- The 47th regular session of the Human Rights Council (HRC47) was held from Monday 21st June to Tuesday 13th July 2021.
- On 21st June, H.E. Ms. Michelle Bachelet presented her annual report on the human rights situation around the world. This presentation was followed by an interactive dialogue on her report on the role of States in responding to pandemics. The presentation of her annual report provided the basis for an interactive dialogue with the High Commissioner on 22nd June.
- Seven panel discussions were held during the session.
- More than 60 reports were considered under the Council’s various agenda items.
- The outcome reports of the UPR Working Group of the following 13 States were adopted: Australia, Austria, Georgia, Lebanon, Mauritania, Micronesia (Federated States of), Nauru, Nepal, Oman, Rwanda, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Sao Tome and Principe. The outcome report of the Universal Periodic Review of Myanmar was not considered during this session.
- As per Presidential Statement A/HRC/PRST/OS/13/1 on the ‘Efficiency of the Human Rights Council,’ no general debates under any of the Council’s agenda items took place during this June session.
- Several important novel Joint Statements were delivered during this session, including one by Denmark on behalf of 46 States on putting human rights at the heart of sustainable recovery efforts in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic (the ‘Sustainable Recovery Pledge’), and one by Norway on behalf of 64 States on Democracy and Human Rights.
- Seven new Special Procedures mandate-holders were appointed to the following mandates: Independent Expert on foreign debt, Independent Expert on persons with albinism, Special Rapporteur on the right to privacy, Special Rapporteur on violence against women, two members of the Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent (members from Asia-Pacific and Eastern European States), and one member of the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances (member from Western European and other States).
- In the context of the resolution on Promotion and protection of the human rights and fundamental freedoms of Africans and of people of African descent against excessive use of force and other human rights violations by law enforcement officers through an agenda towards transformative change for racial justice and equality, the Council established an international independent expert mechanism, comprising three experts with law enforcement and human rights expertise appointed for a three-year mandate, to advance racial justice and equality in the context of law enforcement operations worldwide.
- 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 47th session.
- 27 texts were considered by the Council, including 25 resolutions and two decisions. Of these, 15 were adopted by consensus (55.6%), and 12 by a recorded vote (44.4%). The number of adopted texts represents an increase of 17% on the number adopted one year previously (23) – in June 2020 (HRC44).
- 51 written amendments were put forward by States during the consideration of texts and resolutions. 12 were withdrawn by the main sponsor, while the remaining 39 amendments were rejected by a vote.
- 22 of the texts adopted by the Council (81%) had Programme Budget Implications (PBI) and 20 required new appropriations not included in previous Programme Budgets. The total costs of the newly mandated activities amounted to a total of $8’152’300, at the time of writing.
Briefing by the High Commissioner for Human Rights
Ms Bachelet presented her annual report on the global state of human rights on June 21st. At the outset, she took note of rising poverty, inequality and injustice as well as the erosion of civic and democratic space across the globe, phenomena which had been further exacerbated by the COVID-19 crisis in the past 18 months. She observed that creating an inclusive, sustainable and resilient future after the pandemic will constitute a major challenge for the current generation of world leaders.
Against this backdrop, the High Commissioner lauded the Secretary-General’s Call to Action for Human Rights as a blueprint for better connecting the three UN pillars of development, peace and security, and human rights. She noted that the Call to Action yields unprecedented leverage to create better and evidence-based country analyses; unified advocacy; and more effective field-based programming that is firmly grounded in human rights. Furthermore, the Call to Action underscores that civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights are not dichotomous but indivisible, mutually reinforcing and truly universal. The High Commissioner cited with approval several examples of stronger human rights integration at UN country level – in Cambodia, Serbia and Argentina – as well as the impact of the Surge Initiative, which upgraded the economic expertise of UN field teams during the pandemic. She also praised wider interagency efforts to increase the visibility of discrimination against women and girls, including by collecting primary disaggregated data on gender which is often lacking, and to advance the human right to a healthy environment.
In light of the disruption caused by the pandemic, Ms Bachelet urged policymakers to establish a New Social Contract by rebuilding public trust, combatting inequalities and promoting the rights to social protection, health, and education. These public investments should be underpinned by macroeconomic policies that seek to maximise available resources, including through progressive taxation and the curtailment of illicit financial flows, as well as the transparency, accountability, and civic participation necessary for a true ‘human rights economy’.
