The 48th regular session of the Human Rights Council (HRC48) was held from Monday 13 September to Monday 11 October 2021.
- On 13 September, H.E. Michelle Bachelet presented her global update on the human rights situation around the world, followed by her report on Venezuela (Bolivarian Republic of) and oral updates on Afghanistan, Nicaragua, and Sri Lanka. An enhanced interactive dialogue with the High Commissioner on the situation of human rights in the Tigray region of Ethiopia also took place on the same date.
- Six panel discussions were held during the session.
- More than 80 reports were considered under the Council’s various agenda items.
- The outcome reports of the UPR Working Group of the following 14 States were adopted: Belgium, Denmark, Estonia, Latvia, Namibia, Niger, Mozambique, Palau, Paraguay, Seychelles, Sierra Leone, Singapore, Solomon Islands, and Somalia.
- In a landmark resolution the Human Rights Council recognised the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment and invited the General Assembly to consider the matter.
- Three new Special Procedures mandate-holders were appointed to the following mandates: Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights, one member of the Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent (member from Latin American and Caribbean States), and one member of the Working Group on the issue of human rights and transnational corporations and other business enterprises (member from Latin American and Caribbean States).
- The Council also created three new Special Procedure mandates, including the Special Rapporteur on on the promotion and protection of human rights in the context of climate change, the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Afghanistan, and the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Burundi.
- While no side events could take place at the Palais des Nations due to the measures put in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19, several events were hosted online in the margins of the 48th session.
- 27 texts were considered by the Council, including 26 resolutions, and one decision. Of these, 15 were adopted by consensus (55%), 11 by a recorded vote (41%), and for the first time in its 15-year history the Council also rejected one resolution by a recorded vote (4%). The number of adopted texts represents a significant decrease (30%) on the number adopted one year previously – in September 2020 (HRC45).
- 38 written amendments were put forward by States during the consideration of texts and resolutions. Seven were withdrawn by the main sponsor, two were adopted by a vote, while the remaining 29 amendments were rejected by a vote.
- 20 of the texts adopted by the Council (77%) had Programme Budget Implications (PBI) and 19 required new appropriations not included in previous Programme Budgets. The total costs of the newly mandated activities amounted to a total of $13’435’800, at the time of writing.
Briefing by the High Commissioner for Human Rights
On 13 September 2021, H.E. Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for human rights, opened the 48th regular session of Human Rights Council by presenting her Office’s global update on the state of human rights around the world. Noting that a safe, clean, healthy, and sustainable environment constitutes the foundation of human life, the High Commissioner lamented that due to human action – and inaction – the triple planetary crises of climate change, pollution, and nature loss directly and severely impact a broad range of human rights. As these environmental threats intensify, constituting the single greatest challenge to human rights in our era, she stressed that the greatest uncertainty about these challenges is what policymakers will do about them.
In this context, Ms. Bachelet observed that Council resolution 40/11 powerfully recognises the contribution of environmental human rights defenders to the enjoyment of human rights, environmental protection, and sustainable development. She noted with concern that environmental human rights defenders are threatened, harassed, and even killed in many regions of the world, often with complete impunity. At the greatest risk of abuse and violence are indigenous peoples – whose rights, traditional knowledge, and practices are critical to global efforts to address environmental degradation – and young women and girls who seek to defend environmental rights.
Regarding recovery efforts from the COVID-19 pandemic, Ms. Bachelet emphasised that investing in a just recovery can make a critical contribution to shaping a healthy future. She lamented, however, that this shift is not being consistently and robustly undertaken. The High Commissioner expressed her regret that according to a recent study by the IMF, UNEP and others, only 18.0% of the pandemic recovery spending announced by the world’s 50 largest economies can be considered ‘green.’
She noted that in the 2030 Agenda, the Paris Agreement and other instruments, States have united behind a transformative vision for people-centered sustainable development, yet many have consistently failed to fund and implement it. She therefore urged States to set the bar higher in response to environmental crises as our common future depends on it. Ms. Bachelet informed the Council that her Office is developing new guidelines for human rights-based approaches to recovery, conservation and climate finance, and is working with member States to support a just transition to a sustainable, human rights-based economy.
Observing that environmental damage usually hurts most those who are least protected – the poorest and most marginalised people, and the poorest nations, which often have the least capacity to respond – Ms. Bachelet noted with concern that more than two thirds of deaths from weather- and water-related disasters since 1970 have been in least developed countries. While historical exploitation and decades of unsustainable economic practices by actors in developed countries largely underpin these realities, States’ human rights obligations require them to cooperate towards the progressive realisation of human rights globally, and this should include adequate financing, by those who can best afford it, of climate change mitigation, adaptation, and loss and damage. She announced that at the COP26 climate negotiations, her Office and many partners will be strongly advocating for more ambitious, rights-based and inclusive climate action, and urged the Council’s member States to demonstrate leadership in this respect.
Ms. Bachelet lauded the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which is grounded in human rights, as a roadmap for solutions that can help to heal the planet and ensure that humanity can thrive. The Secretary-General’s Call to Action for Human Rights further commits all UN bodies to work together to assist States to address crucial issues for the environment. She noted that the Call to Action has served as a critical impetus for deepening her Office’s partnership with UNEP, and announced to the Council that they will be launching a joint Environmental Rights Programme to enhance the protection of environmental human rights defenders and civic space; integrate human rights, including the right to a healthy environment, into all relevant negotiations and UN processes; and help build national capacity to promote and protect human rights. She also underlined the important normative role of the Treaty Bodies and NHRIs in this context.
Ms. Bachelet stressed that her Office would continue its work to help States advance a human rights economy that invests in health, social protection and other core economic and social rights, and strengthen its work on business and human rights at the regional and country levels, working with businesses and affected stakeholders to build capacity to address risks to people from harmful business activities, including those related to climate change and environmental degradation.
