Report on the 45th session of the Human Rights Council

by the URG team Blog, Blog, Instituciones, procesos y mecanismos de derechos humanos internacionales, Reportes del Consejo de Derechos Humanos

Quick summary

  • The 45th regular session of the Human Rights Council (HRC45) was held from Monday 14th September to Wednesday 7th October 2020.
  • On 14th September, H.E. Ms. Michelle Bachelet, presented her oral update on the global human rights situation.
  • In the wake of the violent response by the Belarusian authorities to peaceful demonstrations that occurred in the aftermath of President Alexander Lukashenko’s re-election on 9 August 2020, the Council held an urgent debate on 18 September focused on the ‘situation of human rights in Belarus.’
  • Three panel discussions were held during the session.
  • More than 84 reports under the Council’s various agenda items were considered. 
  • The outcomes of the UPR Working Group reviews of the following 12 countries were adopted: Armenia, Grenada, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Guyana, Kenya, Kiribati, Kyrgyzstan, Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Lesotho, Sweden, and Turkey.
  • Eight new Special Procedures mandate-holders were appointed before the Council suspended its 45th session.
  • 37 texts (35 resolutions, one decision, and one Presidential Statement) were considered and adopted by the Council, including three new initiatives: ‘Eliminating inequality within and among States for the realisation of human rights’; ‘Promoting and protecting the human rights of women and girls in conflict and post-conflict situations on the occasion of the twentieth anniversary of Security Council resolution 1325 (2000)’; and ‘Promoting, protecting and respecting women’s and girls’ full enjoyment of human rights in humanitarian situations.’ This represents a slight decrease (2,7%) compared to last September (HRC42), when 38 texts were adopted. 
  • Of these 35 resolutions, 26 were adopted by consensus (74,3%), and 9 by a recorded vote (25,7%).
  • 40 written amendments were put forward by States during the consideration of resolutions – none were adopted by a vote; 19 were rejected by a vote; and 21 were withdrawn by the sponsors.
  • 32 resolutions adopted by the Council (84,5%) had Programme Budget Implications (PBI) and 25 required new appropriations not included in previous Programme Budgets. The total costs of the newly mandated activities amounted to a total of $23’434’700 (at the moment of writing).

Briefing by the High Commissioner for Human Rights

On 14 September 2020, the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Ms Michelle Bachelet, briefed the Council on human rights developments around the world over the past year. She stressed  that in the context of escalating suffering and turmoil across the world, human rights principles, norms, and actions offer effective solutions to build stronger resilience to shocks and prevent social, economic, and political instabilities. 

Throughout her briefing, the High Commissioner acknowledged the social and economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the enjoyment of human rights. In the Americas, she highlighted that profound inequalities in development, coupled with often fragile democratic systems, signal a warning of potentially high risks of social unrest. The High Commissioner also shed light on the ‘multiple and comprehensive crises’ faced by people in Gaza, where the health sector faces total collapse unless aspects of the blockade imposed by Israel are lifted; in Syria, where the health system is ill-equipped to meet basic needs; and in Afghanistan, where there are continued attacks on health care facilities and personnel.

Ms. Bachelet also expressed concern at various instances of repression of civil society, including threats and intimidation of human rights defenders and journalists, as well as cases of excessive use of force by members of law enforcement. She noted reports of intimidation, prosecution, arbitrary detention, and/or ill-treatment in various countries including Iran, Sri Lanka, Tanzania, Indian-administered Kashmir, the Philippines, as well as the arbitrary detention of women human rights defenders in Saudi Arabia. She also called attention to attacks and killings of human rights defenders and/or journalists in Iraq, Mexico, Brazil, Afghanistan, and Colombia. The High Commissioner spoke of the excessive use of force by law enforcement officials and the violent repression of peaceful protests in Belarus. In the United States, she called for urgent and profound action to combat systemic racism in policing and more generally across society. 

The High Commissioner also noted a series of other concerning country-specific situations. She addressed the fire in a migrant camp in Lesbos, Greece and recalled EU member States of their obligation to cooperate in ensuring that migrants’ lives are protected, and their human rights upheld. In relation to the recent chemical explosion in Lebanon, the High Commissioner asserted that human rights principles must be integrated into efforts to rebuild from the tragedy and that ensuring accountability for the explosion is vital. In Mali, she urged human rights to be upheld, notably during security operations, which she stressed was particularly important given the precarious situation. Meanwhile, she encouraged the Council to give renewed attention to Sri Lanka, in view of the need to prevent threats to peace, reconciliation, and sustainable development. 

The High Commissioner finished her briefing by reiterating that ‘human rights norms provide the tested guidance that can help States de-escalate grievances, deliver appropriate protection, establish a sound foundation for development and security, and ensure justice, freedom, and rights.’ Ultimately, she concluded that by acting together, the international community can weather the current challenges and ensure societies emerge better able to prevent injustice.

Link to full statement.

Urgent debate

On Friday 18 September 2020, in light of recent mass protests in Belarus, and in the context of the 45th session of the Human Rights Council, an urgent debate was convened upon the request of Germany on behalf of the European Union, in order to address the ‘situation of human rights in Belarus’.