The High Commissioner also drew the Council’s attention to serious human rights violations in a number of countries. In particular, she was alarmed by the sharp increase in violence and civilian harm in Afghanistan, urging all parties to resume the stalled peace talks and to urgently implement a ceasefire to protect civilians. Ms Bachelet also lamented the continuing deterioration of the situation in Belarus, which is characterised by severe restrictions on civic space; raids against civil society and independent media; and the judicial persecution of human rights activists and journalists. She expressed her concern regarding recent non-democratic and unconstitutional changes in government in both Chad and Mali, joining other international actors in calling for a fully participatory and inclusive democratic transitional process and a swift return to constitutional order. Regarding China, she reiterated her concern over the ‘chilling impact’ of the National Security Law in Hong Kong SAR on civic and democratic space, and informed the Council that she is currently discussing with China modalities for a visit to the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. The High Commissioner further stated that she was deeply disturbed by continued reports of serious violations of international humanitarian law, including against civilians, in the Tigray region of Ethiopia and noted that the findings of the joint investigation conducted by her Office and the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission in this regard will be made public in August.
Overall, the High Commissioner raised 13 country situations in her update to the Council. She also focused on the thematic issues of inequality, gender discrimination, the right to a healthy environment, and the right to social protection. The annual report of the High Commissioner can be found here and the official transcript of Ms Bachelet’s speech here.
Interactive dialogue with the High Commissioner on State responses to pandemics
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, opened the interactive dialogue on State response to pandemics with a tribute to the victims of COVID-19, and reminded everyone that the pandemic continues to pose an extraordinary threat to societies worldwide. Ms. Bachelet emphasised that States have a fundamental role to play in combating such global health crises and underscored the need for a strong public health response while upholding respect for human rights. She noted that the failure of States to fulfil their human rights obligations during the pandemic has compromised the resilience of national health systems and economies. This has led to a great loss of human lives and triggered a socio-economic crisis with profound consequences. In the past year, 255 million jobs were lost globally, and 150 million people were pushed into extreme poverty, with those already marginalised by systemic discrimination and persistent inequalities affected the most: women and girls, older people, persons with disabilities, and LGBTIQ individuals.
The High Commissioner also observed that the pandemic has either disrupted or reversed important progress on the realisation of the Sustainable Development Goals. Her report underscores the disastrous effect that the COVID-19 crisis has had on national health systems. States should continue to work towards guaranteeing equitable access to healthcare, including medicines and vaccines, and ensure the primacy of public health over private profit. Calling for ‘radical measures’ in the fight against COVID-19, the High Commissioner emphasised that vaccines should be considered a public good, and that protecting, respecting, and fulfilling socio-economic rights should remain a priority. Ms. Bachelet expressed grave concern that a new wave of austerity measures adopted in the context of the economic downturn caused by the pandemic will affect an estimated 85% of the global population in the coming years. Therefore, the international community must ensure that especially developing countries do not find themselves trapped in a situation where financial constraints and the need to service foreign debt obligations hinders economic development and societal recovery.
Ensuring respect for civil and political rights during the pandemic also remains an issue of prime concern, especially the right to participate in public affairs. Ms. Bachelet lamented the exclusion of women from policy- and decision-making, which has exacerbated the gendered social and economic consequences of the pandemic. She expressed her desire to create a global ‘human rights economy’ through the implementation of measures such as progressive taxation, efficient and equitable allocation of resources, combating corruption, and international cooperation.
The delegations in attendance commented on the dire effects of the pandemic on human rights and rising inequalities both within States and globally, expressing their support for the recommendations set out in the High Commissioner’s report. The African Group, together with the Non-Aligned Movement, the Arab Group and the Asian Group, called for an equitable distribution of vaccines, access to medical technology, and greater cooperation in the fight against COVID-19. Furthermore, a cross-regional group of 46 countries (supported by 22 non-State actors) represented by Denmark issued a joint statement putting forward the ‘Sustainable Recovery Pledge’, according to which the signatory States commit themselves to placing human rights at the heart of efforts to ‘build back better’ after the pandemic by promoting democratic principles, ensuring effective civil society participation, combatting widespread inequalities and discrimination, and adopting a climate- and environmentally sensitive approach to recovery efforts.