Finally, Ms. Bachelet cited with approval the focused plan issued by the Secretary-General at the beginning of September to address the crises that face the planet and to secure greater peace and well-being. The twelve commitments enshrined in the Secretary-General’s Common Agenda outline an effort of solidarity and long-term thinking for a world that instead of lurching from crisis to calamity, manages to navigate and resolve threats with the guidance of principle and the exercise of foresight and solidarity.
The High Commissioner also drew the Council’s attention to serious human rights violations on the ground. She noted with concern that since the coup d’état in May, violent extremist activity and severe human rights violations and abuses have continued unabated in Mali, and stressed that the impunity afforded the perpetrators of such crimes is a significant contributing factor in this deteriorating situation. She deplored the non-democratic transition of power in Guinea, and voiced her concern over the significant deterioration of the human rights situation in the Central African Republic, where long-standing patterns of impunity are a major concern due in part to weak national institutions and lack of independent and functioning justice systems. Regarding the August 2021 earthquake in Haiti, she encouraged all actors involved in reconstruction efforts to focus on the need to build greater resilience for the country, with sustainable progress on economic and social rights, particularly for women and girls. Ms. Bachelet lamented the restrictions on public assembly, and frequent temporary communication blackouts, in Jammu and Kashmir, where hundreds of people remain in detention for exercising their right to freedom of expression, and journalists face ever-growing pressure. In Iraq, she noted that impunity for human rights violations against demonstrators and others voicing criticism, together with continued violent attacks against people who have criticised assassinations, abductions, torture and other severe violations, raise serious concerns ahead of the October elections. In Tunisia, she expressed her concern over the President’s suspension of Parliament and dismissal of the Prime Minister, which raise serious institutional questions for the effective protection of human rights in the future. Furthermore, conjoined social, economic and political crises in Lebanon have had a serious and deepening human rights impact, with electricity and fuel shortages seriously impeding the provision of essential services, including the functioning of hospitals, schools and water utilities. Finally, regarding the Occupied Palestinian Territory Ms. Bachelet deplored continued and increasing instances of excessive or unwarranted use of force against Palestinian civilians by Israeli Security Forces. She also noted with deep concern the crackdowns on dissent by the Government of the State of Palestine in recent months that followed the killing of activist Nizar Banat in June, with the Palestinian Security Forces using unjustifiable force against peaceful protesters.
Overall, the High Commissioner raised 15 country situations in her update to the Council. The official transcript of Ms Bachelet’s speech can be found here.
A total of 6 panel discussions were held during the 48th session. The panels were on the following topics:
- Unilateral coercive measures: the issue of jurisdiction and extraterritoriality challenges and its inadmissibility under international law (Biennial panel discussion on unilateral coercive measures and human rights) (summary – video)
- The gender digital divide in times of the COVID-19 pandemic (Annual discussion on the integration of a gender perspective throughout the work of the Human Rights Council and that of its mechanisms) (summary – video)
- The situation of human rights of indigenous peoples facing the COVID-19 pandemic, with a special focus on the right to participation (Annual half-day panel discussion on the rights of indigenous peoples) (summary – video)
- Half-day panel discussion on deepening inequalities exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and their implications for the realization of human rights (summary – video)
- High-level panel discussion on the tenth anniversary of the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights Education and Training: good practices, challenges and the way forward (summary – video)
- Panel discussion on the promotion and protection of human rights in the context of peaceful protests (summary – video)
Interactive dialogues with Special Procedure mandate holders
Special Rapporteur on the promotion of truth, justice, reparation and guarantees of non-recurrence
Mr. Fabian Salvioli, Special Rapporteur on the promotion of truth, justice, reparation and guarantees of non-recurrence, addressed the Human Rights Council on Thursday 16 September 2021, presenting his report on prosecuting and punishing gross violations of human rights and serious violations of international humanitarian law in the context of transitional justice processes. Mr. Salvioli stated that accountability must be ensured for both legal and moral reasons. It is a legal obligation of States under international human rights law, and neither political considerations nor statecraft can be invoked to violate it. Mr. Salvioli underlined that accountability and the appropriate punishment of perpetrators are essential conditions for a peaceful and sustainable transition from conflict. While the goal of establishing peace and democracy is imperative, he observed that the obstruction of accountability efforts often entrenches a culture of impunity and may even be a precursor to further violations. In order to achieve effective and sustainable reconciliation, States in transition must adopt a holistic process, respecting the five pillars of transitional justice – truth, justice, reparations, guarantees of non-repetition and memory – in full consultation with victims and civil society.
Mr. Salvioli also presented his two follow-up reports on visits to Tunisia, Uruguay, Spain, Burundi, the United Kingdom, and Sri Lanka. He acknowledged the progress made in certain areas but observed that challenges remain. In Sri Lanka, Mr. Salvioli lamented a serious deterioration in the human rights situation, which jeopardises the transitional justice process, and regretted the lack of implementation of the recommendations made to date.
During the interactive part of the meeting, States commended the Special Rapporteur’s efforts in the fight against impunity and endorsed his conclusion that prosecuting and punishing grave human rights violations is a primary responsibility of States. Some delegations stressed the need to consider national contexts and called for the Council to respect the autonomy of national judicial systems and the principle of State sovereignty. Switzerland, on behalf of a group of States, invited the Special Rapporteur to share his reflections on the role of technology in ensuring accountability. At the end of the Interactive Dialogue, civil society representatives were invited to make comments, expressing concern about a culture of impunity in several countries.
