Report on the 46th session of the Human Rights Council

by the URG team Blog, Blog, Climate change, HRC, Human Rights Council, Human rights institutions and mechanisms, International human rights institutions, mechanisms and processes, Resolution 16/18, Special Procedures, Thematic human rights issues

Quick summary

  • The 46th regular session of the Human Rights Council (HRC46) was held from Monday 22nd February to Wednesday 24th March.
  • As it is the main annual session of the Council, HRC46 began with a High-Level Segment (HLS). The 2021 HLS included speeches by 130 States and other dignitaries, including: H.E. Mr Shavkat Mirziyoyev, President of Uzbekistan, H.E. Mr Iván Duque Márquez, President of Colombia, H.E. Mr Gitanas Nauseda, President of Lithuania, H.E. Mr Mohammad Ashraf Ghani, President of Afghanistan, H.E. Mr Andrzej Duda, President of Poland, H.E. Mr Nicolás Maduro Moros, President of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, H.E. Mr Mohamed Irfaan Ali, President of the Co-operative Republic of Guyana, H.E. Mr Abdalla Adam Hamdok, Prime Minister of the Sudan, H.E. Ms Sanna Marin, Prime Minister of Finland, HE. Mr Josaia Vorque Bainimarama, Prime Minister and Minister for iTaukei Affairs, Sugar Industry, and Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Fiji, H.E. Mr Aureilu Ciocoi, Acting Prime Minister and Acting Minister for Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Moldova, and the Secretary-General of the United Nations, H.E. Mr Antonio Guterres. In total, six heads of State, three prime ministers, 12 deputy prime ministers, 84 ministers, 16 deputy ministers, and nine representatives of observer organisations addressed HRC46.
  • On 26th February, the High Commissioner for Human Rights, H.E. Ms Michelle Bachelet, presented her oral update on the global human rights situation.
  • Seven panel discussions were held during the session, including two high level panels.
  • 86 reports under the Council’s various agenda items were considered.
  • Six new Special Procedures mandate-holders were appointed to the following mandates: two members of the Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (one for Africa and one for North America), the Special Rapporteur on the human rights in Cambodia, the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, a member from the African States for the Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent, and a member from Asia-Pacific States for the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention.
  • The outcomes of the UPR Working Group reviews of the following 14 countries were adopted: Andorra, Belarus, Bulgaria, Croatia, Honduras, Jamaica, Liberia, Libya, Malawi, Maldives, Marshall Islands, Mongolia, Panama, and the United States of America.
  • 31 texts (30 resolutions and one decision) were considered and adopted by the Council, including one new initiative on Ensuring equitable, affordable, timely and universal access for all countries to vaccines in response to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic. This represents a decrease (27.9% drop) compared to last March (HRC43), when 43 texts were adopted.
  • Of these 30 resolutions, 15 were adopted by consensus (50%), and 15 by a recorded vote (50%).
  • 14 written amendments were put forward by States during the consideration of resolutions – all 14 were rejected by a vote.
  • 19 of the texts adopted by the Council (61%) had Programme Budget Implications (PBI), requiring appropriations of $20’030’400 not previously covered by the UN regular budget.

High Level Segment

H.E. Ms. Nazhat Shameem KhanPresident of the Human Rights Council, opened the 46th session by recalling that the first regular session is in many ways the main session of the Human Rights Council, which in turn is the most important body of the UN human rights pillar. She highlighted that this 46th session is particularly special since it is the Council’s first almost entirely virtual regular session. She informed the Council that, due to extraordinary modalities and sanitary conditions for this session, the 15 LDCs/SIDS supported by the Trust Fund are not able to participate in person. However, she highlighted that they were able to participate in two virtual induction sessions held on 15th and 16th February to engage with the Council ahead of the session, with over 65 government officials from 26 LDCs/SIDS having attended the induction session. Ms Khan reminded dignitaries of the extraordinary modalities recommended during the bureau meeting held on 18th February, recalling the proposed virtual nature of the session, including the high level segment, informal consultations, and group meetings. She stressed that health and safety measures as followed during the 45th regular session must be strictly adhered to. At the same time, she underlined the importance of balancing inclusivity with what is feasible under current COVID-19 extraordinary modalities, while underscoring that these measures must not serve as a precedent. Ms Khan acknowledged the concerns raised by delegations with regard to the virtual voting procedure and assured delegates that the procedures are under consideration and will be amended duly through consultations with the delegations. (link to the statement)

H.E. Mr. Volkan Bozkir, President of the 75th session of the General Assembly, addressed the Council virtually and underlined that, despite the universality and inherent nature of human rights, in practice they are not universally protected and there is a lack of accountability for human rights abuses. He stressed that there is still more work left to strengthen the multilateral system to meet global challenges, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, which has exacerbated human rights abuses. At the same time, Mr Bozkir commended the Council and the General Assembly for having successfully continued their work in a hybrid format during the pandemic. In addition, Mr Bozkir highlighted the importance of putting human rights at the centre of COVID-19 responses and in ensuring equal and fair distribution of vaccines for all. He further stressed that human rights and sustainable development are symbiotic and mutually reinforcing, while underlining that progress on SDG5 on gender equality is crucial to achieving lasting societal change and upholding the rights of all. Moreover, he highlighted the Third Human Rights Council Inter-sessional meeting on the SDGs and human rights, which provided examples of how a rights-based approach will pave the way for a sustainable recovery for all. Moreover, he underlined that such interactions between the General Assembly, the Economic and Social Council, and the Human Rights Council will serve to benefit all areas of the UN’s work and make serious gains in this Decade of Action to implement sustainable development. Mr Bozkir concluded by applauding the Council for the practice of holding special sessions to respond to situations requiring urgent attention to uphold human rights. (link to the statement)

UN Secretary General,  H.E. Mr. Antonio Guterres, underlined that ‘human rights are our bloodline; they connect us to one another, as equals. Human rights are our lifeline; they are the pathway to resolving tensions and forging lasting peace. Human rights are on the frontline; they are the building blocks of a world of dignity and opportunity for all – and they are under fire every day.’ Mr Guterres pointed to the exacerbation of pre-existing vulnerabilities and inequalities by the COVID-19 pandemic, which include a rise in gender inequality, an increase in poverty levels, a drop in school attendance, a shrinking of civic space, and interference in other civil and political rights. In particular, he stressed the importance of ensuring vaccine equity as a basis for affirming human rights as opposed to vaccine nationalism,  stressing that vaccines must be a global public good. Moreover, he urged member States to place human rights at the centre of regulatory frameworks and legislation with regard to the development and use of digital technologies in order to protect the right to privacy. In this view, Mr Guterres recalled the Human Rights Call to Action as a comprehensive framework to address such challenges. 