After introductory remarks by the President of the Human Rights Council, H.E. Elisabeth Tichy-Fisslberger, a series of keynote addresses were delivered by H.E. Nada Al-Nashif, UN Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mrs. Anaïs Marin, Special Rapporteur on Belarus (on behalf of the Coordination Committee of Special Procedures, via video conference), Mrs. Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, Opposition Leader (via video message) and Mrs. Ekaterina Novikava, Activist (via video message).

In their introductory statements, these high-level speakers all described a situations characterised by human rights violations, in particular torture. They urged the Belarusian authorities to fulfil their obligations under international human rights law to investigate and punish crimes and guarantee redress to victims. While H.E. Nada Al-Nashif and Mrs. Anaïs Marin called on the Council to facilitate dialogue and  prevent the violence from further escalating, Mrs. Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya demanded to launch an international monitoring mission to document the regime’s atrocities and Mrs. Ekaterina Novikava gave her testimony of arbitrary arrest and violence.

During the debate that ensued, 24 member States, 44 observer States, two international organisations and nine civil society organisations took the floor to discuss the human rights situation in Belarus. State speakers were divided into two groups with opposing views. The first group of States was concerned by human rights violations in Belarus, calling for a transparent and independent investigation of the situation, as well as prosecution of perpetrators. They urged Belarus to allow the Special Rapporteur to have full, free and unhindered access to the country and exhorted Belarus to engage in an inclusive dialogue with relevant stakeholders. They further insisted that the Council continue to closely monitor the situation. The second group of States denounced interference of the Council in the internal affairs of Belarus, impeding the country’s sovereignty. State speakers further denounced the politicisation of the Council, pointing to its lack of impartiality and selectivity in choosing the themes of the debates, and arguing that this urgent debate was politically-motivated.

During the 10th meeting of HRC45, member States adopted draft resolution L.1 on the ‘Situation of human rights in Belarus in the run up to the 2020 presidential election and its aftermath’. The resolution requests the High Commissioner to closely monitor the situation of human rights in Belarus; to present to the Council, before the end of 2020, an interim oral update on the situation along with her recommendations, to be followed by an interactive dialogue; and to submit a comprehensive written report on the situation of human rights in Belarus in the lead-up to, during and after the 2020 presidential election during an enhanced interactive dialogue at the forty-sixth session of the Council.

The full report on the urgent debate can be found here.

Panel discussions

A total of three panel discussions were held during the 45th session of the Human Rights Council. The panels were on the following topics:

Commissions of Inquiry, Fact-Finding Missions and Independent investigations

Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar

The head of the Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar (IIMM), Mr. Nicholas Koumjian, presented the second annual report on its activities to date during an interactive dialogue with States and Observers on 14 September 2020.

Mr. Koumjian described the measures taken by the IIMM to implement its mandate, which included recruitment of personnel, adjustment of the structure and organisation, a focus on outreach and communication, and building of systems to safely store evidence. The IIMM created a standalone website and released its first Bulletin in May. More Bulletins should follow at regular intervals to provide an update on the IIMM’s activities. Mr. Koumjian stated that the Mechanism’s ability to travel, engage with relevant stakeholders and collect evidence had been limited in the past six months due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Regarding the mandate of the IIMM, Mr. Koumjian declared that potential information sources had been identified and that the Mechanism was in discussion with Facebook to share materials. Furthermore, the IIMM was reaching out to the government of Myanmar as well to obtain access to relevant information. Mr. Koumjian said that the IIMM had been sharing information with Parties involved in the The Gambia v. Myanmar case before the International Court of Justice (ICJ), as part of the Mechanism’s cooperation with other investigations. Mr. Koumjian called for the continued support and cooperation of the international community, notably member States in the region to help secure access to information and witnesses within Myanmar as well as around the world, and to provide witness protection to individuals.

Myanmar did not take part in the interactive dialogue.

The IIMM will continue to submit annual reports to the Human Rights Council. The next one will be presented during the Council’s 48th regular session.

Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic

On 22 September 2020,  the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic (COI), composed of Mr. Paulo Sérgio Pinheiro (Chair), Karen Koning AbuZayd and Hanny Megally, delivered an oral update to present the 21st report followed by an interactive dialogue with States and NGOs on the situation of human rights in the country.

Mr. Pinheiro stated that human rights violations continue unabated in Syria, perpetrated by all actors in the country. He described cases of arbitrary detention, enforced disappearances, torture and deaths in custody, targeted killings, sexual and gender-based violence, including forced and early marriages and domestic violence in camps. Mr. Pinheiro declared that COVID-19 had worsened the situation, threatening access to food and health supplies.

Mr. Pinheiro encouraged Turkey to utilise its position in the conflict to prevent human rights abuses by the Turkey-backed ‘Syrian National Army’ (SNA) and provide accountability and redress for victims. He called on all member States to continue seeking accountability and ensuring effective legislation to prosecute individuals suspected of war crimes and crimes against humanity in Syria.

The Commission proposed six practical steps for the international community to work towards:

  1. Setting up an international mechanism to coordinate the efforts to collect information on 100,000 missing and disappeared individuals;
  2. Facilitating prisoner releases;
  3. Ensuring monitoring in all places of detention by an independent international organisation such as the ICRC or OHCHR;
  4. Facilitating a moratorium on executions;
  5. Reforming rule of law to ensure that future security and judiciary forces no longer act against the Syrian population;
  6. Actively seeking to remove obstacles to sustainable returns of the 5.6 million refugees and 6.6 million internally displaced Syrians to their homes.