Special Rapporteur on the rights of Indigenous Peoples
The Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, Francisco Cali Tzay, opened the Interactive Dialogue with a presentation on the disproportionate negative impact of the pandemic on the lives of indigenous peoples.
Mr. Tzay began by thanking the scientists and experts who developed the COVID-19 vaccines, thereby shaping a path out of the pandemic. He expressed regret, however, that indigenous peoples are being left behind, not only due to the impact of the virus itself but also due to a lack of adequate measures by States in many parts of the world. He stressed that the efficiency of measures adopted in the context of COVID-19 is undermined by the failure of decision-makers to consult with the indigenous population concerned, and a lack of recognition of indigenous knowledge. He further expressed concern that COVID-19 is being used as a pretext to strengthen military responses and criminalise the activities of indigenous human rights defenders. He observed that indigenous peoples face an increased risk of COVID-19 infection, but vaccine deployment to indigenous populations, particularly those living in remote areas, has not been prioritised.
Mr. Tzay noted with approval that despite the continued threat to their lives and livelihoods, indigenous peoples are leading initiatives to recover from the pandemic. These initiatives are designed to enable communities to exercise their right to self-determination and self-governance, and to reconnect with their traditional land and cultural practices as part of their collective response to COVID-19. He called on States to support these initiatives as part of the reconstruction and recovery process, thereby enabling indigenous peoples to restore their traditional livelihoods and economies.
Indigenous communities called for dedicated action to overcome lack of information about COVID-19, and lamented the failure of governments to raise sufficient awareness about vaccination campaigns and restrictive measures. They stressed the need to protect indigenous land, which not only enables indigenous peoples to recover from the health crisis, but also ensures food security and sustainable livelihoods, increasing their resilience in the face of future pandemics. The Special Rapporteur recommended greater inclusion and participation of indigenous peoples in the recovery process in order to adequately design measures on the basis of their unique needs, and called for greater support for indigenous-led initiatives in this context. He emphasised that inclusion and participation are impossible where States neglect or refuse to recognise the existence of distinct indigenous identities. Mr. Tzay concluded by pointing out that COVID-19 presents a unique opportunity to reconsider indigenous peoples’ knowledge, traditions and livelihoods as stewards of the environment and natural resources that will constitute the pillars of a post-COVID-19 economic recovery.
Interactive Dialogue with the Independent Expert on the human rights of older persons
Ms. Claudia Mahler, Independent Expert on the enjoyment of all human rights by older persons, addressed the Human Rights Council on 20 September 2021. In her report, the Independent Expert examines and raises awareness of the prevalence of ageism and age discrimination, analyses their possible causes and manifestations, and reviews the way the existing legal and policy frameworks at the international and regional levels protect against ageism and age discrimination.
At the outset, Ms. Mahler stressed that while the pandemic affected everyone, it had a disproportionate impact on older persons and amplified existing violations of their rights. She observed that prevalent ageist attitudes were visible in the form of insults and negative images of older persons in the media and public debate, particularly in the early days of the pandemic, which often resulted in human rights violations and a denial of their dignity. Ms. Mahler further explained that ageism leads to age discrimination and prevents older persons from fully enjoying their human rights, thus exerting a negative impact on all generations and contributing to an intergenerational divide. She pointed out that international human rights law does not contain a clear and comprehensive prohibition of age discrimination, unlike existing treaties that oblige States parties to take measures to eliminate racism, sexism, and discrimination based on physical ability. Ms. Mahler therefore emphasised that a comprehensive international treaty on the human rights of older persons, containing a clear prohibition of age discrimination, would enable a paradigm shift and provide much-needed standards and guidance to promote, realise, and protect the human rights of older persons in a practical and meaningful way.
Many of the delegations that took the floor during the interactive part of the session described measures taken during the pandemic at the national level to protect older persons. They reaffirmed their commitment to protecting the rights of all persons, including older persons. Several States also expressed concern about the presence of ageism in the world, which reinforces discrimination, marginalisation, and exclusion of older persons, and the disproportionate impact of the COVID-19 crisis on older persons and persons with disabilities. UN Women highlighted that older persons with disabilities, including women, are often disempowered and seen as irrelevant and burdensome by their communities.
Interactive Dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on racism
Ms. E. Tendayi Achiume, Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia, and related intolerance, addressed the Human Rights Council on 4 October 2021. The Special Rapporteur presented two reports. The first one, titled ‘Racial and xenophobic discrimination and the use of digital technologies in border and immigration enforcement’, aims to highlight how digital technologies are being deployed to advance the xenophobic and racially discriminatory treatment and exclusion of migrants, refugees, and stateless persons. The second report entitled ‘Combating glorification of Nazism, neo-Nazism and other practices that contribute to fuelling contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance’ summarises State submissions regarding the actions they have taken to combat glorification of Nazism, neo-Nazism and other practices that contribute to fuelling contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia, and related intolerance.
One of the main findings of the former report is that governments and non-State actors are developing and deploying new technologies in the context of immigration enforcement without considering the human rights violations, discriminatory structures, and experimental risks that these technologies create. Ms. Achiume stressed that these burdens are borne mainly by refugees, asylum-seekers, migrants, stateless persons, and peoples with nomadic traditions. The application of technologies in the border and immigration context presents unique risks because non-citizens, stateless persons, and related groups often do not enjoy the legal protections afforded to citizens. She noted that in these areas, governments generally retain broad and uncontrollable discretionary powers, and added that private companies have played an increasingly active role in the development of border control technologies. Ms. Achiume therefore urged States and non-State actors to recognise that digital borders threaten human rights and to take immediate steps to mitigate these threats. Recalling that technology is never neutral and fundamentally shaped by the same structures of inequality that operate in society, the Special Rapporteur recommended an immediate ban on the acquisition, sale, transfer, and use of surveillance technologies in border surveillance until strong human rights safeguards are in place to regulate these practices.
