The pandemic, prevention and politics: the High Commissioner and HRC President highlight cross-cutting human rights work at the Third Committee

by Tess Kidney Bishop, Universal Rights Group NYC Human rights institutions and mechanisms, Human rights institutions and mechanisms BORRAR, Prevention, accountability and justice BORRAR

As part of the 75th Session of the UN General Assembly, both the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the President of the Human Rights Council gave statements to the Third Committee. Statements, and the interactive dialogues with member States that followed, were conducted virtually and not without the occasional technological hiccup. Nevertheless, a higher number of states participated than last year, with states from the Asia-Pacific Group in particular better represented. Major topics of conversation were the impact of the pandemic on human rights and the functioning of the UN’s human rights system, and the role of the human rights system in conflict prevention.

High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet

On 14 October, the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, addressed the Third Committee and presented the OHCHR report (A/75/36). She then responded to questions, concerns, and complaints from member States. Watch the full speech and interactive dialogue here.

As in all sessions of the Third Committee this year, the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on human rights and on the human rights system was a major topic. The High Commissioner spoke of the human suffering, weakened medical systems, economic damage, and threats to progress on sustainable development, and peace and security caused by the pandemic. She also said that some States have seen restrictions on civil and political rights imposed, including on the ability to participate in decision-making. She called for the easing of sanctions to allow unfettered access to medical equipment and supplies, for access to a vaccine to be ensured as a global public good. Bachelet highlighted the effectiveness of human-rights based policy responses to the pandemic and the importance of building back better, including environmentally.

The other two major focus points of the High Commissioner’s statement were conflicts and humanitarian crises, and the Sustainable Development Goals and the right to development. She drew an explicit link between these two areas: ‘I am convinced that this work [on economic, social and cultural rights and the SDGs] will also help to effectively prevent conflicts in the longer term, by addressing the root causes of many crises and tensions.’ She described human rights indicators and information as critical to conflict prevention, providing ‘ways to identify and then address the issues, which, if left unaddressed, can lead to crisis and conflict.’ Human rights analyses, she said, must be ‘integrated into strategies to prevent, mitigate or respond to emerging crises.’ Bachelet said that the pandemic had also exposed the harm caused by systemic inequalities in society, and the need to do more to advance economic, social and cultural rights, the right to development and the sustainable development goals. She echoed calls from other parts of the UN for urgent debt relief to grant States room to deliver on these rights (‘including to health, food and water, housing and decent work’).

Bachelet gave examples of the work the OHCHR had done in various countries on each of these areas: to integrate human rights into Covid-19 responses, promote economic, social and cultural rights, support countries in conflict and humanitarian settings, and provide technical assistance to National Mechanisms for Reporting and Follow-up. She pointed to new OHCHR efforts in the context of elections, as part of a broader push on prevention in the UN. As she did last year, the High Commissioner ended with a reminder that the UN’s ‘cash-flow crisis has severely restricted the availability of resources’ and hoped that the pandemic and related crises would at least serve as a reminder to States of the importance of human rights norms and tools. 

48 States (and the EU) participated in the subsequent interactive dialogue, some speaking on behalf of a group.

Many statements were centred around Covid-19. Luxembourg, Ireland, Greece, Chile and the US all raised concerns that the pandemic had directly caused or responses to it had ushered in restrictions to human rights, particularly civil and political rights, echoing the concerns raised by the High Commissioner. Canada praised the OHCHR for its efforts to ensure human rights were integrated into COVID19 response plans and Indonesia called for ‘vaccine multilateralism.’ Mali said human rights should be strengthened in the international Covid-19 response, while the Netherlands called for a human-rights based approach to building back better.

As in most years, several States criticised the OHCHR for what they perceived as selectivity, double standards and politicisation. Venezuela, Russia, Cuba and Syria specifically denounced unilateral coercive sanctions and welcomed the High Commissioner’s calls to lift them during the pandemic, while Germany defended the use of targeted sanctions in some contexts. In a statement on behalf of the African Group, Cameroon encouraged the OHCHR to do more to ‘to promote respect for differences, and to refrain from imposing narrow cultural standards on others.’

A number of representatives (Chile, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Ireland) agreed with the High Commissioner’s concerns about funding for the OHCHR and Treaty Body system, and its ability to fulfil its mandate. While Luxembourg issued ‘demand[ed] the efficient use of resources,’ Philippines argued that resources should be prioritised toward actions on the ground rather than ‘hostile resolutions.’ The Republic of Korea gave a statement on behalf of the Human Rights/Prevention Caucus, calling for greater cooperation between the OHCHR, Human Rights Council and Peacebuilding Commission and for ‘the pillar to receive necessary resources from the budget to fulfil its mandated activities.’