The Syrian Arab Republic, speaking as the country concerned, stated that some countries are fabricating accusations against the Syrian government, waging the war and imposing a siege, violating Syrians’ rights to life, health, food and development. They said that the Council ignored violations of international law in other countries and stressed that the report also ignored the main reasons for the grave economic situation in the country, namely unilateral economic coercive measures and an economic blockade imposed by other States.

The Syrian Arab Republic rejected the report, calling it false, selective, politicised and inconsistent with the rules of professional and objective investigation, stating it was based on stereotypes about the Syrian State and biased sources of information.

Commission of Inquiry on Burundi

The President of the Commission of Inquiry (COI) on Burundi, Mr. Doudou Diene, presented the last report of the Commission during an interactive dialogue with member States and Observers on 23 September 2020.

Mr. Doudou Diene stated that in the context of the 2020 Presidential election in Burundi, human rights violations (intimidatory techniques, summary executions, arbitrary arrests and detention, torture, ill-treatment and sexual violence) had been perpetrated by the Burundian authorities, notably against members of the opposition, in a strategy to ensure an electoral victory. Mr. Diene declared that the Commission particularly focused on cases of sexual violence against men and violations undergone by children.

As part of its mandate, the Commission also looked into the economic situation in Burundi. Mr. Diene stated that the Commission found issues of corruption, malpractice and misappropriation of funds, amongst others.

Mr. Diene declared that the Commission did not detect significant signs of improvement in Burundi since 2015, therefore the international community should continue to closely monitor the situation by maintaining the existence of an international and independent mechanism.

In response, Burundi, the concerned country, declared that the report was defamatory, insulting and politically-motivated, and should be rejected as it suggests that the central mission of the Human Rights Council is no longer to promote and protect human rights around the world but rather to become a politicised body. Burundi stated that the situation in the country was not alarming enough to account for the existence of the Commission, especially because the situation had very much improved since 2015 and should now be removed from the agenda of the Council, which was not respecting the principle of non-interference inscribed in the UN Charter.

Burundi invited the European Union to realise that diplomatic confrontation is not a viable solution to human rights issues, inasmuch as only solidarity for economic development and mutual respect for national sovereignty can contribute to the promotion and protection of human rights.

The draft resolution tabled by Germany on behalf of the European Union extends the mandate of the Commission for one year and requests an oral update about the situation of human rights in the country at the 46th session of the Council, to be followed by an interactive dialogue. It further requests the Commission to present a written report at the 48th session, to be followed by an interactive dialogue as well.

Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan

On 23 September, the Chair of the Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan (CoHR), Ms Yasmin Sooka, gave an oral update on the human rights situation in South Sudan, followed by an enhanced interactive dialogue with Ms Nada Al-Nashif, Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights and Mr. Yakdhan El Habib from the Permanent Delegation of the African Union in Geneva.

Ms Yasmin Sooka stated that the conflict was largely the result of financial corruption and elites fighting for control of the country’s oil and mineral resources. The Commission uncovered the misappropriation of $36 million US dollars since 2016 by senior politicians and government officials. She stressed that the current crisis is being worsened by the pandemic.

Ms Sooka also highlighted that the Revitalised Peace Agreement has not been fully implemented. While a Unity Government has been appointed, noted the failure to appoint women as State Governors: despite a 35% quota set out in the Agreement, only one woman had been appointed. Ms Sooka explained that this quota was important in light of widespread sexual and gender-based violence in South Sudan, including sexual slavery, rape, abduction of women, trafficking of girls, forced marriages and sexual exploitation and abuse by government officials.

H.E. Mr. Ruben Madol Arol, Minister of Justice and Constitutional Affairs of the Republic of South Sudan, spoke for the concerned country. He declared that the Revitalised Peace Agreement had been signed, the Unity Government had been formed and was functioning, and that the security situation was relatively calm. He noted that South Sudan had undertaken efforts to protect children and women and established the Economic Management Committee, tasked with monitoring all financial transactions with a view to ensuring transparency and accountability.

The mandate of the Commission had been renewed for one year at the 43rd session of the Council in July 2020. That resolution also requested the Commission to present a written report at the 46th session of the Council during an interactive dialogue.

Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela

On 23 September, the Fact-finding Mission on the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela (FFM), composed of Ms Marta Valiñas (Chair), Francisco Cox Vial and Paul Seils, delivered an oral update to present the conclusions of the investigation carried out by the Mission since September 2019. It was followed by an interactive dialogue (part 1, part 2) with States and Observers about the situation of human rights in the country.

Ms Marta Valiñas stated that though the FFM had been unable to conduct any investigations on the ground because the Government of Venezuela did not provide access to its territory, it was still able to document generalised and systematic human rights violations, through interviews with victims and witnesses (who for the most part are still located in Venezuela), judicial documents, audiovisual materials and information provided by members of the security forces, State intelligence services and judiciary. These included, extrajudicial executions, enforced disappearances, arbitrary detentions, torture and other cruel, and inhuman or degrading treatment. Ms Valiñas stated that violations were perpetrated directly by members of the State security forces and intelligence services, in accordance with State policies, and for this reason, constituted crimes against humanity.