A total of seven panel discussions were held during the 47th session. The panels were on the following topics:
- High-level panel discussion on multisectoral prevention of and response to female genital mutilation (summary – video)
- The human rights of older persons in the context of climate change (summary – video)
- Tenth anniversary of the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (summary – video)
- Violence against women and girls with disabilities (Annual full-day discussion on the human rights of women) (summary – video)
- Gender-equal socioeconomic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic (Annual full-day discussion on the human rights of women) (summary – video)
- The potential of leveraging sport and the Olympic ideal for promoting human rights for young people (Quadrennial panel discussion on promoting human rights through sport and the Olympic Ideal) (summary – video)
- Technical cooperation to advance the right to education and ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and lifelong learning for all (Annual thematic panel discussion on technical cooperation and capacity-building) (summary – video)
Interactive dialogues with Special Procedure mandate holders
The Special Rapporteur on the right to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health
The Special Rapporteur on the right to health, Dr. Tlaleng Mofokeng, started her first interactive dialogue with the Council with a tribute to frontline workers and expressed her condolences to those who lost loved ones during the COVID-19 pandemic. Dr. Mofokeng then discussed the impact of racism, discrimination, and coloniality on the enjoyment of the right to health for all. She noted that the developing world, as well as vulnerable minority groups both in developed countries and the Global South such as the Roma and the Rohingya, are disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 crisis. As the pandemic has exacerbated existing socioeconomic inequalities, widening the gap in access to and quality of healthcare. The Special Rapporteur emphasised in this regard the importance of vaccine equity and called for the lifting of IP restrictions so that low- and middle-income countries may obtain COVID-19 vaccines. She stressed that the international community must ensure not to leave the Global South behind during the COVID-19 pandemic especially, and when it comes to the enjoyment of the right to health in general.
Turning to her first report, which sets-out the Special Rapporteur’s priority focus areas for the coming years, including understanding the impact of coloniality and racism on the right to health, gender equality, and the inclusion of women and girls in the full enjoyment of the right to health, Dr. Mofokeng noted that every day, women around the world are subjected to myriad human rights violations which range from sexual and gender-based violence, including femicide, to unsafe abortions and laws criminalising sex work. She emphasised in this context the importance of sexual and reproductive health rights as well as education so that women can make informed choices and exercise bodily autonomy.
The States present at the interactive dialogue expressed their support for the Special Rapporteur’s report, including its focus on xenophobia and discrimination as barriers to the enjoyment of the right to health for all. Participants agreed that discrimination negatively impacts individuals’ right to health, and that anti-discrimination measures, as well as global cooperation, are crucial to fight global health emergencies effectively. The representatives from the European Union and the Nordic and Baltic States called for a comprehensive, multi-stakeholder approach to the right to health while stressing the need to ensure equal access to health care. The representative of Fiji addressed the impact of non-communicable diseases in the Pacific Island nations, and called for global cooperation in the fight against public health emergencies. UNICEF emphasised the importance of universal health coverage and the inclusion of vulnerable populations, especially women and children.
Participants similarly commended the Special Rapporteur’s work on gender equality. The representative of Belgium urged States to overcome obstacles to women’s sexual and reproductive health, noting that measures should centre around enabling access to safe abortions, comprehensive sexuality education, and access to modern forms of contraception. Malta underscored the importance of providing access to healthcare without discrimination on the basis of gender, sexual orientation, race, religion, or social background. On the other hand, the Russian Federation did not share the view of the majority of States regarding the need to create a new, de-gendered system of healthcare.
The latest report by the Special Rapporteur on the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health can be read here.
The Special Rapporteur on freedom of expression and opinion
During an interactive dialogue, the Special Rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression, Irene Khan, presented the findings of her latest report on disinformation in the digital age. Ms. Khan noted that disinformation is not a new phenomena, but what is new is the speed, breadth and extent with which it can travel due to digital innovations. She emphasised that it poses a serious threat to human rights and democratic institutions, and that States and companies around the world have yet to formulate an adequate response to this challenge. She lamented that some States have resorted to disproportionate measures in the fight against disinformation, such as internet shutdowns, content removal without due process, and the criminalisation or censorship of online speech. Social media companies in turn may have contributed to or amplified the spread of misinformation through the use of algorithms and data harvesting. The Special Rapporteur also called on States to refrain from sponsoring disinformation and to restrict freedom of expression in the digital sphere only where necessary and in compliance with applicable human rights standards. She further recommended that social media companies avoid direct content moderation in favour of greater transparency and human rights due diligence.
The delegations in attendance welcomed the report of the Special Rapporteur as well as her findings and recommendations. The interactive part of the session focused primarily on the spread of disinformation concerning the COVID-19 pandemic and the safety of vaccines, and more generally the role of new technologies and the responsibility of social media companies. Several States, including Canada and members of the European Union, asked the Special Rapporteur to clarify how governments can fight disinformation in a human-rights compliant manner. Ecuador underscored the issue of ‘infodemics’ as well as online harassment directed towards women. The US delegation took the opportunity to criticise State-sponsored disinformation campaigns in Algeria, Hong Kong, Nicaragua, and Russia, which in their view aim at silencing critical voices and dissent. China, speaking also on behalf of Iran and Zimbabwe, alleged that Western States fabricate information about human rights violations for purposes of interfering in other countries’ internal affairs.