Mr Guterres pointed to two areas that require urgent attention: racism, discrimination, and xenophobia and gender inequality. On the former, he welcomed the global fight for racial justice, referring to white supremacy and neo-Nazi movements as transnational threats that require globally coordinated action. On the latter, he underlined increasing inequalities faced by women during COVID-19 as a result of pre-existing power structures. In this view, he stressed that gender equality must be a priority for the organisation, underlining that solutions can only be found through shared leadership and decision-making as well as the right to equal participation. In addition, Mr Guterres commended the Council and its mechanisms for raising awareness on human rights issues, protecting human rights, maintaining dialogue, and finding solutions in concerning country situations, as shown through its timely focus on the situation in Myanmar. Mr Guterres concluded by urging States to be guided by human rights and human dignity for all in their efforts to recover better from the pandemic. (link to the statement)

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, H.E. Ms. Michelle Bachelet, addressed the Council through a video statement. She raised concerns about the growing levels of pre-existing inequalities as a product of the pandemic and underlined that the international community has the possibility of rebuilding better, more inclusive systems, which address root causes and prepare us to meet future challenges. Furthermore, she underlined that a swift end to the pandemic and a durable recovery requires the application of human rights principles based on public trust, which must be built through ‘transparent, accountable and inclusive government, grounded in a free press, effective democratic institutions and the public’s meaningful participation in policy.’ Ms Bachelet commended the Call to Action for Human Rights framework as an important tool to improve the work of the OHCHR with States and UN partners, while acknowledging her Office’s efforts in addressing challenges through various means including through supporting States with economic recovery strategies and to get back on track to meet the SDGs. To conclude, the High Commissioner for Human Rights called on member States to focus on measuring real impact when addressing existing challenges including discrimination, inequalities, and lack of participation in decision-making. (link to the statement)

H.E. Ms. Sanna Marin, Prime Minister of Finland, addressed the Council virtually and underlined that the Council is a cornerstone of a strong rules-based multilateral system and plays a key role in upholding human rights. At the same time, she stressed that the COVID-19 response requires solidarity, resilience, and inclusivity. She raised concerns on three issues that require immediate attention: the rights of women and girls, climate change, and digital space and human rights. With regard to climate change, she stressed the need to bring everyone on board and that the empowerment of women and girls can be decisive in making real change at every level. On the latter, she stressed the need to promote a safe digital space to protect voices from harassment and hate speech, while highlighting freedom of expression, assembly and media as essential for a democratic system. Ms Marin also underscored that the accountability of decision-makers and the rule of law lie at the heart of democracy. To conclude, Ms Marin highlighted the need for a Council with a broad mandate – from prevention to addressing human rights violations. (link to the statement)

H.E. Mr. Alvin Botes, Deputy Minister for International Relations and Cooperation of South Africa, addressed the Council virtually and expressed his commitment to multilateralism, women’s empowerment and gender equality, the rule of law, sustainable development, and peace and security. He conveyed that the 2021-2026 period provides an opportunity for genuine and deep reflection about whether the Council is able to rise to the occasion on its mandate as provided for by the General Assembly. He raised several considerations in this regard, including the need to reinforce the credibility of the Council amid new challenges; adhere to the spirit of the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action; and rid the Council of selectivity, politicisation, and use of double standards. Furthermore, Mr Botes called on Council members to work in unison to combat the scourge of racism and racial discrimination, underscoring that the 20th anniversary of the World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance provides the international community with an opportunity to do so. (link to the statement)

H.E. Mr. Don Pramudwinai, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs of Thailand, conveyed that COVID-19 has revealed unprecedented challenges. He stressed that it is imperative to build back better and more sustainably through strengthening and protecting human rights. In that regard, Mr Pramudwinai gave several suggestions to member States including for States to provide a safe space for all stakeholders to participate in dialogues on issues of their concern, while upholding the rule of law; to uphold the right to accurate and accountable information; to put individuals at the centre to achieve the SDGs, sustainability and resilience; and to strengthen efforts to realise the right to health as a basic human right for all people everywhere. To conclude, Mr Pramudwinai reaffirmed Thailand’s commitment to a strong, multilateral human rights system and hoped for the Council to strengthen its role and impact on the ground. (link to the statement)

H.E. Ms. Ana Luisa Castro, Vice Minister of Multilateral Affairs and Cooperation of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Panama, highlighted that the Council must strengthen its early warning procedures and recognise the role of prevention in preventing serious and systematic violations from occurring. She stressed that this becomes imperative, after the Council has tested its capacity to respond to emergency situations by convening special sessions and emergency debates. She further suggests that redoubling efforts is required to achieve real impact on ground. Moreover, Ms. Castro stressed the importance of  making the Council’s work more accessible, especially for persons with disabilities, through taking advantage of new technologies and platforms while bearing in mind the need to address existing digital divides. Ms. Castro highlighted that her country intends  to support resolutions aimed at recognising the right to a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment, as well as the establishment of a new Special Procedure mandate holder on human rights and climate change. (link to the statement). 

A URG analysis of the content of over 100 speeches during the HLS found that certain issues and situations featured particularly prominently. These are summarised in the ‘word cloud’ below.  (Read URG’s full analysis of the high-level segment here).

Briefing by the High Commissioner for Human Rights

On 26th February 2021, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Ms Michelle Bachelet, presented her Office’s annual report on the global state of human rights. She began by acknowledging the key role played by civil society in tackling the challenges triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly those related to health and financial or economic shortfalls. The High Commissioner reminded States that, when faced with such challenges, they should promote the meaningful participation of their people in decision-making processes, ensuring effective and inclusive policies and strategies, while taking into account the diversity of their population’s views and expectations. Moreover, she drew attention to the UN Guidance Note on protecting and promoting civic space, which underlines why maintaining and expanding civic freedoms is central to the UN’s three pillars – human rights, peace, and development. In this regard, the High Commissioner stressed that States must ensure genuine participation, transparency, information, accountability and inclusivity within civic space.

Ms Bachelet recalled that participation in civil and political life is guaranteed by the rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly, and association. Similarly, Ms Bachelet expressed concern over the increasing use of restrictive legal provisions and administrative measures (including terrorism-related legislation) to limit human rights. Furthermore, she called attention to the increase in arbitrary arrests, harassment, intimidation, and violence against members of the opposition, human rights defenders, journalists, and activists (e.g. in Turkey, Egypt, Comoros, Guinea, Tanzania, and Uganda). 

The High Commissioner acknowledged efforts made by States to reduce the human rights impacts of measures to counter the spread of COVID-19. At the same time, she underlining that ongoing violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms, rising inequalities, and discrimination resulting from such measures should be addressed. Ms Bachelet expressed particular concern over the misuse of national regulations, primarily aimed at stopping the spread of the virus, to suppress opposition and criticism or harm vulnerable communities (e.g. in China, Jordan, Laos, Philippines, and Uganda).

In addition, Ms Bachelet expressed serious concerns over attempts by several European States to obstruct the work of civil society organisations providing humanitarian and life-saving assistance to migrants. She called attention to the large number of judicial proceedings initiated by States against humanitarian actors, and the efforts undertaken by governments to prevent rescue operations in the Mediterranean, putting the lives of individuals and families at high risk. She raised similar concerns over governmental authorities in Hungary and Croatia denying access to civil society organisations and monitoring bodies (including members of the European Parliament) following allegations of human rights abuses. In this regard, Ms. Bachelet encouraged the EU and Council members to ensure that the trend of shrinking civic space is reversed and to establish adequate protections for civil society actors and independent monitoring bodies.

The High Commissioner also highlighted the need to ensure accountability for human rights and international law violations. She called for investigations to be held in Nagorno-Karabakh in response to allegations of serious violations committed during the hostilities that took place in the region, and welcomed criminal proceedings initiated by Azerbaijan to review the activities of its forces. She also encouraged the efforts launched by Mali to fight impunity and engage in a process of transnational justice. In this regard, Ms Bachelet underscored that increasing accountability and access to remedy mechanisms can have a significant deterrent effect on the situation and help put an end to recurrent cycles of violence, as illustrated by the example of Darfur. 

During her oral update, the High Commissioner emphasised issues of discrimination, violence (including sexual violence), the denial of rights, as well as crimes committed against certain groups including  children, women, persons with albinism, and other minorities. Ms Bachelet underlined that those ‘left behind’ are not only excluded from  development and related opportunities, but also from participation in decision-making processes. She concluded her oral update by reminding States that the UN, including her Office and the Human Rights Council, will continue to expose violations of human rights and stand up ‘against measures that silence civil society’. Overall, Ms Bachelet raised over 50 country situations in her update to the Council. 

