- The 44th regular session of the Human Rights Council (HRC44) was held from Tuesday 30th June to Friday 17th July 2020.
- On 30th June, H.E. Ms. Michelle Bachelet presented her global update on the human rights implications of COVID-19. This provided the basis for an interactive dialogue with the High Commissioner on 30th June – 2nd July.
- Seven panel discussions were held during the session.
- More than 82 reports were considered under the Council’s various agenda items.
- The outcome reports of the UPR Working Group of the following two States were adopted: Kuwait and Spain. The adoption of the outcome reports of the other 12 States, which were initially scheduled to take place at HRC44 have been postponed to HRC45 due to COVID-19, and upon request of the respective States.
- As per Presidential Statement HRC/PRST/OS/13/1 on ‘Efficiency of the Human Rights Council’ no general debates under any of the Council’s agenda items took place during this June session.
- Four new Special Procedures mandate-holders were appointed to the following mandates: Special Rapporteur on the implications for human rights of the environmentally sound management and disposal of hazardous substances and wastes, Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, Special Rapporteur on the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health, and Special Rapporteur on trafficking in persons, especially women and children.
- While no side events were able to 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 44th session.
- 23 texts were considered by the Council, all resolutions. Of these, 16 were adopted by consensus (69.6%), and seven by a recorded vote (30.4%). The number of adopted resolutions represents a decrease (11.5%) on the number adopted one year previously – in June 2019 (HRC41).
- 11 written and/or oral amendments were put forward by States during the consideration of texts and resolutions. Three were withdrawn by the main sponsor, while the remaining eight amendments were rejected by a vote.
- 21 of the texts adopted by the Council (91.3%) had Programme Budget Implications (PBI) and 13 required new appropriations not included in previous Programme Budgets. The total costs of the newly mandated activities amounted to a total of $1’339’800, at the time of writing.
Briefing by the High Commissioner for Human Rights
On Tuesday 30 July 2020, High Commissioner for Human Rights, Ms Michelle Bachelet, delivered a statement to the 44th session of the Human Rights Council, in which she presented the work of her Office in 2019 and gave an oral update on the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on human rights around the world.
In times of increasing challenges for the safeguarding of human rights, she highlighted the compounding effect of the COVID-19 pandemic, which calls for ‘strong, transformative measures to heighten the powerful protections that human rights based-policies can provide’. Pointing to the disproportionate health and socio-economic impacts of the pandemic on vulnerable populations, particularly racial and ethnic minorities and indigenous peoples, Ms Bachelet commended countries such as Australia, Costa Rica, Panama and the Russia Federation that have responded with pandemic response plans that seized the opportunity to improve basic services for these populations.
Ms Bachelet, further highlighted the suffering of women and girls, older persons, children, migrants, people with disabilities and persons deprived of their liberty. She stressed that the pandemic has aggravated the exclusions and discrimination of women and girls, as they are forced to shoulder the burden of care-work, subjected to increased gender-based violence and continued exclusion from decision making. In light of the high death tolls of older persons, she urged Governments to prioritise individualised support and promote their full inclusion in their communities. Ms Bachelet also welcomed actions taken to release tens of thousands of prisoners but urged stronger focus on releasing women and children and lamented the overcrowded and unsanitary conditions of detention of many migrants. Regarding the rights of children, Ms Bachelet expressed concern at the likely long-lasting economic impacts of the pandemic given the predicted sharp increases in child poverty, malnutrition and youth unemployment. She also underscored how ‘disruption to schools and training programmes heightens the risk of the poorest children falling behind and increases children’s exposure to the threat of domestic violence, child labour, child marriage and female genital mutilation’.