In conclusion, the Special Rapporteur urged States to consider the right to freedom of opinion and expression a starting point upon which to build their policies. She noted that responsibility for the implementation of the obligation to protect, respect and fulfil this right lies with States as the primary duty bearers. As such, governments should actively engage with civil society organisations and companies to protect their citizens from rights violations by third parties. Ms. Khan lamented that social media platforms at times treat their users differently based on location, and reiterated that human rights norms must be upheld universally. As a final thought, she expressed her hope that with the free flow of information, the implementation of transparent business models as well as active protection of journalists and human rights defenders, trust in institutions and the media can be rebuilt, thus strengthening the foundations of democratic society.
The Working Group on discrimination against women and girls
Ms. Melissa Upreti, Chair-Rapporteur of the Working Group on discrimination against women and girls, presented two reports on behalf of the Working Group during an Interactive Dialogue before the Human Rights Council on June 25th. First, she presented a thematic report devoted to women’s and girls’ sexual and reproductive health rights (SRHR) in crisis. Second, she presented the Working Group’s country visit report to Romania.
In the thematic report, Ms. Upreti examined key factors and trends that undermine and threaten the sexual and reproductive health and autonomy of women and girls, before and during crisis-related events; and emphasised the need for a radical shift in how crisis situations are identified and addressed. During her intervention, the Chair-Rapporteur observed that focusing on a singular event or emergency may divert attention from key underlying structural issues that render a situation precarious, especially for women and girls. She noted in this regard that millions of women and girls around the world perceive the non-enjoyment of SRHR and gender inequality as crises in and of themselves, whether or not they are situated in an additional crisis as well. Similarly, the widespread occurrence of involuntary and early pregnancy constitutes a serious emergency as well, which is often caused by sexual abuse or other harmful practices such as child marriage.
The Chair-Rapporteur affirmed that women’s and girls’ sexual and reproductive health rights are clearly established in international law, yet are being violated on a daily basis. The Working Group had identified key factors that undermine SRHR and provided five interrelated steps towards their full realisation at all times: prioritising SRHR; eliminating discriminatory laws, policies and practices; institutionalising and strengthening monitoring and accountability for SRHR violations; ensuring women’s and girls’ participation in decision-making processes while promoting male accountability; and pushing back against conservative and anti-human rights ideologies.
States then took the floor to comment on the reports. Most delegations, including Romania, thanked the Chair-Rapporteur for her work and welcomed her recommendations. Several delegations reminded their counterparts to stick to agreed-upon language included in international instruments, and not to link gender-based violence to religion or belief. Pakistan, Russia and Iraq, amongst other countries, raised complaints regarding the use of what they viewed as ‘controversial elements’ (references to sexual rights, comprehensive sexual education, and the right to abortion, for example). The countries in attendance also shared updates of domestic advances in the fight against gender-based discrimination. These include developments in Namibia, whose representative noted that despite several budget limitations, its health system has improved, and women have access to free sexual and reproductive health services, such as family planning, across the country. Finally, members of civil society took the floor. The Federation for Women and Family Planning lamented the restrictions imposed on legal abortions in Poland since a controversial Constitutional Tribunal decision in 2020. Ms. Upreti concluded the interactive dialogue by urging States to continue fighting for women’s rights, especially amidst the pandemic.
The Working Group on transnational corporations
The Chairperson of the UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights, Mr. Dante Pesce, opened the discussion by welcoming the significant impact of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, which were adopted 10 years ago. On this occasion, the Working Group presented the project ‘UNGPs 10+’, taking stock of the first 10 years of implementation and considering what lies ahead. Overall, Mr. Pesce described the glass as both ‘half-full’ and ‘half-empty’: half-full because the Guiding Principles helped establish accountability and access to remedies for rights holders, thus shaping the concept of corporate human rights due diligence; half-empty, however, because significant gaps remain in the implementation of the Guiding Principles. At the multilateral level, the Guiding Principles have not been incorporated into the SDGs and in the debates and agreements on transitioning to a green economy.
Mr. Pesce proposed that the international community improve the implementation of the Guiding Principles in the coming decade by means of a ‘smart mix’ of legal and policy measures. One key focus of the Working Group’s report is the protection of human rights defenders, whose physical safety is often under threat as they expose the adverse human rights impact of business operations. The other main topic of the report related to the need to remove barriers that hinder access to remedies for rights-holders, and the key role that national human rights institutions should play in guaranteeing access to remedy.
The majority of delegations in attendance highlighted the remarkable progress that has been made since the adoption of the Guiding Principles, while recognising that much remains to be done. Many States also stressed their commitment to respecting the Guiding Principles in the context of post-pandemic recovery efforts. A general trend among States has been to integrate the UNGPs into national legislation so as to reduce the gap between international and domestic standards. A number of States expressed support for the adoption of binding standards beyond the Guiding Principles in order to incorporate the concept of corporate human rights due diligence into national law. Several NGOs echoed this call. Many delegations, including the US, Germany, and Switzerland, highlighted the need for multi-stakeholder dialogue, while Mr. Pesce called for policy coherence: States should learn from each other and share good practices in the implementation of the UNGPs.