When presenting the latter report, Ms. Achiume highlighted the efforts made by States to combat the glorification and resurgence of ideologies of intolerance and racial superiority, including Nazism and neo-Nazism. Notwithstanding, she noted with regret that the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated, and continued to contribute, to anti-Semitic, racist, and xenophobic hate speech, conspiracies, and public discourse. She recommended that States and non-State actors, in particular social media providers, take a proactive approach to identifying, removing, and preventing content that violates international prohibitions against incitement to racial hatred and the promotion of ideologies of racial superiority.
The delegations taking the floor during the interactive part of the session observed that despite some progress, racism and racial discrimination unfortunately remain pervasive, and noted with concern the rise of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia in many parts of the world. Racial and ethnic discrimination in everyday life constitutes a threat to societies and undermines aspirations for peaceful and harmonious co-existence. States stressed that people of African descent continue to face complex forms of racial discrimination, marginalisation, and exclusion, shaped by historical legacies of exploitation and abuse. States condemned racial discrimination and xenophobia, and lamented an increase in online abuse as well as the proliferation of racist and xenophobic expressions on social networks, including against migrants, refugees, and stateless persons. States generally agreed that the COVID-19 pandemic has worsened attacks against migrants and refugees, and deplored the use of digital technologies to advance xenophobic ideologies and racial discrimination. Finally, they reaffirmed their determination to fight all forms of racism and racial discrimination.
Commissions of Inquiry, Fact-Finding Missions and Independent investigations
Interactive Dialogue with the Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar
Mr. Nicholas Koumjian, head of the Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar, presented the third annual report of the IIMM on Monday 13th September 2021. The report covers activities from 8 July 2020 (the date of the previous report to the Council) to 15 June 2021.
Mr. Koumjian explained that the Mechanism continues to collect, consolidate, preserve, and analyse evidence of the most serious international crimes and violations of international law committed in Myanmar since 2011. Since the military seized power in February, the IIMM has received reports of unjustified use of force against peaceful protesters, arbitrary arrests, torture, enforced disappearances and killings. Mr. Koumjian noted that serious crimes and violations of international law continue to be committed in Myanmar, therefore the nation’s long history of impunity continues to impact the lives of its people. He emphasised the need to break this cycle of violence and impunity.
Furthermore, Mr. Koumjian explained that the 219,000 pieces of information collected by the Mechanism indicate that these crimes are both widespread and systematic. He informed the Council that according to preliminary evidence, approximately 1,000 civilians have been killed; security forces have acted in a coordinated manner in different regions, systematically targeting specific categories of people such as journalists and health workers. He stressed that under international law, arbitrary killings and detention committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack against a civilian population may constitute crimes against humanity. At the same time, Mr. Koumjian recalled that the Mechanism is not a court, and that legal accountability for international crimes committed in Myanmar depends on the existence of competent authorities willing and able to hold the perpetrators to account in fair proceedings. Mr. Koumjian stressed that the IIMM pays particular attention to the investigation of sexual and gender-based crimes and crimes against children, as these crimes are often under-reported and under-prosecuted by criminal justice systems. Moreover, the IIMM will continue to collect evidence of the most serious international crimes to ensure that one day justice will be done for the victims in Myanmar.
Myanmar, as the concerned country, did not take the floor during the Interactive Dialogue.
Enhanced Interactive Dialogue with the Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan
Ms. Yasmin Sooka, Chair of the Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan, presented an oral update to the Council, alongside a conference room paper on economic crimes and related violations, on 23 September 2021.
At the outset, Ms. Sooka noted that South Sudan’s transition is faltering, with the humanitarian crisis unfolding characterised by insecurity and the erosion of human rights, while the prospect of elections in this insecure and unstable environment further heightens concerns. Observing that nine out of the ten states in South Sudan are engulfed in violence, she expressed deep regret that South Sudan’s leaders and political elites are active participants and enablers of this violence. She further stressed that the current disintegration and fragmentation in the security sector owes its origins to the current political process which rewards military actors with political power.
Ms. Sooka further raised concern over the recent violent crackdown on civil society, which has been accompanied by a nation-wide internet and media shutdown in Juba. She informed the Council that in March and July, the Governors of Warrap State and Lakes State ordered the execution of more than 56 individuals, including minors, which are sufficiently similar, widespread, and systematic to support the conclusion that this is a government policy and that they may constitute crimes against humanity.
Ms. Sooka concluded by stressing that sustainable peace in South Sudan requires the pursuit of a shared vision of power-sharing which draws in all of South Sudan’s constituencies and regions, as well as for the South Sudanese political elites to agree among each other on how to share power, resources, and sovereignty in a country for whose independence they struggled for so long.
The Minister of Justice and Constitutional Affairs of South Sudan, speaking on behalf of the country concerned, stated that the human rights situation in South Sudan has improved since the formation of the Revitalized Transitional Government of National Unity in February 2020. He noted that national political institutions have been successfully reconstituted, including the National Legislative Assembly, the Council of States, and State Assemblies, and affirmed to the Council that the security situation across the country is relatively calm and peaceful.
Interactive Dialogue with the Commission of Inquiry on Burundi
Mr. Doudou Diène, Chair of the Commission of Inquiry on Burundi, addressed the Human Rights Council on 23 September 2021, presenting the final report of the Commission, alongside the Commission’s detailed conclusions.
At the outset, Mr. Diène observed that the Commission focused its investigations on the most serious human rights violations committed in Burundi since President Ndayishimiye took office in June 2020. The Commission also analysed the overall developments of the human rights situation during that period, including the economic underpinnings of the State, and updated its analysis of the risk factors.