Turning to the pandemic’s aggravation of instances of discrimination and stigmatisation, Ms Bachelet expressed her dismay at reports that in many countries, minority communities and migrants are being targeted with stigma and hate speech associating them with COVID-19. However, she stressed that countering such harmful speech as well as the equally concerning scourge of disinformation should not be at the expense of freedom of speech. In this regard, she pointed to several countries where the intimidation of journalists and activists with the apparent aim of discouraging criticism of the authorities’ responses was of particular concern. She stressed that ‘censorship and criminalization of speech are likely to suppress crucial information needed to address the pandemic’ and that ‘only respect for their rights – including the right to participate in transparent and accountable decision-making – will inspire people to trust the policies adopted by their Governments.’ For this reason, she called on leaders to maintain consistent, credible and fact-based communication, lauding the Republic of Korea for its open and communicative approach to leaving no one behind in its response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Ms Bachelet also stressed that the COVID-19 pandemic is deepening local and regional threats to peace and reaffirmed her strong support for the Secretary-General’s call for a global ceasefire to enable effective pandemic action. She drew particular attention to the situations in Yemen and Syria where the destruction of health and sanitary infrastructure combined with widespread poverty and malnutrition have left populations particularly vulnerable to the pandemic and urged for the enabling, notably by the Security Council, of unhindered delivery of humanitarian aid. She further expressed concern at the possible deterioration of the human rights situations in the Sahel, Haiti and Zimbabwe where social and political grievances risk being aggravated by the pandemic and its socioeconomic impact.
Ultimately, while stressing that the pandemic is far from over and that much needs to be done to ensure peoples’ suffering ends as swiftly as possible, she underlined the importance of seizing the opportunity to strengthen human rights protections to prevent such crises in the future. In this regard, Ms Bachelet pointed to guidance provided by her Office to facilitate effective responses that address the various human rights impacts of COVID-19, as well as the Secretary-General’s Call to Action for Human Rights. She also commended the European Commission for its proposal for a multi-year response to the pandemic that tackles action for renewable energy together with public health and socio-economic support and encouraged States to pursue such efforts to build a new economy that is environmentally sustainable, equitable, fair and inclusive. As ‘global socio-economic forecasts predict at least two years of dramatic decreases in human development indicators across the world’, she said, ‘we must all acknowledge that human rights are critical to the recovery’.
View the briefing here.
A total of seven panel discussions were held during the 44th session. The panels were on the following topics:
- A healthy environment as a child rights concern: setting the scene (Annual full-day meeting on the rights of the child) (summary– video)
- Ensuring children’s rights through a healthy environment: a call to action (Annual full-day meeting on the rights of the child) (summary– video)
- Panel discussion on the impacts, opportunities and challenges of new and emerging digital technologies with regard to the promotion and protection of human rights (summary– video)
- Promoting and protecting the rights of persons with disabilities in the context of climate change (summary– video)
- Accountability for women and girls in humanitarian settings (Annual full-day discussion on the human rights of women) (summary– video)
- COVID-19 and women’s rights (Annual full-day discussion on the human rights of women) (summary– video)
- Upholding the human rights of prisoners, including women prisoners and offenders: enhancing technical cooperation and capacity building in the implementation of the Nelson Mandela Rules and the Bangkok Rules (Annual thematic panel discussion on technical cooperation and capacity-building) (summary– video)
Trust fund to support the participation of LDCs and SIDS
The Trust Fund for the participation of LDCs and SIDS in the work of the Council (set up in 2012) selected five (three female and two male) government officials to benefit from its support in the context at HRC44.
The selected delegates came from Bahamas, Bhutan, Central African Republic, Malawi, and Mauritius. Due to the COVID-19 related travel restriction, the delegates will travel to Geneva to attend a subsequent Council session of their choice.
Commissions of Inquiry, Fact-Finding Missions and Independent investigations
Commission of Inquiry on Burundi
On July 14, 2020, the Commission of Inquiry on Burundi, composed of Doudou Diène (Chair), Lucy Asuagbor, and Francoise Hampson, delivered an oral update on the situation of human rights in the country. Mr. Diène noted that the work of the Commission had been affected by the restrictions of movement imposed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, forcing them to cancel field visits and adapt working methods to continue collecting victim and witness testimonies. While recalling previous statements that expressed concern at the State’s lack of preparation and inadequate response (including the banning of the country’s WHO representative), Mr Diène stated that following the passing of President Nkrunuziza due to COVID-19, the Burundian authorities appeared to have better understood the health risks linked to the pandemic.