The Mission recommended that the Venezuelan authorities immediately put an end to human rights violations, investigate and ensure the accountability of those responsible for such violations, and guarantee justice for the victims.

Venezuela, speaking as a concerned country, stated that crimes against humanity were in fact committed by the United States against the Venezuelan people due to the blockade. They declared that the Council should ensure impartiality and non-selectivity.

The draft resolution on Venezuela tabled by a group of Latin American countries under item 4, extends the mandate of the FFM for a period of two years and requests the Mission to prepare written reports to be presented during interactive dialogues at the 48th and 51st sessions.

Independent Fact-Finding Mission on Libya

On 5 October, Mr. Mohamed Auajjar, Chair of the Fact Finding Mission on Libya (FFM) provided the Council with an oral update on the situation of human rights in the country, followed by an interactive dialogue with States and Observers.

Mr. Auajjar presented the FFM’s mandate as well as its team, appointed on 19 August 2020 by the High Commissioner, and thanked the Libyan government for its full support and willingness to cooperate. Mr. Auajjar pointed out an anomaly in the timeline of the mission’s reporting, given that due to the pandemic, the 43rd session of the Council had been postponed, which also delayed the establishment of the mission. Yet, the resolution requests the Mission to report to the Council at the 46th session in March 2021. Mr. Auajjar said that this timeline was not reasonable nor realistic and expressed his hope for an extension.

Mr. Auajjar stated that despite the mandate being very broad (encompassing all human rights violations taking place in Libya since 2016) and the existence of operational challenges due to the pandemic, the Mission had already amassed significant amounts of information.

Libya, the State concerned, stated that the international community had a shared responsibility for the situation in the country and asked for help in this regard, requesting technical assistance and mechanisms to fight corruption. Libya said the country needed accountability and to put an end to impunity for countries who violated the arms embargo. Finally, they stated that the return of diplomatic missions to the territory would have a positive impact.

Universal Periodic Review

Adoption of the UPR Working Group outcome reports

The Council adopted the UPR outcome reports of Armenia, Grenada, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Guyana, Kenya, Kiribati, Kyrgyzstan, Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Lesotho, Sweden, and Turkey. A total of 2747 were made to these 12 States, out of which 2176 were accepted in whole or in part, and 569 were noted or rejected.

The UPR outcome reports of Spain and Kuwait, two other states that were part of the 35th session of the UPR Working Group, were adopted during the 44th session of the Human Rights Council.

General debate under item 6

During the general debate under item 6, held on 30 September, Council members reiterated their support to the UPR. Germany addressed the Council on behalf of the European Union, underlining that the UPR can only contribute to the improvement of human rights situation on the ground across the globe if all UN member states are engaged and provide proper follow-up to the recommendations received. They also called on the OHCHR to facilitate the participation of smaller national NGOs in the UPR process, as they might be more familiar with the reality on the ground. 

Pakistan addressed the Council on behalf of the OIC, expressing their support to the UPR as an effective peer review mechanism and acknowledging that many countries have voluntarily amended domestic laws through the implementation of the international obligations and recommendations received during the UPR.

Several countries have underlined their own national efforts to implement UPR recommendations. Bahrain expressed that they have managed to build a link between the UPR recommendations on the one hand and the SDGs on the other, and that they have integrated the UPR within government programs while establishing indices and timeframes. 

Throughout the general debate, several countries pointed to the UPR as an opportunity to share best practices and experiences among member States on the basis of equal treatment for all countries.

Watch the debate here.

Special Procedures

Interactive Dialogues

18 Special Procedures (13 thematic, five country-specific) presented their annual reports or provided oral updates at HRC45 (all of which are available here). During 18 interactive dialogues (all individual), 118 States delivered 511 statements, of which 27% were from the African Group, 33% from APG, 10% from EEG, 13% from GRULAC, 15% from WEOG, and 2% from other countries (namely the State of Palestine, the Holy See and the Sovereign Order of Malta). Additionally, 49 Joint Statements were delivered.

Appointment of new mandate-holders

Eight new mandate-holders were appointed during the session to fill positions on seven existing mandates. As the mandate of the Independent Expert on the situation of human rights in the Sudan was not renewed at the 45th session, no new mandate holder was appointment for this vacancy. On the final day of the session, the following mandate-holders were appointed:

  1. Pedro ARROJO-AGUDO (Spain) was appointed as the Special Rapporteur on the human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation;
  2. Gerard QUINN (Ireland) was appointed as the Special Rapporteur on the rights of persons with disabilities;
  3. Mohamed Abdelsalam BABIKER (Sudan) was appointed as the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Eritrea;
  4. Mumba MALILA (Zambia) was appointed as a member from the African States for the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention;
  5. Miriam ESTRADA-CASTILLO (Ecuador) was appointed as a member from Latin American and Caribbean States for the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention;
  6. Dorothy ESTRADA-TANCK (Mexico) was appointed as a member from Latin American and Caribbean States for the discrimination against women and girls;
  7. Aua BALDÉ  (Guinea-Bissau) was appointed as a member from the African States for the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances; and
  8. Ravindran DANIEL (India) was appointed as a member from Asia-Pacific States 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.