Mr. Diène noted that despite President Ndayishimiye’s numerous promises to sustainably improve the human rights situation in Burundi, to date, only symbolic gestures, certainly welcome, and decisions, often controversial, have been made. He stressed that these are neither sufficient nor adequate to have a sustainable and profound impact on the human rights situation. Nothing was done to truly reopen the democratic space and fully guarantee the fundamental freedoms of expression, information and association. He stressed that the façade of normalisation hides a very concerning human rights situation.
While the number and frequency of violations initially decreased following the end of the 2020 electoral process, Mr. Diène informed the Council that from June 2021 the Commission noted an increase in violations, mainly in the context of the fight against armed groups allegedly responsible for attacks perpetrated throughout the country since August 2020. Since that date, security incidents have been regularly reported, including armed clashes and exchanges of gunfire between members of the security forces, sometimes supported by the Imbonerakure, and groups of often unidentified armed men. Indiscriminate attacks against civilians were also conducted, notably on 25 May 2021 in Bujumbura, during which grenades were launched in very busy public spaces. Mr. Diène informed the Council that according to the Commission, there are reasonable grounds to believe that a significant number of political opponents were victims of violations under the guise of pursuing the persons responsible for the armed attacks. In any case, he stressed that there is no justification for such practices, since the fight against criminality and terrorism must be carried out in strict compliance with human rights.
Mr. Diène further observed that the democratic space remains closed and tightly controlled by the Burundian authorities despite some encouraging gestures, seeking to appease the international community. He noted in this regard that the National Communications Council maintains a tight control on media content and on the work of journalists, and does not hesitate to call them to order in cases of ‘ill-conceived’ articles. Ultimately, journalists who work in the country are forced to self-censor because they work under the threat of sanctions by the CNC, and of possible abusive and arbitrary criminal prosecution. In addition, the government plans to further tighten its control by revising the 2018 press law in order to prohibit the dissemination on social media of ‘content contrary to Burundian culture’.
On behalf of the Commission, Mr. Diène recommended to the Council members to avail the necessary means for an international independent mechanism under United Nations auspices to closely and objectively monitor the evolution of the human rights situation in Burundi. He emphasised that on the basis of the responsibility to protect, it is crucial not to abandon the Burundian population, to end the invisibility and isolation of the victims, to continue giving them a voice and to ensure that their suffering is known, recognised and remedied; but also, to contribute to the efforts of bringing to justice the main perpetrators of crimes against humanity and serious human rights violations, in due course, and justice for the victims.
Burundi, speaking as the country concerned, pointed out that several positive developments recognised by the international community should encourage the Council to let Burundi seek its own harmonious development in cooperation with bilateral partners. In terms of good governance, the Burundian delegate informed the Council that the government is applying a zero-tolerance approach to corruption, which has had a positive impact on the realisation of socio-economic rights in the country. Furthermore, efforts have been made to improve freedom of expression and the press, including through an ongoing dialogue between media and the government, and the release of several journalists.
Interactive Dialogue with the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic
On 24 September 2021, Ms. Karen Koning AbuZayd, Member of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, addressed the Human Rights Council.
At the outset, Ms. AbuZayd noted that ten years after the Commission’s establishment, the parties to the conflict continue to perpetrate war crimes and crimes against humanity, infringing the basic human rights of Syrians. As President Assad enters his fourth term in office – controlling about 70% of the territory and 40% of the pre-war population, there seems to be no move towards meaningful reconciliation. On the contrary, incidents of arbitrary and incommunicado detention by government forces remain unabated, and the Commission continued to document grave violations of human rights and international humanitarian law. Ms. AbuZayd further stressed that during the reporting period the Syrian economy has been rapidly deteriorating, causing bread prices to soar and a striking more than 50% increase in food insecurity since the previous year. She emphasised that this is no time to think for anyone that Syria is a country fit for its refugees to return.
Observing that the Syrian war on civilians continues, Ms. AbuZayd informed the Council that recent months have seen increased fighting in the northwest, the northeast, and south of the country, according to the Commission’s most recent report covering the period from 1 July 2020 to 30 June 2021. She noted that the lull in hostilities in northwest Syria, brought about by the March 2020 ceasefire agreement between the Russian Federation and Turkey, has been unravelling, with renewed aerial bombardments and shelling. Medical facilities, such as the ‘de-conflicted’ hospital in Atarib, markets, and residential areas have been struck by aerial and ground attacks, often indiscriminately, causing numerous civilian casualties. Meanwhile, despite public statements indicating a desire to adhere to basic human rights norms, the UN-designated terrorist organisation Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) continued imposing restrictions on media and freedom of expression in its area of control in the northwest, including by arbitrarily detaining media activists and journalists, including women.
Ms. AbuZayd noted that through the past decade of suffering, violations and abuses borne witness to by the Commission, the root causes of the conflict – detention and disappearances, torture, denial of freedom of expression, discrimination, inequality, unresolved housing, land and property rights issues, amongst others – remain unresolved and unaddressed. She implored the Human Rights Council to address the needs and aspirations of Syrians, and to finally put this conflict to an end.
Syria, speaking as the country concerned, noted with regret that the Council’s meetings and mechanisms have become a tool to defame countries based on fabricated reports that do not respect common standards of professionalism and impartiality, and contain unfounded accusations. The Syrian delegate criticised that the Commission ignored American, Turkish, and Israeli attacks in Syria, as well as the provision of military support to terrorist groups and militias in the country.
Interactive Dialogue with the Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela
On 24 September 2021, Ms. Marta Valiñas, Chair of the Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Venezuela, presented to the Council the results of investigations carried out over the last year concerning the role of the Venezuelan justice system in investigating and prosecuting opponents of the government.