The official transcription of the High Commissioner’s speech can be found here.

Panel discussions

A total of seven panel discussions were held during the 46th session of the Human Rights Council. The panels were on the following topics (click link for OHCHR meeting summaries).

*This meeting consisted of two panel discussions.

Commissions of Inquiry, Fact-Finding Missions and Independent investigations

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

On 10 March 2020, the Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela (FFM), composed of Ms Marta Valiñas (Chair), Francisco Cox Viral, and Paul Seils, delivered an oral update on the human rights situation in the country, which was followed by an interactive dialogue with States and NGOs.

Ms Marta Valiñas stated that the political climate of exclusion of dissenting voices appears to continue, marked by the repression of political opposition. She underlined that the FFM will continue to investigate allegations of torture and cruel treatment and punishment, including new allegations received about acts of sexual and gender-based violence against detainees. Ms Valiñas explained that the FFM will continue to seek information related to governmental efforts to prevent and remedy violations and investigate and prosecute those responsible for abuses. She underlined cases of arbitrary detention against journalists and the independent press, while stressing that silencing those who report on political and social realities impedes transparency necessary for ensuring accountability. Similarly, Ms Valiñas expressed concern about the growing trend of targeting individuals and NGOs engaged in humanitarian and human rights work. Furthermore, she highlighted grave patterns of extrajudicial executions committed by Venezuelan security forces in the context of security operations since the start of 2021, while assuring that the FFM will investigate circumstances around these cases.

Ms Valiñas recalled that in the September 2020 report, the Mission had identified alleged perpetrators from State intelligence, security, and military units. In accordance with their mandate to combat impunity and ensure accountability, the FFM will deepen investigations into these structures, clarifying responsibilities and chains of command while using the standard of reasonable grounds for believing violations occurred. In this regard, the FFM will be attentive to both actions and omissions by the government. She stated that the FFM will look at tactics used by State perpetrators to hide or shield themselves from accountability, including coordination with non-state actors to commit violations and crimes. In addition, Ms Valiñas announced that the FFM will further its investigations into the responses of public prosecutors and the judiciary to violations and crimes, including to analyse whether the judicial branch contributed to impunity through acts of commission or omission.  

Venezuela, speaking as the country concerned, rejected the work of the FFM, arguing that its report was politicised and lacking in balance and fairness, with statements that are not based on reasonable grounds. Venezuela highlighted that it cooperates with the OHCHR through a Memorandum of Understanding, and that this cooperation has had tangible results that were ignored by the FFM. Venezuela urged all members to reject the work of the FFM.

The mandate of the FFM was extended for a period of two years at the 45th session of the Council in September 2020. The resolution requested the mission to present oral updates on its work during interactive dialogues at its 46th and 49th sessions, and to present written reports on its findings during interactive dialogues at its 48th and 51st sessions.

Commission of Inquiry on Burundi

On 11 March 2020, the Commission of Inquiry on Burundi (CoI), composed of Mr Doudou Diène (Chair), Ms Lucy Asuagbor, and Ms Françoise Hampson, presented an oral update of the human rights situation in the country, which was followed by an interactive dialogue with States and NGOs.

Mr Diène stressed that while President Ndayishimiye has made several promises aimed at improving the human rights situation, promoting the rule of law, ensuring the justice system is more impartial and fair, and promoting unity and reconciliation, he cautioned that ad hoc gestures and statements of intent are not sufficient.

As a positive development, Mr Diène highlighted recent cases of individuals from the Imbonerakure being convicted for the murder of political opponents, which he argued demonstrates that putting an end to impunity in the country is a matter of political will rather than of lack of resources or capacity of the judicial system. 

At the same time, Mr Diène underlined that serious human rights violations continue to be committed. In particular, he highlighted that security incidents – especially those that have taken place since the summer of 2020 – have resulted in increased targeting of persons suspected of belonging to or supporting the armed opposition groups responsible for these attacks. These individuals have been victims of extrajudicial executions, enforced disappearances, as well as arrests and arbitrary detentions, often accompanied by acts of torture.

 In following up on the areas highlighted by the Commission’s previous report, Mr Diène underscored that arrests of journalists and human rights defenders continue to occur, although there have been some positive developments including the release of four journalists and the lifting of sanctions against some media organs. Meanwhile, there has been limited improvement to guarantee the freedom and security of human rights defenders. Mr Diène also noted that members of opposition parties remain closely monitored by the police and security forces as well as by the Imbonerakure, with several opposition members having been arbitrarily arrested and detained since September 2020. In addition, he underlined that the Imbonerakure continue to regularly replace police and security forces, especially in rural areas, and many continue to pursue criminal activities. Furthermore, Mr Diène explained that while the authorities are open to cooperation with the United Nations in the areas of economic development and humanitarian assistance, they remain opposed to any cooperation at the political level and in the field of human rights. Mr Diène concluded by stating that the current situation in Burundi is too complex and uncertain to be referred to as genuine improvement.

Burundi, as the country concerned, underlined its strong opposition to what it considered to be the CoI’s ‘untruthful political accusations’. Burundi underlined that the country has made great progress and that they have committed to building cooperation with bilateral and multilateral partners. Specifically, Burundi welcomed the resumption of cooperation with the Francophonie, the resumption of dialogue with the EU, and the decision by the Security Council to remove Burundi from its agenda. Burundi also highlighted that the government is working to protect and promote human rights, particularly by strengthening and facilitating the work of the Independent Commission for Human Rights.

The draft resolution tabled by Germany on behalf of the European Union at the 45th session of the Human Rights Council extended the mandate of the Commission for one year and requested 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 requested 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 11 March 2020, the Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan (Commission), composed of Ms Yasmin Sooka (Chair), Prof Andrew Clapham, and Mr Barney Afako, delivered an oral update to present its 5th report to the Council, followed by an interactive dialogue with States and NGOs on the situation of human rights in the country.

Ms Yasmin Sooka underlined that, according to the Commission, the current violence in South Sudan is the worst since the onset of the civil war in December 2013. She explained that the situation is worsened by the humanitarian crisis and exacerbated by floods and the COVID-19 pandemic. She also underlined that South Sudan is currently facing its highest levels of food insecurity and malnutrition in a decade. 

Ms Sooka called attention to the ongoing violence in the country. She underlined that abducted boys have been forced to fight and that militia groups have murdered and forcibly displaced thousands of civilians after entire villages were razed. Ms Sooka stressed that all warring groups have targeted women and girls, and that last year hundreds of women and girls were abducted, raped, gang-raped, and sexually enslaved or forcibly married off. In particular, Ms Sooka highlighted the region of Central Equatoria, which is experiencing an upsurge in violent insurgency for the second year in a row.

Ms Sooka explained that since 2011 the Government has systematically clamped down on freedom of speech, expression, peaceful assembly, and association, including through pervasive surveillance of journalists, activists, and human rights defenders. In that regard, she underscored that the National Security Service systematically targets civil society organisations, the media, and universities. 

Ms Sooka stressed that the Revitalised Peace Agreement has not reduced levels of violence at the local level. She argued that political elites have remained preoccupied with sharing power and resources at the centre and have deliberately fuelled local ethnic violence for political gain. Ms Sooka stated that, despite the formation of the Revitalised Government in February 2020, hardly any of the provisions of the Peace Agreement have been implemented, including the transitional justice provisions such as the Hybrid Court, the Commission on Truth, Reconciliation and Healing, and the Compensation and Reparations Authority. Ms Sooka stressed that the lack of accountability for gross human rights violations entrenches impunity and is building resentment and deepening ethnic divisions as well as violence. 