To inform the appointments, the Consultative Group, made up of representatives of Chad, China, Slovenia, Mexico, and Spain, scrutinised around 116 individual applications from 92 eligible candidates for nine vacancies. The Consultative Group sent its recommendations to the President of the Council on 14 September 2020, following ‘broad consultations, in particular through the regional coordinators,’ ‘to ensure the endorsement of [her] proposed candidates’. The President followed the recommendations of the Consultative Group for seven out of eight mandates. For the position of Special Rapporteur on Eritrea, she decided to put forward Mr. Mohamed Abdelsalam Babiker of Sudan instead of the candidate that had been ranked first by the Consultative Group, due to his knowledge of the legal system of the country concerned. Her proposals were sent to the Council via letter on 30 September. In her letter she also encouraged all stakeholders to ‘continue their efforts in order to attract a sufficiently diverse pool of qualified candidates.’

As of today, there are 55 Special Procedures mandates (44 thematic, 11 country-specific), and 79 mandate-holders (57% male, 43% female).

General debate under item 5 and 10

During the General Debate under item 5, held on 29 September 2020, Portugal delivered a statement on behalf of the Group of Friends on national implementation, reporting, and follow-up (NMIRFs). Portugal underlined the centrality of NMIRFs in the implementation of human rights, as well as their role in preventing human rights violations. Portugal highlighted NMIRFs’ role in enabling direct engagement and cooperation on human rights issues between members of civil society, the executive and the legislative branches of government, thus stimulating dialogue and contributing to better implementation and reporting.

Latvia delivered a statement on behalf of 62 countries, encouraging all states to extend a standing invitation to the Council’s mechanisms if they have not yet done so and, once this commitment has been made, to honour it and assist Special Procedures and mandate holders in their tasks. Latvia also stressed that accepting a visit from a Special Procedure is only the beginning of a process of cooperation and that there should be constructive dialogue before, after, and during such a visit.

Several States pointed to the need for Special Procedures to adhere to the code of conduct, avoid selectivity and double standards as well as politicisation. Pakistan and Algeria called on Special Procedures to pay attention to the issue of Islamophobia as a cross-cutting issue. Several States also called on the Council to ensure equitable geographical representation in the appointment of Special Procedures.

During the General Debate under item 10, held on 5 October 2020, Germany delivered a statement on behalf of the European Union, stressing that technical cooperation is not an end in itself but rather a means to safeguarding and strengthening the human rights of individual rights holders. They underlined that technical cooperation needs to go hand in hand with other instruments, in particular monitoring and reporting, and that it needs to contribute to the Council’s prevention mandate. 

Indonesia stated that the Council should better facilitate multilateral cooperation and collaboration in the promotion and protection of human rights, including by ensuring that the Council has the capability to become a depository of good practices and lessons learnt in the field of technical cooperation. Indonesia highlighted the importance of trust, transparency and of prioritising the requests and needs of recipient countries as key elements to ensure beneficial technical assistance programs. 

Togo identified technical assistance as a necessary tool to back up country efforts, allowing states to fill national gaps in the protection and promotion of human rights.  In the context of the UN liquidity crisis, Togo urged the OHCHR to continue its work as much as possible and support States to assist local actors in monitoring, as well as preventing violence and conflicts, so that States can preserve fundamental freedoms in the long term.

Nepal stressed that the international community’s continued contribution to the Voluntary Technical Assistance Trust Fund is crucial to meet the needs of technical cooperation and capacity building and to learn from best practices. Nepal also argued that democracy, development, and human rights are mutually interdependent and mutually reinforcing, and that the effective and inclusive implementation of the 2030 agenda remains vitally important.

Watch the debates here, here, and here.

The URG makes a statement …

Over the course of the 45th session of the Human Rights Council, the Universal Rights Group delivered five statements during the General Debates on items 3, 5, 6, 9 and 10.

Under item 3, URG thanked the Core Group on human rights and the environment for their successful efforts to clarify and leverage the mutually reinforcing relationship between human rights and the environment, but called on them to publicly commit to tabling a resolution at the General Assembly and Human Rights Council in 2021 for the universal recognition of the right to a healthy environment.

Under item 5, URG commended the Core Group on the prevention of human rights violations for their efforts at elucidating the often-misunderstood concept of human rights prevention, as building national resilience and strengthening the OHCHR’s early warning and action capability. URG further expressed appreciation for the recognition of the role that NMIRFs can play in prevention and urged consensus on this important text.

Under item 6, URG encouraged the 12 States whose outcome reports were adopted during HRC45 to view the implementation of their UPR recommendations as a democratic and participatory process rather than mere bureaucratic exercise. URG also promoted the Pacific Principles of Practice for effective national implementation, highlighting their three central principles and expressing hope these will inspire other regions to develop similar principles and continue the momentum to bridge the implementation gap.

Under item 9, URG expressed concern at the continued rise of intolerance and discrimination around the world, including on the basis of religion or belief and recalled the 8-point action plan of Human Rights Council resolution 16/18. URG also promoted the new istanbulprocess1618.info website, expressing its hope that the new webpage would be a useful tool for all stakeholders to continue combatting all forms of religious discrimination and intolerance.

Under item 10, URG lamented the current functioning of item 10 as a light monitoring exercise that results in few concrete and actionable recommendations for stakeholders to facilitate the delivery of technical assistance and capacity building. URG called on experts reporting under item 10 to ensure that recommendations are SMART and include benchmarks, indicators, timelines and mappings of possible partners to help drive domestic progress. URG recognised the ‘capacity-building support forum’ organised with Singapore and Norway as a learning experience for improvement of item 10.