Commenting on the elections that took place without international monitoring on 20 May 2020, the Commission noted the relatively strong participation of women in the electoral process, including in the number of female candidates elected, which he attributed to the gender quota prescribed by law. Mr Diène expressed hope that such good practice could be replicated at the local level despite the absence of similar provisions. While noting that massive violence did no erupt during the electoral period and stressing the role that oversight from the international community had played in this regard, he lamented the political intolerance that characterised the ongoing political process for Senate and sub-local ‘colline’ elections. In this regard, he pointed to a number of alleged human rights violations, including acts of intimidation, of journalists and members of the opposition, instances of hate speech, and forced participation of children in protests. Mr. Diène commented further on how the lack of independence and impartiality of the judicial system had been used by the authorities and the party of the late President Nkrunuziza to undermine the main opposition party, the Congrès National pour la Liberté. Mr. Diène further suggested that the lack of transparency in the economic underpinnings of the State raised fundamental questions about Burundian governance infrastructure in general. He pointed to several possible instances of grand corruption, which hinder the enjoyment of human rights, including allegations of embezzlement of official development aid, illicit enrichment and corruption in government procurement contracts. The Commission invited the new President to express a willingness to embrace change in the sphere of human rights by demonstrating full cooperation with the international human rights mechanisms.
Burundi, speaking as the concerned country, rejected the mandate of the Commission of Inquiry given the Commission’s politicised condemnation of the governance system set up by the ruling party. Burundi questioned the objectiveness and neutrality of the mandate, arguing that the Commission operated under a geopolitical agenda carried out for the benefit of the Burundian opposition. Furthermore, Burundi noted that the 2020 elections took place in the absence of the massive human rights violations predicted in previous Commission reports.
Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arabic Republic
On 14 July 2020, in the context of the interactive dialogue with the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arabic Republic, composed of Paulo Sérgio Pinheiro (Chair), Karen Koning Abuzayd, and Hanny Megally, Mr Pinheiro presented the Commission’s latest report on the events in Idlib and its surrounding areas over the period covering 1 November, 2019 to 1 June, 2020. Mr. Pinheiro began by noting that the majority of the civilian population in Idlib live under the control of the UN designated terrorist group Haya’t Tahrir al-Sham (HTS). As such, he acknowledged that States have the right to defend their territory and citizens, but stressed that such defence operations must comply with international humanitarian and human rights law. In describing the military confrontations that have taken place in Idlib since last fall, Mr. Pinheiro emphasised that all parties to the conflict have committed war crimes. Specifically, Mr. Pinheiro lamented the aerial bombardment of civilian infrastructure, including schools, hospitals, and markets, which led nearly one million persons to be displaced over a period of merely three months, now finding themselves trapped in overcrowded displacement camps between Turkey’s border and the Syrian forces. He condemned the looting and pillaging of depopulated areas by government forces, as well as the crimes committed by Haya’t Tahrir al-Sham, which include pillaging of vacated homes, detention, torture, and execution of civilians.
Commenting on the humanitarian situation in Idlib, which he stressed is compounded by the threat of COVID-19 in a context where the healthcare system has been ripped apart by years of war, Mr Pinheiro condemned the UN Security Council for having done the bare minimum to ensure the provision of life-saving aid. He urged the removal of all intentional and unintentional obstacles to this humanitarian aid. The Commission also reiterated the calls of the Secretary-General and High Commissioner to ease or waive sectoral sanctions on countries, in order to facilitate access to food and essential health supplies, including COVID-19 medical support. Finally, the Commission called for the release of all persons held in unlawful detention especially children, older persons, infirm persons, and persons with disabilities, as well as for the repatriation of the more than 8000 foreign children in congested camps in the North-East.