Ms Sooka underlined that the Commission has provided the Government, through the Minister of Justice, with benchmarks that constitute a strategic roadmap for an inclusive and participatory transitional justice process. However, Ms Sooka explained that without the constitution of the Revitalised Transitional National Legislature, the laws related to transitional justice mechanisms cannot be enacted. Therefore, the Commission urged the Government as a sign of good faith to sign without further delay the Memorandum of Understanding with the African Union, which will pave the way for the establishment of the Hybrid Court and other transitional justice mechanisms.

Ms Sooka highlighted that the Commission, in line with its mandate, continues to build dossiers on alleged perpetrators and intends to hand over these dossiers to the High Commissioner for Human Rights for the purpose of future investigations and prosecutions. To conclude, Ms Sooka underlined that the transition to peace requires political will, sustained international pressure, and continued engagement to kick-start and accompany the process.

H.E. Mr Ruben Madol Arol, Minister of Justice and Constitutional Affairs of the Republic of South Sudan, spoke for the concerned country. He stated that, in general, the situation continues to be calm despite some communal clashes in different areas of the country. Mr Ruben highlighted that the government is working with international partners on various human rights issues such as sexual and gender-based violence and the demobilisation of children. He also highlighted that the Government recently passed a resolution reaffirming its commitment to start the process to establish the three transitional justice institutions as enshrined in Chapter 5 of the Revitalised Peace Agreement. To conclude, Mr Ruben called on the Council to move South Sudan from agenda item 4 (human rights situations that require the Council’s attention) to agenda item 10 (technical assistance and capacity-building).

The draft resolution tabled by the United Kingdom 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 48th session during an enhanced interactive dialogue. It further requests the Commission to present a comprehensive written report to the 49th session of the Council during an interactive dialogue.

Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic

On 11 March 2020, the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic (CoI), composed of Paulo Sérgio Pinheiro (Chair), Karen Koning AbuZayd, and Hanny Megally, delivered an oral update to present its 22nd report followed by an interactive dialogue with States and NGOs on the situation of human rights in the country.

 Mr Paulo Sérgio Pinheiro underlined that Syria remains far from a safe environment for civilians. He expressed that the use of improvised explosive devices, with civilian-populated areas as primary targets, has resulted in the indiscriminate killing and maiming of men, women, girls, and boys. Meanwhile, airstrikes by a multitude of parties across Syria have resulted in damage in civilian infrastructure and civilian casualties, including the death of humanitarian workers. Moreover, in the south of the country, targeted killings of civilians persist, including by ISIS, who continue to have a significant impact on the daily lives of civilians. Mr Pinheiro underlined that the Government of Syria’s forces have arbitrarily arrested, tortured, and summarily executed detainees, and have committed both war crimes and crimes against humanity. Meanwhile, other warring parties perpetrated similar war crimes in their detention facilities. Mr Pinherio also underscored that pro-Government forces have deliberately and repeatedly targeted hospitals and medical facilities, and that the provision of humanitarian aid has been instrumentalised, diverted, and hampered – even with Security Council authorisation.  In addition, Mr Pinherio highlighted that unilateral sectoral sanctions have dramatically worsened an already dire economic situation, while underlining that basic human rights and humanitarian needs – food, water, health care, and education – must be met regardless of which entity controls a given territory. 

Mr Pinherio stressed that more must be done to free the arbitrarily detained, locate and identify the missing, restore vital civil documentation, safeguard rights in relation to housing, land, and property as well as provide psychosocial support, among other issues. In this regard, he urged every effort to be expended to support a peaceful negotiated resolution to the conflict, beginning with an immediate nation-wide ceasefire. 

Syria, as the country concerned, denied the ‘accusations contained in the Commission’s briefings and reports, which confirm its biased approach to the situation in the Syrian Arab Republic.’ Moreover, Syria stated that the Commission and its reports have ‘failed to produce any credible results in addressing the challenges facing Syria.’ Syria indicated that it does not recognise the mandate of the Commission and urged the Council not to renew it.

The draft resolution tabled at the 46th session of the Council by the United Kingdom on behalf of a group of countries extends the mandate of the COI for a period of one year and requests the CoI to provide an oral updated during an interactive dialogue at its 47th session. It further requests the CoI to present an updated written report during interactive dialogues at the Council’s 48th and 49th sessions.

Universal Periodic Review

Adoption of the UPR Working Group outcome reports

The Council adopted the UPR outcome reports of Belarus, Libya, Malawi, Panama, Mongolia, Maldives, Andorra, Honduras, Bulgaria, Marshall Islands, the United States, Croatia, Liberia, and Jamaica. Out of the 3103 recommendations received, 2373 recommendations were accepted, 63 were partially accepted, and 667 were noted or rejected.


General debate under item 6

During the general debate under item 6, held on 18 March 2021, Council members reaffirmed their support and commitment to the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) as one of the most important and effective platforms to promote and protect human rights around the world. At the same time, member States underlined that the UPR should follow a transparent, neutral, non-selective, and non-politicised approach focused on positive dialogue, cooperation, and equal treatment between governments. 

States highlighted the UPR’s role as a tool to showcase and share positive experiences and best practices between States, as well as to diagnose and address human rights challenges. Its ability to not only tackle the current crisis but also to help build more resilient and inclusive societies was also recognised. In addition, members praised the work of the OHCHR and UPR Trust Funds, pointing to the importance of technical assistance in helping countries with their UPR implementation and reporting duties, while taking into account their capacity-building needs. 

Portugal, on behalf of the EU, argued that in order to adequately improve human rights situations in all countries, all members need to contribute and follow-up on the recommendations received in an efficient manner. At the same time, Moldova underlined the importance of ensuring complementarity between the UPR and other human rights mechanisms (e.g. Special Procedures and treaty bodies).  

Pakistan, on behalf of the OIC, outlined tangible progress demonstrated by States in the promotion and protection of human rights, including through the introduction of voluntary policies and reforms. Pakistan identified meaningful dialogue with civil society stakeholders as well as  human rights national institutions as particularly beneficial. In a similar view, the Maldives and Malaysia expressed gratitude to all stakeholders involved in the process of implementation, review, and follow-up of UPR recommendations.

Cameroon, on behalf of the Group of African States, noted that continued funding difficulties, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, may negatively impact the work of the OHCHR and other human rights mechanisms. Cameroon stressed that, as one of the most important mechanisms of intergovernmental cooperation, the UPR should be given particular attention and support to ensure that it is able to effectively carry out its mandate worldwide.

Rewatch the debate here.

Special Procedures

Interactive Dialogues

18 Special Procedures (12 thematic, six country-specific) presented their annual reports or provided oral updates at HRC46 (all of which are available here). During 18 interactive dialogues (all individual), 129 States delivered 652 statements, of which 26% were from the African Group, 29% from APG, 13% from EEG, 8% from GRULAC, 21% from WEOG, and 2% from other countries (namely the State of Palestine, the Holy See and the Sovereign Order of Malta). Additionally, 54 Joint Statements were delivered.

Appointment of new mandate-holders

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

  1. Margaret LOKAWUA (Uganda) was appointed as a member from Africa for the Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (EMRIP);
  2. Sheryl LIGHTFOOT (Canada) was appointed as a member from North America for the Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (EMRIP);
  3. Viti MUNTARBHORN (Thailand) was appointed as the Special Rapporteur on the human rights in Cambodia;
  4. Morris TIDBALL-BINZ (Chile) was appointed as the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions;
  5. Catherine S. NAMAKULA (Uganda) was appointed as a member from the African States for the Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent;
  6. Priya GOPALAN (Malaysia) was appointed as a member from Asia-Pacific States for the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention;

To inform the appointments, the Consultative Group, made up of representatives of Chad, China, Mexico, Slovenia, and Spain, scrutinised around 84 individual applications from 78 eligible candidates for six vacancies. The Consultative Group sent its recommendations to the President of the Council, who on 8 February 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 six mandates.