Resolutions

The 45th session of the Council concluded with the adoption of 37 texts. This is one text less than the number of texts (38) adopted at the 42nd session in September 2019 or a slight decrease of 2,6%.

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 an increase (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 29,7% of tabled resolutions at HRC45 were adopted by a recorded vote. This is a decrease of around 2% compared with the session in September 2019.

23 (62,2%) of the texts adopted by the Council were thematic in nature, two (5,4%) were related to institutional matters, while 12 (32,4%) dealt with country-specific situations. Of the latter texts, two address human rights violations under agenda item 2, and three under agenda item 4 ‘Human rights situations that require the Council’s attention, while seven sought to protect human rights through technical assistance and capacity building (under item 10).

32 of the texts adopted by the Council (84,5%) had Programme Budget Implications (PBI), requiring appropriations of $23’434’700 not previously covered by the regular budget.

 

Resolutions listed in order of L numbers

Agenda Item Resolutions Core Group PBIs Extra-Budgetary Appropriations Adoption

(Y – N – A)

1 Situation of human rights in Belarus in the run-up to the 2020 presidential election and in its aftermath Germany (European Union) $118’900 Adopted by vote (23-2-22)
3 Enforced or involuntary disappearances Argentina, France, Japan, Morocco $0 Adopted without a vote
8 National human rights institutions Australia Adopted without a vote
3 Mandate of the Independent Expert on the promotion of a democratic and equitable international order Cuba $0 Adopted by vote (22-15-10)
3 Human rights and unilateral coercive measures Azerbaijan (NAM) $0 Adopted by vote (27-15-5)
3 The right to development Azerbaijan (NAM, except Colombia) $256’400 Adopted by vote (27-13-7)
3 Promoting and protecting the human rights of women and girls in conflict and post-conflict situations on the occasion of the twentieth anniversary of Security Council resolution 1325 (2000) Argentina, Australia, Azerbaijan, Finland, Iraq, Namibia, Spain, Tunisia $96’000 Adopted without a vote
2 Human rights situation in Yemen Belgium, Canada, Ireland, Luxembourg, Netherlands $3’872’300 Adopted by vote (22-12-12)
10 Enhancement of technical cooperation and capacity-building in the field of human rights Brazil, Honduras, Indonesia, Morocco, Norway, Qatar, Singapore, Thailand, Turkey $61’900 Adopted without a vote
3 Local government and human rights Chile, Egypt, Romania, Republic of Korea $70’400 Adopted without a vote
3 The human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation Germany, Spain Adopted without a vote
3 The role of good governance in the promotion and protection of human rights Australia, Chile, Poland, Republic of Korea, South Africa $83’300 Adopted without a vote
3 Special Rapporteur on the promotion of truth, justice, reparation and guarantees of non-recurrence Argentina, Morocco, Switzerland $0 Adopted without a vote
5 The contribution of the Human Rights Council to the prevention of human rights violations Norway, Sierra Leone, Switzerland, Uruguay $585’300 Adopted by vote (32-3-11)
3 Terrorism and human rights Mexico, Egypt Adopted without a vote
3 Human rights and indigenous peoples Guatemala, Mexico $38’400 Adopted without a vote
3 Human rights and the regulation of civilian acquisition, possession and use of firearms Ecuador, Peru $70’400 Adopted without a vote
4 Situation of human rights in Burundi Germany (European Union) $2’112’700 Adopted by vote (24-6-17)
3 Eliminating inequality within and among States for the realization of all Human Rights Nepal, Pakistan, South Africa $92’600 Adopted by vote (25-8-14)
10 Technical cooperation and capacity building for the promotion and protection of human rights in the Philippines Iceland, Philippines $414’100 Adopted without a vote
3 Mandate of the open-ended intergovernmental working group to elaborate the content of an international regulatory framework on the regulation, monitoring and oversight of the activities of private military and security companies Burkina Faso (African Group) $0 Adopted without a vote
10 Technical assistance and capacity-building to further improve human rights in the Sudan Burkina Faso (African Group) $35’400 & reduction of budget by $286’200 due to termination of the mandate Adopted without a vote
3 Mandate of the Special Rapporteur on the implications for human rights of the environmentally sound management and disposal of hazardous substances and wastes Burkina Faso (African Group) $0 Adopted without a vote
3 The safety of journalists Austria, Brazil, France, Greece, Morocco, Qatar, Tunisia $70’400 Adopted without a vote
4 Situation of human rights in the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela Bolivia (Plurinational State of), Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Guyana, Honduras, Panama, Paraguay, Peru $6’533’400 Adopted by vote (22-3-22)
9 Commemoration of the twentieth anniversary of the adoption of the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action Burkina Faso (African Group) $173’100 Adopted without a vote
4 Situation of human rights in the Syrian Arab Republic France, Germany, Italy, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, Netherlands, Qatar, Turkey, United Kingdom   Adopted by vote (27-1-19)
3 Promoting, protecting and respecting women’s and girls’ full enjoyment of human rights in humanitarian situations Canada, Fiji, Georgia, Sweden, Uruguay $96’000 Adopted without a vote
9 Mandate of the Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent Burkina Faso (African Group) $136’900 Adopted without a vote
3 Rights of the child: realizing the rights of the child through a healthy environment Germany (European Union) $21’400 Adopted without a vote
10 Technical assistance and capacity-building for Yemen in the field of human rights Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, United Arab Emirates, Yemen $403’800 Adopted without a vote
10 Assistance to Somalia in the field of human rights Somalia, United Kingdom  $0 Adopted without a vote
10 Assistance technique et renforcement des capacités dans le domaine des droits de l’homme en République démocratique du Congo Burkina Faso (African Group) $3’303’600 Adopted without a vote
10 Technical assistance and capacity-building in the field of 
human rights in the Central African Republic
Burkina Faso (African Group) $15’300 Adopted without a vote
2 Strengthening cooperation and technical assistance in the field of human rights in the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela Islamic Republic of Iran $1’310’400 Adopted by vote (14-7-26)