Syria, speaking as the country concerned, accused the Commission of non-neutrality and non-compliance with the code of conduct laid out in Council resolution 5/2. Specifically, Syria emphasised the Commission’s primary focus on acts allegedly committed by the Syrian government and its allies, and its failure to adequately take into account the crimes committed by foreign-backed terrorist groups, as well as acts of aggression on part of the United States and Turkey. Arguing that the Commission’s report was based on sources provided by non-neutral parties, Syria reiterated its rejection of the report. Furthermore, they stressed that the military operations in Idlib and other regions of Syria are aimed at combatting terrorism and liberating civilians from areas under the control of terrorist groups. Syria also noted that thousands of Syrians had returned to their homes following the liberation of certain cities by government armed forces.
Universal Periodic Review
Adoption of the UPR Working Group outcome reports
At its 1st meeting, on 30 June 2020, as one of the extraordinary measures to be applied during the forty-fourth session in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Human Rights Council decided that, out of the fourteen States examined during the thirty-fifth session of the Working Group on the Universal Periodic Review, the outcomes of only two States, namely Spain and Kuwait, would be considered during the session, based on the preference expressed by these States. The Council also decided that the outcomes of the other twelve States, namely Armenia, Grenada, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Guyana, Kenya, Kiribati, Kyrgyzstan, Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Lesotho, Sweden and Turkey, would be considered and adopted at the forty-fifth session, based on the expressed agreement by or in the absence of objections from these States.
A total of 577 recommendations were made to Spain and Kuwait, out of which 482 were accepted in whole, 76 were partially accepted, and 19 were noted or rejected.
21 Special Procedures (17 thematic, four country-specific) presented their annual reports or provided oral updates at HRC44 (all of which are available here). During 21 interactive dialogues (all individual), 116 States delivered 741 statements, of which 22% were from the African Group, 32% from APG, 12% from EEG, 12% from GRULAC, 20% from WEOG, and 2% from other countries (namely the State of Palestine, the Holy See and the Sovereign Order of Malta). Additionally, 70 Joint Statements were delivered.
Appointment of new mandate-holders
Four new mandate-holders were appointed during the session to fill positions on four existing mandates. On the final day of the session, the following mandate-holders were appointed:
- Marcos A. ORELLANA (Chile) was appointed as the Special Rapporteur on the implications for human rights of the environmentally sound management and disposal of hazardous substances and wastes;
- Irene KHAN (Bangladesh) was appointed as the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression;
- Tlaleng MOFOKENG (South Africa) was appointed as the Special Rapporteur on the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health;
- Siobhan MULLALLY (Ireland) was appointed as the Special Rapporteur on trafficking in persons, especially women and children.
To inform the appointments, the Consultative Group, made up of representatives of Chad, China, Slovenia, Mexico, and Spain, scrutinised around 129 individual applications for four vacancies. The Consultative Group sent its recommendations to the President of the Council on 3 June 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 all mandates. Her proposals were sent to the Council via letter on 23 June.
The 44th session of the Council concluded with the adoption of 23 texts (all resolutions). This is three texts less than the number of texts (26) adopted at the 41st session in June 2019 or a decrease of 11.5%.
Around 30% of tabled resolutions at HRC44 were adopted by a recorded vote. This is a decrease of around 8% compared with the previous June session.
20 (86.9%) of the texts adopted by the Council were thematic in nature, while three (13.1%) dealt with country-specific situations. Of the latter texts, one addressed human rights violations under agenda item 2, and two under agenda item 4 ‘Human rights situations that require the Council’s attention.’
21 of the texts adopted by the Council (91.3%) had Programme Budget Implications (PBI), requiring appropriations of $1’339’800 not previously covered by the UN regular budget.
Resolutions listed in order of L numbers
Feature photo: 44th session of the Human Rights Council. 30 June 2020. Licensed under under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.
Michelle Bachelet, High Commissioner for Human Rights, 44th session of the Human Rights Council. 30 June 2020. Licensed under under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.
Agnes Callamard, Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, 44th session of the Human Rights Council. 9 july 2020. UN Photo. Licensed under under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.
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