In her response to the questions and comments, the High Commissioner noted that:

  • The pandemic ‘has shown the value of human rights in preventing, mitigating and overcoming the worst impacts of crises, whether in the form of pandemics, violent conflicts or the climate emergency.’ 
  • Addressing the needs of those with intersecting forms of vulnerabilities is a particularly high priority of her Office and, referring to her earlier point on  human rights indicators, said disaggregated data is needed to know whether ‘our policies are really leaving no one behind.’
  • She had already called for sanctions to be lifted.
  • She hoped that better use of digital platforms might help with resource constraints, particularly for the Treaty Body System, but with the caveat that digital working ‘has its limits’ and some mandates can only be fulfilled in person.
  • Another positive of moving parts of the system online was that more civil society organisations to participate than usual had been able to participate in the virtual March session of the Human Rights Council.
  • Finally, she welcomed the work of States to improve connections between New York and Geneva and said that all three pillars of the UN ‘must work together much more.’

Human Rights Council President, Elisabeth Tichy-Fisslberger

On 30 October, the Human Rights Council President, Elisabeth Tichy-Fisslberger, gave a pre-recorded address to the Third Committee and presented the report of the Human Rights Council (A/75/53/Add.1). Watch the full speech and interactive dialogue here.

In a brief pre-recorded statement, Tichy-Fisslberger spoke about Covid-19 and the recent work of the Human Rights Council. She described the pandemic as not only a health emergency, but a major human rights crisis. The Council and its mandate holders had adapted well however, and managed to continue their work, with  Tichy-Fisslberger noting that it was the first UN body to resume in-person meetings. The Council held even two urgent debates in this context, on systemic racism, police brutality, and violence against peaceful protests and the situation in Belarus. Tichy-Fisslberger emphasised the importance of implementing change ‘on the ground’, saying the participation of civil society at the Council helps to keep the connection to what is happening on the ground, and the UPR is a ‘critical tool in country-level work’: ‘The work of the Human Rights Council means little without the implementation of human rights standards at the national level.’ Finally, the President raised the impact of the UN liquidity crisis on the Council, including forcing some activities to be postponed, and said she hoped there would be improvements in the coming months.

33 States (plus the EU and the Sovereign Order of Malta) participated in the interactive dialogue with the President.

The pandemic was again a common topic. Lithuania and Austria raised concerns about the Covid-19 crisis being used as a pretext for restrictions on human rights, Lithuania mentioning reprisals on NGOs and human rights defenders in particular. The EU said the pandemic had exposed the failures of existing systems to deliver for those more at risk of marginalisation. On a related note, Portugal argued that at a time when multilateralism is under attack and the UN system is more important than ever, the Council ‘has proven to be a fundamental body that can respond to the aspirations of human rights defenders.’

A similar selection of states criticised the Council for politicisation, double standards, selectivity and confrontational actions as in the dialogue with the High Commissioner (Eritrea, Cuba, Malaysia, Philippines, Syria, Iran, Venezuela). Iran and Syria, for instance, criticised country-specific mandates. Iceland, in a statement on behalf of the Nordic-Baltic countries, offered a sharp rebuke to these countries saying ‘Any claims by some of political favouritism should be rejected as baseless attempts to discredit the Council’s important work.’

Occurring only a few weeks after the passage of a landmark resolution on prevention at the Human Rights Council, many states aired their views on the role of the Council in prevention. On the positive side, Austria spoke of the need to improve the linkages between human rights and prevention and Mexico on the need to improve links between the Security Council and the Human Rights Council specifically, to ensure that human rights are central to efforts to prevent conflicts. Indonesia felt the maxim ‘prevention is better than cure’ should apply to human rights too, and hence asked how the Council could better mainstream its work on prevention. Switzerland and Argentina made general comments about improving the links between Geneva and New York.

However, there was wariness from other states. Eritrea felt that the prevention resolution went beyond the mandate of the Human Rights Council and Russia was generally concerned about the broadening of the Council’s powers. In contrast to the comments made by Mexico, Algeria called for caution in building connections between the Council and other bodies, arguing that prevention was best achieved by building resilient societies. Iran too, did not consider promoting human rights issues in the Security Council was ‘constructive.’

Responding to questions and comments from states, the President said:

  •  Claims that country-specific procedures are politically motivated and selective are ‘as old as the Human Rights Council’ itself. She made a special appeal to countries with mandate holders, who say they spread the wrong information to ‘enter into dialogue with your mandate holders, so you can tell your story and give your version of the situation.’
  • On the links between bodies in New York and Geneva: while each body has a distinct role, they should be working with each other, comparing notes, and exchanging information and analyses. Her final reminder to representatives was that ‘This is one UN system. We are living in the same world, watching the same developments… nobody cares out in the world if it’s one body or the other, so it’s important that we are on the same page.’

Featured images:

Graphs of member State participation created by the URG NYC Team.

Michelle Bachelet, United Nations, High Commissioner for Human Rights at the 75th session of the Third Committee. Screenshot from UN Web TV, Virtual Informal (14 October), General Assembly, 75th session

Ms Elisabeth Tichy-Fisslberger, President of the Human Rights Council addresses the 75th session of the Third Committee. Screenshot from UN Web TV, Virtual informal, (30 October, afternoon), General Assembly, 75th session

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