 

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 Report of the Advisory Committee Presidential Statement Adopted without a vote
1 Postponement of the implementation of certain activities mandated by the Human Rights Council Decision $3’462’300 Adopted without a vote

 

Analysis and conclusions

A first important point of note regarding the 45th session of the Council is that it was held at all (in hybrid format, with in-person meetings complemented by video calls) – and completed. The fact that, during a major global pandemic, all three regular sessions of the Council in 2020 have now been completed, including with diplomats and NGOs physically present in the chamber (unlike many other UN bodies), and that (until now) there have been no significant negative health repercussions, represents an important achievement for the body, and especially for the Council President and Bureau, and sends out two important messages: that the UN human rights protection system continues to operate, and that it is possible for in person multilateral diplomacy to continue during the COVID-19 pandemic – providing necessary precautions are taken.

Moreover, the Council also took steps to adjust its work and output in light of the challenges placed on it by COVID-19. Most importantly, a decision was adopted to Postpone the implementation of certain activities mandated by the Human Rights Council. This included a decision to postpone the five regional consultations on ‘national mechanisms for implementation, reporting and follow-up’ until 2021.

Family matters

As has become a regular occurrence at the Council over the past decade, many of the most passionate arguments at the 45th session centred on ‘societal’ issues, reflecting a deep ideological divide between those States (e.g. Russia, Egypt and – outside the Council, the US) that wish to promote a more conservative interpretation of international human rights law, emphasising the importance of traditional family roles and hierarchies for example, and other States (especially Western and Latin American) determined to defend a more progressive interpretation. At HRC45, this division played out in the context of the annual resolution on the Rights of the Child (normally tabled in March), and a number of texts focused on women’s rights.

Regarding the draft resolution on the ‘Rights of the child,’ presented by GRULAC (led by Uruguay) and the EU, which this year focused on the rights of children in the context of a healthy environment, difficult informal negotiations ended with Russia tabling eight ‘hostile’ amendments to the text. Eventually six of these were withdrawn after the lead sponsors committed to make a number of small oral revisions to the draft text. The remaining two aimed to integrate strong language on the responsibilities and rights of parents ‘or where applicable, the members of the extended family or community as provided for by local custom […] to provide, in a manner consistent with the evolving capacities of the child, appropriate direction and guidance in the exercise by the child of his or her rights.’ If adopted, these amendments would have made the rights of children to express opinions or participate in decision-making conditional upon the permission/direction of parents and other adults. The core group for the resolution rightly opposed such notions, as incompatible with the Convention on the Rights of the Child. In the end, the two written amendments were rejected by the Council (both with 13 in favour, 6 abstentions and 27 against). The unamended draft was then adopted by consensus.

Regarding women’s rights, three draft resolutions were put forward during HRC45, one by South Africa on ‘Elimination of discrimination against women and girls in sport,’ one by Argentina, Australia, Azerbaijan, Finland, Iraq, Namibia, Spain and Tunisia on ‘Promoting and protecting the human rights of women and girls in conflict and post-conflict situations on the occasion of the twentieth anniversary of Security Council resolution 1325 (2000),’ and one from Canada, Fiji, Georgia, Sweden and Uruguay on ‘Promoting, protecting and respecting women’s and girls’ full enjoyment of human rights in humanitarian situations.

The first of these was eventually withdrawn (the corresponding resolution in March 2019 generated considerable opposition on the part of members of the OIC, on the grounds that it referred to ‘bodily autonomy’ – which is linked to sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR)). The draft resolution on the rights of women and girls in humanitarian situations attracted 15 amendments (tabled by Pakistan on behalf of the OIC except for Albania) – all of these were subsequently withdrawn after the main sponsors committed to make oral revisions to the text. The contentious issue with the third resolution on women’s rights – the draft on the twentieth anniversary of UN Security Council resolution 1325 – was related to whether such resolutions (focused on Security Council decisions) are a matter for the Human Rights Council. Notwithstanding these arguments, both tabled resolutions were eventually adopted by consensus.

That was not the case for another resolution considered at HRC45, on another issue that has long been the centre of arguments at the UN: the relationship between development and human rights. At HRC45, South African tabled a text on ‘Eliminating inequality within and among States for the realization of human rights.’ This was opposed by members of the Western Group on a number of grounds, including concern that the draft suggested that the promotion and protection of human rights is somehow contingent on a country’s level of development, and that the Human Rights Council is not the correct forum for discussions about inter-State inequality. Australia eventually called a vote on the draft, which was adopted with 25 in favour, 8 against and 14 abstentions.