Ms. Valiñas informed the Council that based on the year-long investigation, the Mission has reasonable grounds to believe that the justice system in Venezuela has played a significant role in state repression of opponents of the government, instead of providing them with protection when they were victims of human rights violations. The Mission has reasonable grounds to believe that in the cases analysed, judges and prosecutors have failed in their obligation to protect opponents from arbitrary arrest and detention, and that pre-trial detention orders were issued on a routine basis and not as an exceptional measure, without sufficient or adequate justification.
Ms. Valiñas further noted that in some of the cases analysed, the Mission has reasonable grounds to believe that the prosecution used information extracted under torture or coercion, and that the judicial authorities admitted this information as evidence. Members of the judicial system have also deprived persons in detention of their right to legal representation, refusing to authorise the appointment of private defence lawyers and insisting that they be represented by public defenders.
She expressed deep regret that the independence of the Venezuelan justice system has been weakened, especially over the last few years. On behalf of the Mission, she recommended that the Venezuelan authorities implement measures in line with the conclusions in the Mission’s report to ensure that all actors in the legal system act independently, in full compliance with the law, and to put an end to human rights violations as documented, ensure accountability, and guarantee justice for victims.
Venezuela, speaking as the country concerned, reiterated its principled objection to both the legitimacy of the Fact-Finding Mission and its findings, deeming the most recent report biased, highly politicised, and based on false information as well as a dubious standard of proof. The delegate speaking on behalf of Venezuela denounced the obsessive persecution against his country, including the criminal imposition of unilateral coercive measures against Venezuela by the US and its European partners.
Universal Periodic Review
Adoption of the UPR Working Group outcome reports
The Council adopted the UPR outcome reports of Belgium, Denmark, Estonia, Latvia, Mozambique, Namibia, Niger, Palau, Paraguay, Seychelles, Sierra Leone, Singapore, Solomon Islands and Somalia. Out of the 3515 recommendations received, 2758 recommendations were accepted, 19 were partially accepted, and 738 were noted or rejected.
18 Special Procedures (14 thematic, four country-specific) presented their annual reports or provided oral updates at HRC48 (all of which are available here). During 18 interactive dialogues (all individual), 124 States delivered 564 statements, of which 29% were from the African Group, 31% from APG, 12% from EEG, 13% from GRULAC, 13% from WEOG, and 2% from other countries (namely the State of Palestine, the Holy See and the Sovereign Order of Malta). Additionally, 47 Joint Statements were delivered.
Appointment of new mandate-holders
Three 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:
- Alexandra XANTHAKI (Greece) was appointed as the Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights;
- Barbara G. REYNOLDS (Guyana) was appointed as a member from the Latin American and Caribbean States for the Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent;
- Fernanda HOPENHAYM (Mexico) was appointed as a member from the Latin American and Caribbean States for the Working Group on the issue of human rights and transnational corporations and other business enterprises.
To inform the appointments, the Consultative Group, made up of representatives of South Africa Malaysia, El Salvador, and Canada, scrutinised around 43 individual applications from 43 eligible candidates for three vacancies. The Consultative Group (2 mandates and 1 mandate) sent its recommendations to the President of the Council, who on 30 August 2021 and 17 September 2021, following ‘broad consultations, in particular through the regional coordinators,’ ‘to ensure the endorsement of [her] proposed candidates’ shared her proposed list of candidates with member States. The President followed the recommendations of the Consultative Group for all three mandates.
General Debate under Items 5 and 10
General debate under item 5
During the General Debate under Item 5, held on 30 September 2021, Slovenia delivered a statement on behalf of the European Union. Slovenia expressed the EU’s firm commitment to supporting the multilateral human rights system, with the UN and its bodies at its core, while stressing the particular importance of linking the work of the Human Rights Council and the Security Council. Slovenia raised concerns about the lack of regular and predictable funding for the Human Rights Council, calling upon member States to fulfil their obligations in addressing the underfunding of the UN human rights pillar.
Brunei Darussalam, speaking on behalf of ASEAN, reaffirmed ASEAN’s commitment to improve the coherence between the human rights mechanisms, particularly the Special Procedures mandate holders. Furthermore, ASEAN expressed support for all endeavours to improve trust between States and Special Procedures, and to avoid practices that lead to the politicisation of human rights mandates and mechanisms.
Uruguay delivered a statement on behalf of the Group of Friends of Special Procedures, noting that the Special Procedures system presents a wealth of expertise and prevention potential concentrated in 79 individuals permanently engaged in monitoring human rights worldwide. The Group of Friends welcomed that Special Procedures have identified the prevention of human rights violations as a priority, and that States have specifically included prevention competencies in resolutions creating and renewing Special Procedures mandates.
A full recording of the General Debate under Item 5 can be viewed here.
General debate under item 10
During the General Debate under Item 10, held on 7 October 2021, Slovenia delivered a statement on behalf of the European Union. Slovenia expressed the EU’s full support for OHCHR’s work on technical assistance, and invited States to respond positively to technical assistance from the Office, including by allowing full access.
Germany thanked the OHCHR for its efforts in carrying out technical assistance, also in challenging human rights situations worldwide. Noting that recipient countries have much to gain from OHCHR support, Germany urged them to cooperate with the assistance provided. Furthermore, since properly funding the UN human rights pillar and the OHCHR remains a challenge, Germany called upon member States to contribute more than just the bare minimum to the UN budget in order to unleash the OHCHR’s full preventative potential.
India expressed the view that the Council should give priority to technical assistance and capacity-building in consultation and dialogue with the concerned State. An approach informed by genuine dialogue should be followed with due respect for the principles of non-interference in the internal affairs of States and their national sovereignty. Observing that the human rights agenda has suffered unprecedented setbacks due to COVID-19, India stressed that technical assistance from the Council has become essential for building back better after the pandemic.