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

General debate under item 5

During the General Debate under item 5, held on 17 March 2021, Morocco delivered a statement on behalf of the Group of Friends of National Mechanisms for Implementation, Reporting, and Follow-up (NMIRFs). While acknowledging the Secretary-General’s Call to Action for Human Rights, Morocco highlighted the publication of the UPR Practical Guidance as an important tool for UN country teams to support the establishment or strengthening of NMIRFs. Morocco underlined that ‘the existence of an effective, sustainable, inclusive and transparent NMIRF is key to support the ability of States to ensure effective coordination, reporting and implementation of human rights recommendations’. 

Portugal delivered a statement on behalf of the European Union, reiterating the crucial role played by Special Procedures in informing the Council about both country and thematic situations. Portugal stressed the need for the Council to take early preventive action, identify violations and abuses of human rights, and contribute to accountability. In this regard, Portugal underlined the need to strengthen the link between the Human Rights Council and the Security Council. Meanwhile, Nepal acknowledged the UPR as a constructive mechanism for promoting dialogue and transparency as well as sharing good practices of States in the field of human rights. At the same time, Nepal underlined that the measures adopted by the Treaty Bodies to enhance the reporting capability of states are crucial.

While underlining the challenges faced by States as a consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic, Italy stressed the importance of putting human rights at the center of recovery efforts to ensure that no ones left behind and to build back better. Latvia, on behalf of the Nordic-Baltic States, recognised the Special Rapporteurs as an integral part of the UN human rights system and commended them for continuing their work amid the UN liquidity crisis. In addition, Latvia called on all States that have not yet done so to extend a standing invitation to the Special Procedures.

Several states highlighted the need to improve the work of the Special Procedure Mandate Holders (SPMH). Cameroon, on behalf of the group of African States, and Belarus recalled that SPMHs are expected to perform their functions in an objective, impartial, non-selective, and non-politicised manner. In addition, States including Cambodia and India underlined that SPMHs must adhere to the Code of Conduct and establish trust with the concerned countries. In addition, several States underlined that the selection and appointment of mandate holders should be based on equitable geographical representation.

General debate under item 10

During the General Debate under item 10, held on 22 March 2021, Mauritius delivered a statement on behalf of the Group of Small Island Developing States (SIDS) commending the establishment of the Voluntary Trust Fund, on 1 January 2014, as a historic moment in time. Mauritius highlighted that since its establishment, the LDCs/SIDS Trust Fund has supported one hundred and fifty-three (153) delegates and fellows across all regions. In addition, Mauritius applauded the adaptability of the Trust Fund to the difficult conditions imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic, as it organised virtual induction courses, as well as a seminar for African diplomats that will take place online in April 2021. 

Portugal, on behalf of the EU, underlined that technical cooperation is crucial for promoting the respect, protection, and fulfilment of human rights. They stressed that monitoring and reporting are indispensable for successful technical cooperation and highlighted the need to address the chronic underfunding of the human rights pillar and to provide OHCHR with adequate means to fulfil its mandate.

Libya, on behalf of the Arab Group, stressed that human rights mechanisms such as the UPR can make an important contribution to providing States with the necessary technical assistance.  Pakistan, on behalf of the OIC, stressed that the hard-learnt lessons of the current global public health crisis can help re-orient the focus of the Council’s work to improve delivery of its technical cooperation mandate. They underlined that the Council should support States, especially developing countries, in their domestic efforts to safeguard and advance basic rights, including the rights to life, health, food, and sustainable development. Pakistan argued that such a human rights-based approach will go a long way in building back better from the pandemic by ensuring more resilient societies. 

Brunei Darussalam, on behalf of the ASEAN member States, stated that effective technical cooperation will only be achieved if it is State-led, demand-driven, and with the full consent of the State concerned. Thailand reiterated its commitment to strengthening technical cooperation in the area of human rights by outlining several activities initiated by the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights with various stakeholders in the region. These activities included an event in December 2020 organised by the Ministry of Justice of Thailand and the UNDP, which focused on the implementation of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights across ASEAN States, the role of States in setting expectations on human rights due diligence and human rights due diligence processes. 

Cameroon, on behalf of the African Group, stressed that only a comprehensive approach to human rights technical assistance and capacity building will allow for the effective and full achievement of the SDGs. Azerbaijan, on behalf of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), emphasized that the enhancement of international cooperation aimed at strengthening the capacity of States is essential for the effective promotion and protection of human rights and the implementation of the 2030 Agenda.

Rewatch the debates here, here, and here.

The URG makes a statement …

URG actively engaged in the annual full-day meeting on the rights of the child, delivering a statement both during the morning panel on ‘Securing a future for today’s children and generations to come: building back better with children’s rights upfront’, and the afternoon panel on ‘The gaps and barriers affecting children: following up on commitments through the Decade of Action and delivery on the Sustainable Development Goals’. 

During the morning panel, URG stressed that in light of the threats posed to the rights of the child by the environmental, climate and biodiversity crises, the Sustainable Development Goals will remain empty promises without a firm commitment to a child rights-based approach to economic, social, and environmental policy. The statement further underlined the manner in which a rights-based approach highlights the disproportionate risk faced by children while placing the onus on States to safeguard children’s rights, including through child rights and environmental impact assessments and by adequately regulating business activities to ensure sufficient child rights and environmental due diligence. Finally, it stressed that given children’s successful championing of climate action, the international community not only has a legal obligation but also a moral duty to create opportunities for children’s inclusive and meaningful participation in environmental decision-making, including by providing human rights and environmental education to increase their awareness of environmental issues and their rights.

In the afternoon, URG delivered a statement underlining that the key to accelerated delivery of the SDGs is for stakeholders to properly leverage both the implementation and reporting phases of human rights mechanism reviews to ensure impact on-the-ground. In this regard, it shared best practices identified in a recent URG-UNICEF report. The statement called for stakeholders to ensure detailed and fact-based reports ahead of human rights mechanism reviews, by combining results-based management of recommendations with empirically grounded evaluation methodologies and improved gathering of disaggregated data. It further stressed the importance of implementation being understood as a democratic and multi-stakeholder effort that includes all relevant national actors, including children. Finally it called for human rights recommendations to be centrally integrated into UN programming, to serve as the basis of demand-driven development aid and to be widely disseminated throughout Government and to the wider public. 

During the interactive dialogue under item 3 with the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, the URG joined the call of the Special Rapporteur for social media companies to be more transparent when combatting hate speech, and that data sets used for detection and moderation be made public, regularly updated, and disaggregated by protected characteristic to better judge the scope of Islamophobia and the efficacy of current solutions. The URG also highlighted that it works with interested States, companies, UN experts and NGOs to consider, develop, and share workable policy solutions through the Istanbul Process, and recalled that insight into this process can be consulted at

URG also delivered a statement during the interactive dialogue under item 3 with the Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment. The statement thanked the Special Rapporteur for his report that further elucidates States’ human rights obligations as they relate to water pollution, water scarcity, water-related disasters, and damage to healthy freshwater ecosystems and commended him for providing a clear roadmap for States to employ a rights-based approach to water governance. Stressing that businesses are major contributors to water pollution, water overuse and degradation of freshwater ecosystems, including as a result of the activities of their suppliers and subcontractors and in light of the report’s demonstration that public interest litigation based on claims of their right to a healthy environment can serve as guarantors of good water governance, URG asked the Special Rapporteur how the right to a healthy environment can clarify business responsibilities with regards to water governance and how global recognition might further these ends.