A further draft resolution, from China and Pakistan, threatened to further inflame these disagreements over the relationship between human rights and development. This draft, on ‘People-centred approaches in promoting and protecting human rights,’ was, however, eventually withdrawn – probably because there was a risk it might be rejected in a vote, or at least be subjected to large number of ‘No’ votes. This is a very notable development and is partly reflection of the strong composition of the Human Rights Council in 2020.

From reaction to prevention

In a development with significant long-term implications for the effectiveness of the UN human rights system, HRC45 saw the passage of an important new resolution on the prevention of human rights violations and emergencies. The resolution, led by Norway, Sierra Leone, Switzerland and Uruguay, was adopted by vote with 32 in favour, 11 abstentions and 3 against.

The resolution covers all aspects of the Council’s hitherto unused prevention mandate, as provided by the UN General Assembly with its resolution 60/251 (and specifically paragraph 5f thereof), covering both primary (or ‘upstream’) prevention, and secondary prevention (early warning and early engagement). The resolution also strengthens the Council’s ability to connect with the other pillars of the UN (the development, and security pillars) by calling on the Secretary-General to share relevant Human Rights Council reports relevant to prevention in specific contexts with other UN bodies (e.g. the Security Council), and by inviting the head of the Peacebuilding Commission to brief the Council on an annual basis.

Sudan: a crucial test for the UN human rights system

HRC45 saw member and observer States continue their important work to extend technical assistance and capacity-building support to Sudan, as it continues on its path towards a strengthening of democracy, human rights and rule of law. In a welcome move, States agreed to discontinue the Independent Expert mandate on Sudan, and to instead focus the resolution on mobilising international support to assist the country with the actual implementation of UN human rights recommendations. The resolution also recognised the important progress made by Sudan over the past year, and praised the High Commissioner for Human Rights for her rapid move to establish a strong OHCHR presence across the country.

HRC45 also saw:

  • An urgent debate on Belarus– a URG analysis of which can be read here.
  • The presentation of a 400-page report by the UN Fact Finding Mission (FFM) on the human rights situation in Venezuela. The report implicates President Maduro and senior Government officials in crimes against humanity.
  • In the end, the Council adopted two resolutions on the situation of human rights in Venezuela. One, led by some Latin American States plus Canada, sought to respond to the serious allegations made in the FFM report and to secure accountability. This resolution was put to a vote and adopted with 22 in favour, 3 against and 22 abstentions. A second (‘counter’) resolution was tabled by Iran (Islamic Republic of) with the support of Venezuela (Bolivarian Republic of) itself, and focusing on the provision of technical assistance to the country. This was adopted with 14 in favour, 7 against, and 26 abstentions, (so very few Yes votes).
  • The unfortunate pattern of having twin resolutions on the same situation was repeated for Yemen. One, led by the Netherlands and covered violations, accountability and capacity-building, was adopted by vote, while a ‘softer’ resolution led by Egypt, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, UAE and Yemen, focused only on capacity-building, was adopted by consensus.
  • Finally, Iceland renewed the Council’s resolution on the situation in the Philippines, but this time with the support of the country concerned (which joined Iceland in the core group). Iceland secured the cooperation of the country concerned, which hopefully will lead to better implementation of recommendations designed to improve the human rights situation in the country. Notwithstanding, this approach was not appreciated by all stakeholders during HRC45, as the text moved to item 10 and lost some of the previous text’s strong language on human rights violations and accountability.

Photo credits

Feature photo: A general view of participants during 45th session of the Human Rights Council. 25 September 2020. UN Photo / Jean Marc Ferré. Licensed under under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Michelle Bachelet, High Commissioner for Human Rights during 45th session of the Human Rights Council. 14 September 2020. UN Photo / Jean Marc Ferré. Licensed under under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Yury Ambrazevich, Permanent Representative of Belarus ( Concerned Country ) to the United Nations Office at Geneva at a the debate on the human rights situation in Belarus during 45th session of the Human Rights Council. 18 September 2020. UN Photo / Jean Marc Ferré. Licensed under under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Nada Al-Nashit, United Nations, Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights at a debate on the human rights situation in Belarus during 45th session of the Human Rights Council. 18 September 2020. UN Photo / Jean Marc Ferré. Licensed under under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya [opposition candidate in 2020 Belarusian Presidential elections] (video message) at a debate on the human rights situation in Belarus during 45th session of the Human Rights Council. 18 September 2020. UN Photo / Jean Marc Ferré. Licensed under under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

A voting during 45th session of the Human Rights Council. 18 September 2020. UN Photo / Jean Marc Ferré. Licensed under under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the WHO by video message at a panel discussion on the right to development with a focus on strengthening international cooperation and solidarity in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic during 45th session of the Human Rights Council. 17 September 2020. UN Photo / Jean Marc Ferré. Licensed under under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Isabelle Durant, Deputy Secretary-General of UNCTADe at a panel discussion on the right to development with a focus on strengthening international cooperation and solidarity in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic during 45th session of the Human Rights Council. 17 September 2020. UN Photo / Jean Marc Ferré. Licensed under under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

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