A full recording of the General Debate under Item 10 can be viewed here.
The 48th session of the Council concluded with the adoption of 26 texts. This is 11 texts less than the number of texts (37) adopted at the 45th session in September-October 2020 or a significant decrease of 30%.
When combined with the 43 texts adopted at the 43rd session, and the 23 texts adopted at the 44th session, the total number of texts adopted in 2020 is 103. This represents a decrease (10,8%) compared with the number of texts adopted in 2019 (93), higher than the total number of texts adopted in the two years prior to 2020. This increase can in large part be attributed to the Decisions and Presidential Statements’ that were adopted by the Council relating to the impact of COVID-19 on its functioning.
Around 44% of tabled resolutions at HRC48 were adopted by a recorded vote, while one resolution (4%) was rejected by a vote.
16 (61%) of the texts adopted by the Council were thematic in nature, one (4%) was related to institutional matters, while nine (35%) dealt with country-specific situations. Of the latter texts, one addresses human rights violations under agenda item 2, and two under agenda item 4 ‘Human rights situations that require the Council’s attention, while six sought to protect human rights through technical assistance and capacity building (under item 10).
20 of the texts adopted by the Council (77%) had Programme Budget Implications (PBI), requiring appropriations of $13’435’800 not previously covered by the regular budget.
Resolutions listed in order of L numbers
Presidential statements and decisions listed in order of L numbers
|Agenda Item||Presidential statements and decisions||Type of text||PBIs||Extra-Budgetary Appropriations||Adoption
(Y – N – A)
|1||Reports of the Advisory Committee||Presidential Statement||✗||–||Adopted without a vote|
Analysis and conclusions
HRC48 was one of the most acrimonious sessions in the history of the Human Rights Council, with heightened contemporary geopolitical tensions spilling over into, and in many ways ‘capturing,’ the critical work of the UN’s principal human rights body.
Much of the acrimony was centred on, and much of the growing division generated by, the ‘Great Power’ rivalry of, on the one side, the US, together with its Western allies, and on the other side, China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and their partners in the ‘Like-Minded Group’ (LMG).
When the US last ‘re-engaged’ with the Council under President Barrack Obama (2009-2015), it was indisputably the most powerful and effective actor in Room XX of the Palais des Nations. However, it tended to use that power and influence in a measured way, forging cross-regional coalitions on different issues, and sharing its political capacity (often innovatively) across a range of different thematic and country-specific priorities. These included, freedom of assembly, freedom of expression, human rights on the Internet, combatting religious intolerance, the right to a nationality, technical assistance to Kyrgyzstan, Somalia and Tunisia, schoolchildren in Afghanistan, and the situations in Burundi, Iran, Sri Lanka, South Sudan, and Syria.
Today, as the US once again seeks a seat on the Council under President Biden, the situation – for the moment, at least – appears very different. For one thing, America’s alliances (not just in the West) have frayed under the Presidency of Donald Trump, and good will towards the US, especially on the part of developing countries, is in short supply. Second, China’s strength and influence has increased sharply in America’s absence. The Council to which the US returns is thus a very different place to the one it abruptly left. Compounding this situation, unlike the period 2009-2015 (though admittedly, it is still very early days), so far the US delegation has shown little inclination to develop a ‘wide portfolio’ of initiatives at the Council, including initiatives of importance or benefit to developing countries, and has instead focused almost all of its political capital on one issue, namely, the human rights situation in China (especially Xinjiang and Hong Kong).
China, unsurprisingly considering its newfound strength at the Council and its growing confidence internationally, has not taken this lying down. Instead, for every US-led joint statement criticising China, the People’s Republic has delivered its own attacks on the US, UK, or Canada (e.g., on racism, the slave trade, or indigenous rights); and for every US or UK side event or exhibition about Xinjiang or Hong Kong, China has organised its own, about, for example, ‘poverty alleviation and rural revitalisation in Xinjiang.’
At HRC48, China went even further: upping the stakes in this battle of the superpowers. During the session, it responded to repeated US attacks by tabling two formal draft resolutions – one, on ‘the negative impacts of the legacies of colonialism on the enjoyment of human rights,’ that was a thinly veiled attack on the US and the UK; and a second, on ‘realising a better life for everyone,’ that was a reassertion of China’s ‘vision’ for the future of the universal human rights system (i.e., as primarily there to promote economic and social rights, and development, through cooperation between States).
Two can play
Although the increasingly febrile atmosphere at the Council, over the course of 2021 and reaching a new low at HRC48, principally centred around the clash between the US and its Anglo-Saxon allies on the one side, and China and Russia on the other, the session also saw the European Union (EU) join criticisms of China (and, more obliquely, the US), and Saudi Arabia strike a blow against the Western efforts to secure accountability for gross and systematic human rights violations in Yemen (see below).
Regarding the former, these came clearly to the fore during negations on China’s ‘colonialism’ resolution, where the EU delegation wanted to address the elephant in the room head on and wondered out loud whether the proposal had human rights or geopolitics at its heart, emphasizing the need to preserve the integrity of the Council.
With its intervention, the EU was giving voice to a deep and growing unease, across Council member and observer States from all regions, that the US’s all-consuming focus on human rights in China, and China’s rather petulant over-reactions, are ‘capturing’ the Council, or, as some have said, ‘sucking the oxygen’ from the body’s other important areas of work.
As if to prove to China that bringing new draft resolutions to the Council as a means of striking back at the US, is a risky game to play, proposals were put forward during the negotiations to include references to ‘disputed territorial claims’, which can be considered as a contemporary form of colonialism, and thus should be included in the draft resolution.