During the general debate on item 3, URG delivered a statement stressing that as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to expose the weaknesses in our societal safety nets and the structural inequalities that plague our societies, while providing States with a pretext to shrink democratic and civil society space and violate human rights, it is more urgent than ever that States prioritise a human rights-based approach in their efforts to accelerate delivery of the SDGs. It stressed that by actively implementing recommendations from human rights mechanisms and NHRIs, States make efficient use of existing standards, principles and monitoring frameworks to ensure a sustainable recovery based on the 2030 agenda. Finally, it underlined that building back better also means placing people front and centre in efforts to address the looming biodiversity, climate and environmental crises and called on States accelerate efforts to protect and promote everyone’s right to a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment, including through the global recognition of this right.

Under item 5, the URG delivered a statement thanking the Group of Friends of National Mechanisms for Implementation, Reporting and Follow-up for their statement that highlights UN-wide efforts to build synergies across national human rights and development planning processes by setting up and strengthening NMIRFs. The statement further highlighted lessons learned from a cross-regional survey of 50 UN member States’ implementation systems, recently conducted by URG and its partners, which demonstrates NMIRF’s potential to facilitate implementation by systematising government processes, increasing domestic capacity and involving key national stakeholders. Stressing that NMIRFs have the potential to serve as a real-time monitoring mechanism of the human rights effects of COVID-19 recovery packages, the statement encouraged States to consider the establishment of an NMIRF as an essential building block in efforts to build back better.

Under item 9, the URG highlighted that the 10-year anniversary of resolution 16/18 should be seen as an opportunity to recommit to the 16/18 action plan, including the reporting provisions envisaged by the resolution, which provide an opportunity for States to find effective solutions by learning from their peers’ experiences and good practices. Moreover, the URG highlighted that, since intolerance and discrimination based on religion or belief is at the source of innumerable human rights violations, implementing and following up on this action plan would contribute to fulfilling the Council’s prevention mandate.


The 46th session of the Council concluded with the adoption of 31 texts (30 resolutions, and one decisions). This is 12 texts less than the number of texts (43) adopted at the 43rd session in March 2020 or a decrease of 27.9%. This significant decrease is in part due to the adoption of several texts specifically related to the COVID-19 pandemic at the previous March session and the high number of Special Procedure mandates that were up for renewal at the previous March session, which artificially inflated the number of adopted texts. This hypothesis is buttressed when looking at the number of texts adopted during the 2019 March session, which totalled 29, a number more in line with the current number.

Around 50% of tabled resolutions at HRC46 were adopted by a recorded vote. This is an increase of around 17.5% compared with the previous March session.

16 (52%) of the texts adopted by the Council were thematic in nature, while 15 (48%) dealt with country-specific situations. Of the latter texts, three addressed human rights violations under agenda item 2, six under item 4, three under item 7, and three sought to protect human rights through technical assistance and capacity building (under item 10).

19 of the texts adopted by the Council (61%) had Programme Budget Implications (PBI), requiring appropriations of $20’030’400 not previously covered by the UN regular budget.

Resolutions listed in order of L numbers


Agenda Item Resolutions Core Group PBIs Extra-Budgetary Appropriations Adoption
(Y – N – A)
2 Promoting reconciliation, accountability and human rights in Sri Lanka Canada, Germany, Malawi, Montenegro, North Macedonia, United Kingdom $2’856’300 Adopted by vote (22-11-14)
3 Human rights, democracy and the rule of law Morocco, Norway, Peru, Republic of Korea, Romania, Tunisia Adopted without a vote
9 Combating intolerance, negative stereotyping and stigmatization of, and discrimination, incitement to violence and violence against, persons based on religion or belief Pakistan (OIC)  

Adopted without a vote
3 The negative impact of unilateral coercive measures on the enjoyment of human rights Azerbaijan (NAM, except Colombia and Peru) Adopted by vote
3 Freedom of religion or belief Portugal (European Union) Adopted without a vote
3 Human rights and the environment Costa Rica, Maldives, Morocco, Slovenia, Switzerland $181’900 Adopted without a vote
4 Situation of human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea Portugal (European Union) $2’082’500 Adopted without a vote
2 Promotion and protection of human rights in Nicaragua Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Paraguay, Peru $421’500 Adopted by vote
4 Situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran Iceland, North Macedonia, Republic of Moldova, United Kingdom $0 Adopted by vote
3 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 Cuba Adopted by vote
3 The right to food Cuba Adopted without a vote
3 Mandate of the Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights Cuba $0 Adopted without a vote
3 Question of the realization in all countries of economic, social and cultural rights Portugal Adopted without a vote
3 The negative impact of the non-repatriation of funds of illicit origin to the countries of origin on the enjoyment of human rights, and the importance of improving international cooperation Cameroon (African Group) $223’200 Adopted by vote
3 Mandate of the Independent Expert on the enjoyment of human rights by persons with albinism Cameroon (African Group) $0 Adopted without a vote
7 Human rights in the occupied Syrian Golan Pakistan (OIC) Adopted by vote
10 Technical assistance and capacity building for Mali in the field of human rights Cameroon (African Group) $0 Adopted without a vote
7 Right of the Palestinian people to self-determination Pakistan (OIC) Adopted by vote
4 Situation of human rights in Belarus in the run-up to the 2020 presidential election and in its aftermath Portugal (European Union) $2’562’900 Adopted by vote
10 Technical assistance and capacity building for South Sudan Cameroon (African Group) $616’900 Adopted without a vote
4 Situation of human rights in Myanmar Portugal (European Union) $494’600 Adopted without a vote
3 Promoting mutually beneficial cooperation in the field of human rights China $74’700 Adopted by vote
4 Situation of human rights in the Syrian Arab Republic France, Germany, Italy, Jordan, Kuwait, Netherlands, Qatar, Turkey, United Kingdom $6’393’200 Adopted by vote
3 Ensuring equitable, affordable, timely and universal access for all countries to vaccines in response to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic Azerbaijan (NAM), Ecuador $115’200 Adopted without a vote
10 Cooperation with Georgia Georgia $27’700 Adopted by vote
3 Torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment: the roles and responsibilities of police and other law enforcement officials Denmark Adopted without a vote
3 Mandate of the Special Rapporteur on the right to privacy Austria, Brazil, Germany, Liechtenstein, Mexico $0 Adopted without a vote
4 Situation of human rights in South Sudan Albania, Norway, United Kingdom, United States $3’915’300 Adopted by vote
7 Israeli settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem, and in the occupied Syrian Golan Pakistan (OIC) Adopted by vote
2 Human rights situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem, and the obligation to ensure accountability and justice Pakistan (OIC) Adopted by vote


10 High-level panel discussion on the occasion of the tenth anniversary of the Voluntary Technical Assistance Trust Fund to Support the Participation of Least Developed Countries and Small Island Developing States in the Work of the Human Rights Council Australia, Bahamas, Barbados, Burkina Faso, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Guyana, Luxembourg, Maldives, Mauritius, Morocco, Netherlands, Norway, Pakistan, Peru, Poland, Portugal, Senegal, Singapore, Sudan, Switzerland, Togo, Turkey, Vanuatu $64’500 Adopted without a vote

Analysis and conclusions

The 46th session saw the return proper (it had continued to participate in the UPR and had engaged at the recent special session on Myanmar) of the US delegation to the Council, following American withdrawal under President Trump. It was expected that this important development would provide a jolt to the UN’s apex human rights body, even if the Council had functioned relatively well in America’s absence. Yet many diplomats and observers were still taken aback at the extent of the reaction provoked by US rapprochement, especially on the part of its geopolitical rivals, China and Russia.

