3,630,800 Adopted without a vote 
Contribution to the implementation of the joint commitment to effectively addressing and countering the world drug problem with regard to human rightsAlbania, Brazil, Colombia, Greece, Guatemala, Mexico, Paraguay, Portugal, Switzerland, Uruguay  ✓$45,100 Adopted by vote
(26-10-11)
The need for an integrated approach to the implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development for the full realization of human rights, focusing on all means of implementationAlgeria, Cuba, Pakistan, South Africa  – Adopted without a vote
Situation of human rights in MyanmarBulgaria (on behalf of the European Union) ✓ $0Adopted by vote
(32-5-10)
Prevention of genocideArmenia ✓ $147,700  Adopted without a vote
10 Technical assistance and capacity-building to improve human rights in LibyaTogo (on behalf of the Group of African States) ✓ $29,100  Adopted without a vote
Right of the Palestinian people to self-determinationPakistan (on behalf of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation)  –  Adopted by vote
(43-1-2)
Human rights situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East JerusalemPakistan (on behalf of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation)  – Adopted by vote
(25-14-7)
Israeli settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem, and in the occupied Syrian GolanPakistan (on behalf of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation)  – Adopted by vote
(34-4-8) 
Ensuring accountability and justice for all violations of international law in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East JerusalemPakistan (on behalf of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation)  – Adopted by vote
(24-4-15) 
3Terrorism and human rights Egypt, Mexico

Adopted without a vote

Analysis and conclusions

The first and main Council session of the year saw the continuation of old arguments, but also important new initiatives and new constellations of State positions. Prominent themes from the High-Level Segment at the start of HRC37 (e.g. prevention and implementation) persisted and were taken forward during the session, including through joint statements and Council resolutions. As with Council sessions in 2017, all this took place against a backdrop of calls for reform of the Council (improved efficiency and effectiveness) and of threats by the US Administration to walk away should the body continue to focus, in an unbalanced manner, on Israel.

Council strengthening

Ahead of the 37th session, the new Council President, Vojislav Šuc (Slovenia), presented modest short-term proposals to improve the efficiency of the Council’s methods of work. These proposals included the clustering and staggering of general debates, based on the (valid) premise that it is unnecessary (and a waste of resources) to have general debates under every agenda item at every session; and a proposal to reduce panel debates from three to two hours.

Unfortunately – and indeed surprisingly – the proposals to streamline Council general debates did not receive the consensual support of Council members and observers. According to talk in the corridors of the UN, the main culprits for this breakdown were the EU (in particular one or two EU member States which feared – wrongly – the ‘weakening’ of item 4) and the Palestinian delegation (which feared – also wrongly – a ‘weakening’ of item 7).

The proposed restructuring of panel discussions did receive the Council’s backing, bringing some modest efficiency gains. However, looking ahead it is vital that the Bureau revisits proposals for a more streamlined programme of work both in the short-term (many observers believe that the President could have pushed a little harder on staggering) and in the long-term (via the three groups of co-facilitators appointed by the President).

At the end of the session, the Netherlands delivered a statement on behalf of 51 States, expressing support for the Bureau’s efficiency reform efforts, and underscoring the importance of effectiveness-focused reforms, including the strengthening of prevention and implementation. 

Finally, in another important ‘reform’ statement at HRC37, Australia deliver a joint pledge on behalf of incoming members of the Council (Australia, Afghanistan, Angola, Chile, Mexico, Nepal, Peru, Senegal, Slovakia, Spain and Ukraine) to comply with the membership criteria set down in GA resolution 60/251 (i.e. ‘to uphold the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights’ and ‘fully cooperate with the Council [and its mechanisms].’) In order to do so, the States pledged to: cooperate with OHCHR and the Council’s mechanisms; address human rights concerns on their merits based on application of the ‘Irish Principles;’ engage with the Council in a spirit of self-reflection; engage in consultations in good faith; avoid procedural tactics; work to fulfil both aspects of the Council’s prevention mandate; make progress on the implementation of human rights obligations / recommendations; and work in cooperation with civil society.  

Thematic issues

HRC37 saw the continuation of old debates over the relationship between human rights and development – though with interesting new twists.

There was considerable opposition to, and much public anguish on the part of Western States and NGOs about, a new resolution presented by China on ‘Promoting the international human rights cause through win-win cooperation’ (the name was later changed to ‘Promoting mutually-beneficial cooperation in the field of human rights.’)