Civil society organisations emphasised that much more needs to be done to make business fully human rights-compliant. Centre Europe-Tiers Monde called for mandating outcomes, and not just principles. Finally, the International Organisation of Employers urged governments to take the lead in the implementation of the Guiding Principles.
Interactive Dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty
The Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty, Professor Olivier De Schutter, began the Interactive Dialogue by stating that he took up his mandate in May 2020, as the world was entering the worst economic recession since the Great Depression of 1929. Prof. De Schutter noted that since the outbreak of the pandemic, an additional 115 million people have fallen into poverty, 4 billion people lack comprehensive social protection, and 60% of the global workforce have unstable jobs. He recognised that many States implemented social security programmes at the start of the pandemic, but that these were mostly ‘ad hoc’ and short-term; furthermore, people in poverty in low-income countries were often unable to file claims to access financial support due to a lack of information and internet access.
The Special Rapporteur, therefore, proposed the creation of a Global Fund for Social Protection in order to increase financial support for low-income countries. In his view, this would not only lift people out of poverty but also improve the resilience of social protection systems in the face of future crises. Mr. De Schutter proposed several steps to finance such a mechanism: mobilising the IMF; acquiring financial support from the international community; and mobilising the domestic resources of low-income States, who should view social protection as an investment with high returns and multiplier effects on the economy.
During the debate, the delegations in attendance recognised the devastating impact that COVID-19 has had on the social, economic, and political rights for people living in poverty, and that international solidarity is imperative for eradicating poverty in line with the Sustainable Development Goals. Iraq echoed the Special Rapporteur’s assessment that the current assistance provided by the Global North is insufficient. Most States expressed their support for the Special Rapporteur’s proposal to create a Global Social Protection Fund. Malta suggested for the Special Rapporteur to establish partnerships with members of civil society and other relevant stakeholders to secure contributions, while France raised a question about how the international community would fund the mechanism, especially at a time of global economic insecurity. Prof. De Schutter responded that the total wealth produced in OECD countries – the world’s richest – was $60 trillion in 2018, and that just a small fraction of this would be required to ensure social protection in all low-income States.
Many States provided the Special Rapporteur with updates about the domestic social protection programmes implemented by their governments. Indonesia, for instance, adopted a national development programme which includes a national health insurance scheme, an education allowance, and free electricity for low-wage workers. Namibia introduced a ‘comprehensive social protection system’ which provides grants for children, people with disabilities, and vulnerable groups, noting that this has progressively improved the quality of life for citizens. Malaysia spoke of its stimulus package, which cost $92.2 billion and assisted over 20 million households and 2 million businesses during the pandemic.
At the end of the Interactive Dialogue, NGOs were invited to make comments. Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung welcomed the proposal of a Global Social Protection Fund, acknowledging that international consensus is the key to implementing effective social security programmes. Consortium for Street Children also expressed support for the Global Fund but stressed that if the fund is to offer meaningful, dignified assistance, it is vital to consult with children and families that would receive the support and implement their concerns and solutions. Finally, Sikh Human Rights Group noted that environmentally friendly policies ought to be included, and to increase the funding offered to those in low-income jobs.
Commissions of Inquiry, Fact-Finding Missions and Independent investigations
Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic
On 6 July 2021, 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 an oral update on the Commission’s work for the time period covering July 2020 to April 2021. Mr. Pinheiro began by noting that five international armies, their proxies and a plethora of other non-state actors continue to fight in Syria to this day, including the air forces of the Russian Federation, the United States, and Israel. He noted that in the Idlib governorate, the civilian population is controlled by the UN-designated terrorist group Haya’t Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), with thousands of Syrian National Army (SNA) and Turkish security forces present in other parts of the country. Overall, in northwestern Syria, more than 2.7 million IDPs remain in increasingly desperate living conditions despite reductions in violence following the March 2020 ceasefire. Mr. Pinheiro lamented the air strikes carried out by pro-government forces on medical facilities, markets and schools in the Idlib area, which rendered them inoperable. He expressed concern that these attacks greatly reduced access to food, water, health care, and adequate housing, and created insecurity in areas already suffering from overcrowding, inadequate resources, and – in much of the governorate – the stifling rule of HTS.