These States, together with their friends in the Like-Minded Group – LMG (e.g., Belarus, Cuba, Pakistan – which appears to be drifting closer and closer into China’s diplomatic orbit, Venezuela), used HRC46 to send out a clear and unambiguous message to the US and its allies: that they would staunchly resist a return to the status quo ante that existed at the Council during the Obama years – when the US largely dominated the body’s agenda and output.

Item 4 general debate

Much of this diplomatic posturing and signalling played out during the general debate under item 4 of the Council’s agenda (country situations). The debate saw two major joint statements, with significant political support, delivered by Cuba and Belarus, as well as a large number of individual State interventions defending fellow LMG members and/or attacking Western States.

The aim of the two item 4 joint statements, the individual item 4 statements (e.g., one by China attacking Australia), as well as related joint statements under other agenda items (another by Belarus under agenda item 3, defending Chinese actions in Hong Kong), was two-fold.

First, they aimed to secure the backing of as many UN members as possible behind the argument that it is not legitimate (i.e., it is contrary to the UN Charter) for the Council to criticise or otherwise pass comment on the internal affairs (i.e., the promotion and protection of human rights) of sovereign States. Second, they sought to make the case that Council members and observers that do pass judgement on the internal affairs of others (especially developing countries) are hypocrites – because they themselves routinely violate human rights.

Cuba’s statement, delivered on behalf of 64 countries, began by expressing strong opposition to the ‘politicization of human rights and double standards.’ It then went on to ‘commend the people-centred philosophy that the Chinese government pursues and achievements that have been made in its human rights cause.’ On the issue of alleged human rights abuses in Xinjiang, in particular against the country’s Muslim Uyghur minority, Cuba urged Western States ‘to abide by the purposes and principles of the United Nations Charter, stop interfering in China’s internal affairs by manipulating Xinjiang related issues, refrain from making unfounded allegations against China out of political motivations, and curbing the development of developing countries under the pretext of human rights.’

Belarus’ statement, ‘delivered on behalf of a group of countries, including Iran, Burundi, China, DPRK, Nicaragua, Russia, Syria, Sri Lanka and Venezuela,’ expressed concern about the ‘situation of human rights in EU member States and the United Kingdom.’ The statement’s sponsors expressed particular concerned about ‘credible reports of systemic human rights violations, particularly those involving hate speech and crimes, glorification of Nazism, racial and ethnic discrimination, violation of rights of migrants, refugees and non-accompanied children and indigenous peoples, child sexual abuse, shrinking space for civil society, restrictions on peaceful assembly and associations, freedom of expression, [and] excessive use of force against demonstrators.’ The sponsors also pointed to allegations of human rights violations during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Bizarrely, Russia (no standing invitation, 11 out of 21 visits completed), China (no standing invitation, 9 out of 27 visits completed), Venezuela (no standing invitation, 2 out of 16 visits completed), and the other statement sponsors, then went on to criticise Western European States (which have generally excellent records of cooperation with Special Rapporteurs), for failing to ‘fulfil their commitment’ to extend standing invitations to Special Procedures (in fact, all seven current WEOG members of the Council have extended standing invitations), and of ‘not accepting visits for years,’ (Western members of the Council have a 75% visit completion rate).

The US responds

While this show of strength from the LMG certainly succeeded in sending a clear message to Western and other democracies, if the goal of China, Russia and other LMG States was to prevent or dissuade the US from using the Council as a platform to call out and criticise serious human rights violations, or to shame American diplomats into silence (on the grounds that human rights violations also occur in the US), they will have been disappointed when, on 18 March, under agenda item 8, the US delivered a counter statement on behalf of 50 States, which rejected and rebutted the arguments put forward in the Cuban and Belarusian interventions.

‘We have heard a great deal,’ the statement began, ‘during the current session, about the importance of non-interference in domestic affairs. In response to these points, we have a very simple position: States that commit human rights violations must be held to account.’

‘The UN Charter acknowledges the domestic jurisdiction of member States. But it also affirms that human rights are universal.’ Appeals to ‘State sovereignty,’ it read, ‘cannot be used to shield a country from scrutiny for its behaviour toward those within its borders. Indeed, this notion lies at the very foundations of the UN, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and this very Council.  The Human Rights Council has the responsibility to act when States are not meeting their obligations – a responsibility articulated in General Assembly resolution 60/251.’

As if to reinforce this point, the US joined two important item 4 joint statements at the 46th session, one, led by Finland, on the human rights situation in Egypt (with 31 cosponsors), and another, led by Poland, on the situation in Russia (with 44 cosponsors).

Responding directly to the Belarusian joint statement, the US then acknowledged that ‘no country – including our own – can claim to have a perfect record on human rights. But we can and must strive to do better […] Attempts by States to deflect criticism by blaming others do not diminish their responsibility to protect their own populations.’

Pushback against human rights sanctions

In addition to the numerous statements calling for an end to ‘naming and shaming’ at the Council and (somewhat paradoxically) condemning the human rights situations in Western States, members of the LMG (and many other developing countries) also rallied around a draft resolution from the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) criticising ‘unilateral coercive measures’ (i.e., sanctions) and pointing to their negative impacts on the enjoyment of human rights. Traditionally, these regular NAM resolutions (which are also tabled at the General Assembly) are focused on the human rights consequences of State-to-State sanction regimes. However, at HRC46 the surge in interest in ‘unilateral coercive measures’ was likely due to the proliferation of individual-focused human rights sanctions regimes (often referred to as ‘Magnitsky acts’) around the world, and the increasing use of these new tools to target individuals in Belarus, China, Russia and elsewhere.

What is clear is that the 46th session saw a surge of support for NAM’s draft resolution, which was eventually adopted by vote, with 30 in favour, 15 against, and 2 abstentions, and with 122 co-sponsors (a huge number). There were a large number of statements at HRC46 criticising Western sanctions regimes, while a ‘hostile amendment’ critical of sanctions, tabled by China to the draft resolution on the human rights situation in Belarus, came relatively close to being accepted by the Council (12-18-17).

Such high levels of political support for critiques of sanctions regimes suggest that, in the future, Western States will need to make the case that ‘Magnitsky-style’ sanctions are specifically designed to focus on the individual perpetrators of human rights violations, thereby avoiding the wider societal damage that can be wrought by State-wide sanctions.

Responding to the deteriorating human rights situations in Myanmar and Sri Lanka

Two country situations in particular dominated the Council’s attention during its 46th session: Myanmar following February’s coup d’etat, and Sri Lanka following the return to power of the Rajapaksa family. At the end of the session resolutions on both situations (the former led by the EU and the latter by the UK) were adopted, by vote in the case of Sri Lanka (22-11-14) – the first time a vote has been called since 2014, and by consensus in the case of Myanmar (though many LMG States disassociated from the text). The latter vote result surprised many observers, considering the strength (and length!) of the text, and China and Russia’s above-mentioned antipathy to ‘naming and shaming’ at the Council. It seems, in that regard, that the position of ASEAN – which was keen to avoid a vote – was crucial.

Both texts contain important innovations for the Council. Regarding the Sri Lanka resolution, operative paragraph 6 gives OHCHR important new accountability powers – similar to those invested in IIMMs. With OP6, the Council decided to ‘strengthen […] the capacity of the Office of the High Commissioner to collect, consolidate, analyse and preserve information and evidence and to develop possible strategies for future accountability processes for gross violations of human rights or serious violations of international humanitarian law in Sri Lanka.’ Regarding Myanmar, the final resolution, although very long and unwieldy, nonetheless put forward an important new paragraph (OP53) that operationalises the High Commissioner’s and the Council’s prevention powers, as established last year by resolution 45/31 – in the context of an actual country situation. With OP53, the Council:

Calls upon the High Commissioner and the Special Rapporteur to monitor  patterns of human rights violations that point to a heightened risk of a human rights emergency and to continue to bring that information to the attention of the Human Rights Council in a manner that reflects the urgency of the situation, including inter-sessionally through ad hoc briefings and to advise on what further steps may be needed if the situation continues to deteriorates, in furtherance of the Council’s prevention mandate, and to inform other United Nations bodies as necessary on progress in that regard.