Early drafts of the resolution (under the ‘win-win’ title) did indeed raise a number of significant concerns. For example, the preamble stressed that ‘win-win cooperation is the only viable option in an increasingly interdependent, interrelated and integrated world, where countries form a community of shared future,’ that ‘the sovereign and territorial integrity of each state shall be respected,’ and that ‘the world must forge ‘a new form of international relations featuring mutual respect, fairness, justice and win-win cooperation, which is essential…in promoting [the] international human rights cause.’

The final adopted text, following informal negotiations and considerable Western ‘push back,’ represented an important improvement on the original. The contested concept of ‘win-win’ was replaced by ‘mutually-beneficial cooperation’ (which was, in turn, grounded in relevant parts of GA resolution 60/251 such as the call for the Council ‘to be guided by the principles of…constructive international dialogue and cooperation,’) and claims that such cooperation is ‘the only viable’ option for promoting and protecting human rights (or indeed for conducting international relations more widely) were deleted.

The final resolution also, it is worth pointing out, included a number of positive points on, for example: the importance of non-discrimination in the promotion and protection of human rights; the importance of constructive international dialogue and cooperation in making ‘an effective and practical contribution to preventing violations of human rights’; and the importance of international cooperation, capacity-building and technical assistance as a means of ‘strengthening the capacity of States to comply with their human rights obligations.’

Notwithstanding these improvements, a large number of Western States and NGOs lined up, during the last weeks of the session, to criticise the draft; and when the Council moved to take action, the US called for a vote. The resolution was eventually adopted with 28 in favour, 1 against and 17 abstentions.

What to make of this initiative and the politics around it?

Perhaps a good place to start is to imagine what would have happened if the final text had been presented by, say, Costa Rica or Sierra Leone. Would it have attracted so much criticism? The answer is probably ‘no.’ This in-turn suggests that the main issue was not so much the resolution itself, but the State that tabled it. Western States and human rights NGOs are deeply concerned about China’s new assertiveness at the Council – which mirrors its increasingly proactive stance in other international fora (such as those dealing with climate change and trade). Over the past two years China has (for the first time in the history of the UN) tabled a number of thematic resolutions and presidential statements clearly designed to assert its own worldview within the work of the Human Rights Council. Last June, for example, China tabled a resolution on ‘the contribution of development to the enjoyment of human rights,’ (adopted with 30 in favour, 13 against and 3 abstentions).

But can China really be blamed for being more assertive at the Council or for pushing its own particular human rights ‘worldview’? Does not every other delegation do exactly the same?

By the same token, Western States and civil society were right to push back against the early drafts of the resolution – which did represent a serious challenge to their views on what the Council is and how it should work. In particular, Western States (rightfully) defended the prerogatives of the UN to protect as well as to promote human rights (i.e. in situations where a State refuses to cooperate and instead continues to violate human rights).

More than any other Western State, China’s new resolutions represented a particular challenge to the interests and human rights ‘worldview’ of the US. As the US withdraws – or threatens to withdraw – from important UN bodies and organisations, so it’s emerging superpower rival is increasingly willing to step in. Recent developments at the Human Rights Council fit this pattern perfectly. It should come as no surprise that the only country, in the end, which voted against China’s draft resolution was the US.

Other important thematic developments at HRC37 included:

  • A welcome agreement between Mexico and Egypt to merge their respective resolutions on terrorism and human rights (one of which had underscored the importance of respecting human rights while countering terrorism, and the other which had highlighted the negative impacts of terrorism on human rights). This development is extremely important for coherent policymaking at the Council (and thus for its credibility), as well as for the body’s efficiency. An amendment to the draft tabled by South Africa, which called for a clearer distinction between ‘terrorism’ and ‘national liberation movements,’ was rejected; and the resolution as a whole was adopted by consensus.
  • Protracted arguments over a text presented by Mexico, Switzerland and others on ‘countering the world drug problem with regard to human rights.’ The resolution was attacked by Cuba, Egypt, the Philippines and Russia, which accused the sponsors of trying to rewrite international rules on the fight against drugs (rules agreed by States in relevant parts of the UN in Vienna and New York). The sponsors countered that the serious human rights violations committed in countries like the Philippines, under the cover of ‘the war of drugs,’ show the importance of building a human rights-based approach to the problem. During voting, one amendment out of the four originally tabled was adopted, and the final text (as amended) was adopted with 26 in favour, 10 against and 11 abstentions.
  • Two resolutions on the relationship between human rights and the SDGs: one by Chile, Denmark and a cross-regional core group; and one by South Africa. In the end, the two resolutions made the same overall point: that States’ international human rights obligations and SDG commitments are mutually reinforcing, and that national implementation and reporting should best occur in an integrated manner. The Chile-Denmark draft requested the Council to convene two annual dialogue and cooperation meetings to allow States to share good practices. The outcomes of these meetings would represent a Council contribution to the High-Level Political Forum (HLPF) on the SDGs in New York. The South African text, on the other hand, requested the President of ECOSOC to travel to Geneva to contribute to the work of the Council. Both resolutions were adopted by consensus.