Mr. Pinheiro also shared his concerns over the situation in Syria’s northeast and territories formerly under the control of ISIL, where men and boys suspected of having ties to the group, including foreigners, remain largely outside the protection of the law. In al-Roj camp, around 60,000 women, men and children continue to languish more than two years after the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) took back control, and thousands more reside in other camps. According to reports, women and children make up 90% of the population in these camps, who are particularly vulnerable. Mr. Pinheiro expressed outrage over their inhumane living conditions, which he noted the Commission of Inquiry has been documenting for years. He called on States to repatriate their citizens, especially in light of the deteriorating security situation in the camps since the beginning of the year.
Syria, speaking as the country concerned, reiterated its opposition to continued discussions of its human rights situation. Specifically, Syria deemed the Council’s reports and resolutions motivated by political considerations, and criticised the Council’s failure to adequately take into account rights violations committed by other actors, including Turkish and US forces as well as their allies. Syria further stated that the concerns expressed by some Council members lack credibility since they ignore the impact of unilateral coercive measures that directly violate the basic human rights of the Syrian people and hinder the work of humanitarian agencies.
Universal Periodic Review
Adoption of the UPR Working Group outcome reports
The Council adopted the UPR outcome reports of Australia, Austria, Lebanon, Georgia, Mauritania, Micronesia (Federated States of), Nauru, Nepal, Oman, Rwanda, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, and Sao Tome and Principe. Out of the 3091 recommendations received, 2217 recommendations were accepted, 35 were partially accepted, and 839 were noted or rejected.
24 Special Procedures (19 thematic, five country-specific) presented their annual reports or provided oral updates at HRC47 (all of which are available here). During 24 interactive dialogues (all individual), 138 States delivered 944 statements, of which 26% were from the African Group, 30% from APG, 12% from EEG, 10% from GRULAC, 19% from WEOG, and 2% from other countries (namely the State of Palestine, the Holy See and the Sovereign Order of Malta). Additionally, 86 Joint Statements were delivered.
Appointment of new mandate-holders
Seven 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:
- Attiya WARIS (Kenya) was appointed as the Independent Expert on the effects of foreign debt and other related international financial obligations of States on the full enjoyment of all human rights, particularly economic, social and cultural rights;
- Muluka-Anne MITI-DRUMMOND (Zambia) was appointed as the Independent Expert on the enjoyment of human rights by persons with albinism;
- Ana BRIAN NOUGRERES (Uruguay) was appointed as the Special Rapporteur on the right to privacy;
- Reem ALSALEM (Jordan) was appointed as the Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences;
- Sushil RAJ (india) was appointed as a member from the Asia-Pacific States for the Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent;
- Miriam EKIUDOKO (Hungary) was appointed as a member from the Eastern-European States for the Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent;
- Gabriella CITRONI (Italy) was appointed as a member from Western European and others States for the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention;
To inform the appointments, the Consultative Group, made up of representatives of Chad, Malaysia, El Salvador, and Canada, scrutinised around 94 individual applications from 89 eligible candidates for seven vacancies. The Consultative Group (4 mandates, 1 mandate, and 2 mandates) sent its recommendations to the President of the Council, who on 14 June 2021 and 6 July 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 seven mandates.
The 47th session of the Council concluded with the adoption of 27 texts (25 resolutions and two decisions). This is four texts more than the number of texts (23) adopted at the 44th session in June 2020 or an increase of 17%. This significant increase can in part be explained by the adoption of two procedural texts, as well as the introduction of several new initiatives, including on ‘Menstrual hygiene management, human rights and gender equality’; ‘Elimination of harmful practices related to accusations of witchcraft and ritual attacks’; and ‘Situation of human rights in the Tigray region of Ethiopia’.
Around 44% of tabled resolutions at HRC47 were adopted by a recorded vote. This is an increase of nearly 15% compared with the previous June session, with a number of resolutions being subjected to a vote, which in previous years had been adopted by consensus.
19 (70.5%) of the texts adopted by the Council were thematic in nature and two texts (7.5%) were procedural in nature, while six (22%) dealt with country-specific situations. Of the latter texts, three addressed human rights violations under agenda item 2, two under item 4, and one sought to protect human rights through technical assistance and capacity building (under item 10).
22 of the texts adopted by the Council (81%) had Programme Budget Implications (PBI), requiring appropriations of $8’152’300 not previously covered by the UN regular budget.
Resolutions listed in order of L numbers
Presidential statements and decisions listed in order of L numbers
|Agenda Item||Decisions||Core group||PBIs||Extra-Budgetary Appropriations||Adoption
(Y – N – A)
|6||Commencement of the fourth cycle of the universal periodic review||President of the Council||✗||–||Adopted without a vote|
|1||Strengthening documentation within the Human Rights Council||Egypt, Indonesia, Nigeria, Philippines, Senegal||✓||$496’400||Adopted without a vote|
Analysis and conclusions
The Council’s 2021 June session (which ran until mid-July this year) saw a continuation of some long-standing trends (e.g., arguments over societal questions, pitting conservative countries against more liberal States, increased Chinese assertiveness), but also the emergence of important new political currents (e.g., divisions over digital technologies and rights, a growing focus on racism, especially in law enforcement, new levels of Russian aggression, and strengthened US engagement with the Council and its mechanisms).