Especially considering the resolution was adopted by consensus, this paragraph could set an important new precedent, and be used in other country-specific resolutions, potentially empowering the Council to respond quickly to early warning information about an impending human rights crisis, use preventative diplomacy (e.g., good offices missions) to prevent further deterioration, and coordinate its actions with the Security Council.

Other important situations addressed at HRC46 included Belarus, Israel/the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT), South Sudan and DPRK.

Regarding Belarus, the final resolution, adopted by vote (20-7-20), after 14 hostile amendments were all rejected (six tabled by Belarus, six by Russia, one by China), also gives important new accountability powers to the High Commissioner (instead of establishing a more typical investigative mechanism such as a COI or IIMM), and offers a (very) small nod towards preventative diplomacy. With OP13a, the Council requests the High Commissioner for Human Rights, with assistance from relevant experts and special procedure mandate holders, to ‘collect, consolidate, preserve and analyse information and evidence with a view to contributing to accountability for perpetrators and justice for victims and, where possible, to identify those responsible;’ while OP13b ‘requests the High Commissioner to engage with Belarusian authorities and other stakeholders to exchange information and provide support to accountability efforts.’

Regarding Israeli human rights violations in the OPTs, the main significance of the resolution adopted at HRC36 was not so much in its content, but rather the agenda item under which it was adopted. In a welcome move that should strengthen the Council’s ability to secure accountability for violations committed against Palestinians, Pakistan, on behalf of the OIC, moved another of the traditional item 7 resolutions (human rights in the OPT) to item 2, and merged it with another OPT-focused text. Although the final resolution was in any case voted during HRC46 (it was adopted with a very healthy majority of 32-6-8), Pakistan’s move led to a split in the European vote (Austria and Bulgaria voted against, while the Czech Republic and the UK abstained). More importantly, with only three texts now remaining under item 7, Pakistan’s tactical move will make it increasingly difficult for Western States, including the US, to use the presence of item 7 of the Council’s agenda as an excuse to avoid engaging on the substantive matter of Israeli violations of human rights law in the OPT.

Thematic issues

 While much attention was devoted, at HRC46, to whether and how the Council should address situations of serious human rights violations around the world, the session also saw a number of important thematic debates and resolution.

Two of the most significant were on vaccine multilateralism and universal recognition of the right to a healthy environment.

Regarding the former, HRC46 saw a new initiative on ‘Ensuring equitable, affordable, timely and universal access for all countries to vaccines in response to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic.’ A resolution on this subject, which was adopted without a vote requested ‘a report on the human rights implications of the lack of affordable, timely, equitable and universal access and distribution of COVID-19 vaccines, as well as the deepening inequalities between States, and the impact on the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health.

Ecuador had announced its intention to introduce a resolution on this subject during the Council’s organisational meeting. However, during the session itself, Azerbaijan on behalf of the NAM, tabled a resolution on vaccine multilateralism. The Ecuador draft had, for the most part, been positively received; whilst there was strong Western opposition to the NAM text. In the end, a decision was taken to merge the draft resolutions.

Regarding the right to a healthy environment, the session began with a side event organised by the Universal Rights Group, UNICEF, UNEP, OHCHR and others, featuring calls for universal recognition by ministers from Fiji, Costa Rica and the Maldives, and by the High Commissioner, the Executive Director of UNICEF, and the Executive Director of UNEP. The event also saw the launch of a new URG policy report, authored with the current and former UN Special Rapporteurs on human rights and environment, setting out the case for universal recognition of this right, (entitled ‘#TheTimeIsNow’).

Around the same time, an appeal signed by over 1,150 civil society organisations was conveyed to the Council in a joint statement. Later in the session, the core group of supportive States set out a roadmap towards universal recognition in a joint statement supported by over 60 States, while in an unprecedented move, a further joint statement was delivered by 15 UN agencies and programmes calling on the Council and the General Assembly to recognise the right to a healthy environment in 2021.

Linked with these historic steps, at the end of the session a resolution renewing the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on human rights and environment was adopted by consensus. Notwithstanding, the language of the final text was weakened, especially around the role of environmental human rights defenders, cooperation with UNEP, and the causal link between biodiversity loss and zoonotic diseases such as COVID-19. From discussions with diplomats, it appears that the latter deletion was pressed by China due to sensitivities around the origins of the coronavirus pandemic.

Other important thematic resolutions adopted at HRC46 addressed:

  • ‘The negative impact of the non-repatriation of funds of illicit origin to the countries of origin on the enjoyment of human rights, and the importance of improving international cooperation’ – adopted by vote (31-14-2), with Western States opposing, much to the frustration of the African Group.
  • ‘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’ – adopted by vote (28-14-4).
  • ‘Promoting mutually beneficial cooperation in the field of human rights’ – tabled by China and adopted by vote (26-15-6).
  • ‘Combating intolerance, negative stereotyping and stigmatization of, and discrimination, incitement to violence and violence against, persons based on religion or belief’, as well as a twin resolution on ‘Freedom of religion or belief’ – both were adopted without a vote. When introducing the draft resolution on combatting religious intolerance, Pakistan noted the fact that this year marks the tenth anniversary of the adoption of the original resolution on this topic (resolution 16/18), and informed delegations that it would host the next meeting of the Istanbul Process either this year or next.
  • ‘The question of the realization in all countries of economic, social and cultural rights’ – adopted by consensus. The final resolution, inter alia, calls on States to ‘consider establishing and/or strengthening national mechanisms for implementation, reporting and follow-up of human rights obligations and recommendations.’
  • ‘A high-level panel discussion on the occasion of the tenth anniversary of the Voluntary Technical Assistance Trust Fund to support the participation of Least Developed Countries and Small Island Developing States in the work of the Human Rights Council’ – this was adopted by consensus and secured the support of 129 co-sponsors, a new record for the Council.

A final interesting point of note is that, with HRC46, the Council became the first UN body to use digital voting technology to adopt resolutions.

Photo credits

Featured photo: Opening of the session by the President of the Human Rights Council, Nazhat Shameem Khan, 46th session of the Human Rights Council, Palais des Nations. 22 February 2021. UN photo / Violaine Martin. Licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. 

António Guterres, United Nations Secretary-General addresses the Opening of the 46th session of the Human Rights Council, Palais des Nations. 22 February 2021. UN photo / Violaine Martin. Licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

H.E. Ms. Ann Christin Linde, Minister for Foreign Affairs of Sweden addresses the High-level Segment of the 46th session of the Human Rights Council, Palais des Nations. 22 February 2021. UN photo / Violaine Martin. Licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

H.E. Mr. Téte António, Minister for Foreign Affairs of Angola addresses the High-level Segment of the 46th session of the Human Rights Council, Palais des Nations. 22 February 2021. UN photo / Violaine Martin. Licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. 

Opening of the session by the President of the Human Rights Council, Nazhat Shameem Khan, 46th session of the Human Rights Council, Palais des Nations. 22 February 2021. UN photo / Violaine Martin. Licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet addresses the Opening of the 46th session of the Human Rights Council, Palais des Nations. 22 February 2021. UN photo / Violaine Martin. Licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. 

Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General, World Health Organisation addresses during the Annual high-level panel discussion on human rights mainstreaming, 46th session of the Human Rights Council, Palais des Nations. 22 February 2021. UN photo / Violaine Martin. Licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

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