Country-specific situations

Ever since the adoption of the Council’s institution building package (IBP) in 2007, it has been clear that having a stand-alone agenda item (item 7) on Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) does little to help the cause of human rights in those Territories. Indeed, it is likely that the existence of a stand-alone item 7 actually hurts that cause by reducing the legitimacy and credibility of the Council’s vital work in this area, and by providing a procedural pretext for the US to avoid engaging on the substance – i.e. how to bring an end to, and secure accountability for, decades of serious human rights violations perpetrated against the people of Palestine.

Against this background, at HRC37 the Palestinian delegation and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) tabled five separate resolutions under item 7. In response, the US refused to engage on any of the texts and voted against each one, joined at this session by Australia (and by Togo for four of the five texts). At the same time, the UK followed through on its 2017 threat to vote against any further item 7 resolutions on ‘ensuring accountability and justice for violations in the OPT.’ The EU as a whole (i.e. common position) opposed the draft text on the Syrian Golan, and, in its item 7 statement, called on Palestine / the OIC to reduce the number and length of item 7 texts.

Another high-profile case addressed by the Council at its 37th session was the situation of human rights in Myanmar, in particular relating to allegations of gross and systematic human rights violations and abuses committed in Rakhine state. After the failure of Myanmar, which as a State has the primary responsibility for the promotion and protection of human rights, but also of the UN human rights system, to seize the opportunity provided by the election of a democratic civilian government in November 2015, coupled with the gross and systematic violations committed with impunity by Myanmar’s military, the Council has reverted (broadly) to its pre-2011 approach to the situation in the country. In other words, it adopts (long and detailed) resolutions commending human rights progress in some areas, while condemning violations and calling for UN human rights accountability mechanisms (now including an Independent International Fact-Finding Mission) to be given access.

The draft text on the situation in Myanmar was eventually adopted with 32 in favour, 5 against and 10 abstentions. China in particular was highly critical of the resolution. This is the first time a Council resolution on Myanmar has been called to a vote – a worrying development for all concerned. Interestingly, developing countries of the OIC (e.g. Egypt, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia), which normally maintain a ‘principled position’ against country-specific resolutions and mandates, voted in favour of the text.

Other important country-specific texts adopted at HRC37 included those under item 4 on: South Sudan (adopted without a vote), Eastern Ghouta (29-4-14) and Syria generally (27-4-16); and those under item 10 on: Georgia (19-5-23), Libya (adopted without a vote) and Mali (adopted without a vote).

Finally, voting on the draft resolution on the situation in Iran offers a useful lens through which to view the current political composition of the Council, especially in relation to members’ stance on country-specific human rights violations. At HRC37, the main sponsors, Sweden and the US, were able to secure 21 votes in favour, 7 against and 19 abstentions. This is roughly the same number as voted in favour in 2017 (22) and 2016 (20). The number of States opposing the resolution dropped this year from 12 in 2017 and 15 in 2016.

 


Photo credits

Featured photo: Secretary-General Antonio Guterres with Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights during the High Level Segment of the 37th Session of the Human Rights Coucil. 26 february 2018. UN Photo / Jean-Marc Ferré licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. 

Kang Kyung-wha, Minister for Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Korea at the 37th Session of the Human Rights Council, Palais des Nation. 26 February 2018. Photo by Violaine Martin licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. 

Martin Chungong, Secretary General of the Inter-Parliamentary Union during of the High Level Segment of the 37th Session of the Human Rights Council. 27 february 2018. UN Photo / Jean-Marc Ferré licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. 

Mohamed T. H. Siala, Minister for Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation of the State of Libya during of the High Level Segment of the 37th Session of the Human Rights Council. 28 february 2018. UN Photo / Jean-Marc Ferré licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. 

Secretary-General Antonio Guterres speaks during the High Level Segment of the 37th Session of the Human Rights Council. 26 february 2018. UN Photo / Jean-Marc Ferré

Participants at a Panel discussion to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the UDHR and the 25th anniversary of the VDPA during of the 37th Session of the Human Rights Council. 28 february 2018. UN Photo / Jean-Marc Ferré; licensed under CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Pictures with LDCs/SIDS delegates with H.E. Mr Vojislav ŠUC (Slovenia), President of the Human Rights Council, Twelfth Cycle (2018) , March 20, 2018, Geneva, Switzerland. OCHCHR/Pierre Albouy

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