The general feeling among diplomats, when they reflected on HRC47, appeared to be mainly one of concern at the increasingly febrile and polarised nature of debates and decision-making. The fact that the session saw an extremely high number of ‘hostile’ amendments tabled to resolutions (51 – the second highest number since the Council’s establishment in 2006), and the highest ever number of adoptions by vote (44%) for a June session, suggests that those concerns are not without foundation.
Thematic debates and resolutions
In addition to the traditional thematic flashpoints for June sessions, particularly around questions of gender and women’s rights, including sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR), HRC47 also saw a number of new trends and disagreements, including divisions over issues that had previously enjoyed consensus support at the Council.
Regarding the former, the June session again saw a concerted pushback by more conservative-minded States (e.g., Bahrain, Egypt, Eritrea, Russian Federation, Pakistan, Senegal) against concepts that they consider to be contrary to their national cultural or religious values, and ungrounded in international human rights law, such as ‘comprehensive sexuality education’ and ‘bodily autonomy.’ These countries repeatedly urged the Council to ensure its work remains grounded in ‘agreed language,’ such as that contained in the Beijing Declaration and Programme of Action. Other States, however, especially Western and Latin American States (including the US, which had actually been aligned with the conservative bloc during the Trump presidency), rejected the notion that the Council should simply ignore 25 years of progress in the area of women’s rights since Beijing. At the end of the session, these disagreements played out in the form of a number of hostile amendments tabled by Egypt and the Russian Federation to draft resolutions on ‘Accelerating efforts to eliminate all forms of violence against women and girls: preventing and responding to all forms of violence against women and girls with disabilities’ and ‘Preventable maternal mortality and morbidity and human rights’. Those amendments were all defeated, and the two resolutions adopted by consensus.
HRC47 also saw the continuation, and further deepening, of the Council’s focus on the issue of racial discrimination, especially in a law enforcement context. Clearly, the fight against racism is not a new issue for the Council or the UN, however, it has received new levels of political attention since the killing of George Floyd by a US police officer in May 2020, the suppression of the protests that followed, and the rise of the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement. As part of that shift, during the resumed 43rd session of the Council in June 2020, the African Group, with strong civil society support, had convened an urgent debate on ‘Current racially inspired human rights violations, systemic racism, police brutality, and violence against peaceful protests.’ The resolution adopted after the debate, resolution 43/1, had requested the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, to present a report on the matter at the 47th session.
The High Commissioner duly addressed HRC47, informing delegations that the murder of George Floyd had been a ‘tipping point’ for global awareness and outrage about the ongoing scourge of racism. In preparing her report, she said, she had spoken with, and listened to, family members of some of the victims of racially motivated police brutality. From those conversations, and as fully reflected in the report, she argued that such brutality is but the tip of an iceberg of systemic racial discrimination running through societies, beginning in early childhood, as children of African descent are subjected to racism at school, and continuing into adulthood as they are often marginalised, suffer from unequal treatment in the labour market (e.g., fewer opportunities, lower wages), face unequal access to housing and health care services, and are often ‘treated like criminals.’ Regarding police brutality against people of African descent, Bachelet lamented the fact that ‘law enforcement officials are rarely held accountable.’ Finally, turning to the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement, the High Commissioner noted that BLM activists are often treated differently to other protestors, and regularly face criminal prosecutions, violence and even killings.
In a particularly powerful intervention, the High Commissioner positioned the blight of racism in modern societies in the context of the failure of States to fully reckon with their historic role in, and responsibility for, the slave trade and colonialism.
At the end of the session, the African Group tabled a draft resolution following up on the High Commissioner’s report. Through the resolution, the Council decided to establish an independent expert mechanism on racial discrimination and police brutality. Importantly, the US welcomed the establishment of this new mechanism. The US also announced their decision to extend a standing invitation to all Special Procedures, and to prioritise visits in the near future by the Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, and the Special Rapporteur on minority issues.
A further trend that continued and even went up a notch at HRC47 was the growing assertiveness – some would say aggressiveness – of Chinese diplomats. In early June Chinese premier Xi Jinping hinted at a toning down of its ‘wolf warrior diplomacy,’ calling on diplomats to pay more attention to their ‘tone.’ Yet it appears the Chinese delegation to the Council didn’t get that memo. At the start of the session, China delivered a raft of statements attacking Western States including Canada and the UK, and seeking to counter Western criticism of human rights abuses in Xinjiang and to push back against a new initiative, led by Costa Rica, Estonia, Japan, Norway and the US, on democracy (see below). China also made ample use of the debate on racism (see above) to attack Western States, especially the UK and the US, for their role in the transatlantic slave trade and in colonialism.