Building on this strategy, ahead of voting at HRC48, the UK tabled three ‘hostile’ amendments to China’s text on ‘colonialism,’ (one was subsequently withdrawn).
These sought to include language in China’s resolution:
‘Reaffirming that persecution against members of any identifiable group, collective or community on racial, national, ethnic or other grounds that are universally recognised as impermissible under international law, and the crime of apartheid, constitute serious violations of human rights and, in some cases, qualify as crimes against humanity.’
And thus, urging States:
‘[…] to refrain from the forced assimilation of persons belonging to minorities, including indigenous populations, and to work to ensure that educational curricula and other materials do not stereotype minorities and indigenous populations on the bases of their ethnicity.’
In a blow to China, both amendments were adopted by the Council, the first with 16 in favour, 13 against, and 16 abstentions, and the second by a vote of 15-13-17. The final text, as amended, passed with 27 in favour, 0 against, and 20 abstentions.
A clearly shaken China reacted to this de facto loss of face by withdrawing its draft resolution on ‘realising a better life for everyone.’
The Council rejects a resolution for the first time
Although main sponsors have, in the past, withdrawn texts that were at risk of defeat at the Council, before HRC48, no draft resolution had ever been rejected by Council members in a vote. That changed on 7 October, when members voted by 18 in favour, 21 against, and 7 abstentions, to throw out a resolution, led by the Netherlands, on the human rights situation in Yemen. In doing so, the Council decided against renewing ‘the mandate of the Group of Eminent International and Regional Experts’ – a move that Western ambassadors and NGOs called a betrayal of the people of Yemen and a dark day in the history of the Council.
It seems that the result on Yemen was principally down to intense lobbying (some diplomats have called it ‘bullying’) by Saudi Arabia, particularly directed at African members of the Council. Whatever the truth of these accusations, Saudi Arabia’s tactics were extremely successful. Of 13 African Council members, nine voted ‘no’, four abstained, and no country voted in favour of the renewal of the Council’s accountability mandate on Yemen. It is possible that Saudi Arabia went to such lengths with one eye on the impending return of the US to the Council in January.
The green shoots of hope?
As noted above, HRC48 was one of the most difficult – if not the most difficult – and unpredictable sessions in the history of the Council.
That claim is partly backed-up by quantitative data. 28% of adopted resolutions at HRC48 saw hostile amendments (38 in total) tabled against them. That is significantly more than the previous September session (HRC45), during which only 8.5% of resolutions were targeted by amendments. Around 42% of texts at HRC48 were called to a vote, far higher than HRC45 which saw votes called on 26% of texts.
However, statistics do not tell the whole story. HRC48 continued a trend seen throughout 2021 – namely an increasingly acrimonious US-China relationship (and wider geopolitical arguments among four of the five permanent members of the Security Council) taking much of the Council’s vital work hostage, and subsuming multilateralism beneath bilateral rivalry.
The general unease and unhappiness at this situation reached its height on the evening of Thursday 7 October, after the rejection of the draft resolution on Yemen (while this was not ostensibly linked to China or the US, the former supported Saudi Arabia, and the latter supported the Netherlands).
Fortunately, the next day, Friday 8 October, saw moods lift after two important, progressive resolutions on the environment/climate were adopted by large majorities.
With the first of these, presented by Costa Rica, the Maldives, Morocco, Slovenia and Switzerland, the Council recognised a new universal human right: the right to a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment. The adopted resolution furthermore invites the General Assembly (GA) to also consider recognising this new international human right. That is expected to happen during the current session of the GA, meaning the right to a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment will become only the second new right, and the first stand-alone right, to be fully recognised by the UN since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted in 1948.
After all ten Russian amendments to the draft resolution were comfortably defeated, the Council moved to adopt the text, and thus recognise the right to a healthy environment, by 43 in favour, zero against, and four abstentions – leading to a rare round of applause in the Council chamber, and enormous celebrations amongst the more than 1,400 civil society organisations around the world that had campaigned for UN recognition.
With the second resolution, tabled by Bahamas, EU, Fiji, Marshall Islands, Panama, Paraguay, and Sudan, the Council decided to establish a new Special Rapporteur on human rights and climate change – weeks before the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties, due to start at the end of October in Glasgow, UK.
The return of the Special Rapporteurs
The new Special Rapporteur on human rights and climate change was one of three new Special Rapporteur mandates established at HRC48 (all sponsored by the EU, either alone or in combination with others). The two other new mandates were established to monitor and report on the human rights situations in Afghanistan and Burundi.
Regarding Afghanistan, this result was something of a disappointment for civil society, which had been pushing the EU to establish an investigate mechanism (i.e., a fact-finding mission or commission of inquiry). Notwithstanding, on balance the EU’s decision was probably both proportionate and politically astute (for example, a Special Rapporteur is more likely to secure the cooperation of Afghanistan’s neighbours than would a COI).
Regarding Burundi, the new Special Rapporteur mandate was established in replacement of the COI mandate on Burundi. The EU’s decision to switch from an investigative mechanism to a Special Procedures mandate was likely due, in part, to criticisms of ‘forever mandates’ (including their spiraling costs), and well as a wish, on the part of the Europeans, to engage with the country’s new President. Whatever the reason, the move was heavily criticised by NGOs, including Human Rights Watch.
Featured picture: Opening of the session by the President of the Human Rights Council, Nazhat Shameem Khan, 48th session of the Human Rights Council, Palais des Nations. 13 September 2021 by UN photo by Violaine Martin
Opening of the session by the President of the Human Rights Council, Nazhat Shameem Khan, 48th session of the Human Rights Council, Palais des Nations. 13 September 2021 by Violaine Martin
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