There was also a growing sense, however, that China’s tactics are becoming less effective and – like Russia (see below) – risk damaging the country’s interests and standing in the long-run. For example, both Canada and the US effectively countered Chinese criticism of the historic treatment of indigenous children and of racism and police brutality, respectively, by fully acknowledging the problems and committing to address them; and then cleverly turned the tables on China by juxtaposing that approach with China’s attitude towards criticisms of its own human rights performance (which tends to be characterised by denial and aggression). Likewise, China’s counter statement on democracy (which argued that democracy should be tailored to suit local conditions) garnered only 15 co-signatories at the time of delivery, while the Costa Rica-Estonia-Japan-Norway-US joint statement (which expressed concern about the roll back of democratic norms in many parts of the world and sought to reaffirm the fundamental tenets of democratic government) secured 65 co-sponsors. Finally, China’s aggressive lobbying of States to persuade them not to sign the Canadian-led joint statement on human rights violations in Xianjiang – or, in the case of Ukraine, to withdraw sponsorship – served to annoy many developing country delegations at the Council.
Turning to new trends and developments, perhaps the most notable were the inter-State disagreements over initiatives and resolutions that had previously enjoyed universal support at the Council (particularly those dealing with digital technologies, public health, and climate change).
In the past, Council resolutions on human rights and climate change (adopted by vote 46-0-1), human rights and HIV/AIDS (adopted by vote 42-0-5), human rights and the internet (adopted by vote 43-0-4), and human rights and new technologies (adopted by vote 44-0-3), were routinely adopted by consensus. However, at HRC47 China and Russia tabled hostile amendments against these texts (though Chinese amendments to resolutions on human rights and the internet and human rights and new technologies were ultimately withdrawn), and eventually decided to block consensus by calling for a vote (Russia called for a vote on the draft texts on climate change, and on HIV/AIDS, while China called for votes on the draft texts on the internet, and on new technologies). Russia also blocked the consensus adoption of a presidential statement on the human rights dimensions of COVID-19 and vaccines.
Perhaps the most significant of those steps were China’s moves against the resolutions on new technologies and the internet, which may presage a coming ideological clash between China and Western States in this important new area of human rights work.
HRC47 saw the adoption of Council resolutions focused on the situations in Syria, Myanmar, Belarus, Eritrea, Tigray (Ethiopia), and Ukraine (technical assistance and cooperation).
Perhaps the most notable was the resolution, tabled by the EU, on the human rights situation in Tigray. The Council has been repeatedly criticised by civil society for failing to address the human rights dimensions of the civil conflict in Tigray, northern Ethiopia, since it erupted last November. Seeking to respond to such criticisms and fulfil the protection mandate of the Council, while at the same time keeping open lines of communication with the government of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, the EU tabled a modest resolution and offered to work with Ethiopia and the African Group on the text. However, these efforts were ultimately unsuccessful, and in the end Ethiopia, backed by Eritrea, China, and Venezuela, pushed back strongly against the EU initiative. In the end the resolution was adopted by a vote (20-14-13), with all African members of the Council either voting against (Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Cote d’Ivoire, Eritrea, Namibia, Somalia, Togo) or abstaining (Gabon, Libya, Malawi, Mauritania, Senegal, Sudan).
In truth, the Council and the High Commissioner, long ago missed the crucial window of opportunity vis-à-vis the situation in Tigray, during which they could have made a real difference. Under the Council’s prevention mandate (paragraph 5f of GA resolution 60/251), the High Commissioner should have brought early warning signs of the coming crisis to the Council’s attention in late 2020, giving member States the opportunity, under resolution 45/31, to take preventative action by, for example, sending a good offices mission to the country and wider region.
HRC47 saw, once again, the adoption of resolutions carrying serious budgetary implications for the Organisation, notably through the establishment of another costly expert mechanism (i.e., the international independent expert mechanism on the excessive use of force in the context of law enforcement, which will cost $4’729’500 over its three year mandate), the organisation of a series of 5 regional consultations on ‘The contribution of development to the enjoyment of human rights’ (costing $717’100) as well as for the preparation and translation of summary records for six meetings per Council session in 2021 and 2022 (amounting to $496’400). These spiralling costs raise legitimate questions regarding the financial viability of the Council’s activities and the need to redouble efforts to rationalise Council initiatives, particularly in the context of the UN’s ongoing budgetary crisis.
Feature image: 47th Session of the Human Rights Council, Palais des Nations. 22 June 2021. UN Photo by Violaine Martin
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