Report on the 39th session of the Human Rights Council

by the URG team Blog, International human rights institutions, mechanisms and processes, URG Human Rights Council Reports

Quick summary

  • The 39th regular session of the Human Rights Council (HRC39) was held from Monday 10th September to Friday 28th September 2018.
  • On 10th September, H.E. Ms Michelle Bachelet, presented her first oral update on the global human rights situation as the new UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.
  • A number of dignitaries delivered statements during the session, including inter alia, H.E. Mr. Jorge Arreaza, Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela; H.E. Ms. Maria Luisa Navarro, Deputy Minister of Multilateral Affairs and Co-operation of Panama; H.E. Mr. Zohrab Mnatsakanyan, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Armenia; H.E. Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, State Minister for the Commonwealth and the United Nations of the United Kingdom; and H.E. Mr. Péter Szijjártó, Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade of Hungary.
  • Three panel discussions were held during the session.
  • On 19th September the Council held, for the first time, an interactive dialogue with Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights, Mr Andrew Gilmour, on the Secretary-General’s report on reprisals.
  • More than 74 reports under the Council’s various agenda items were considered.
  • More than 220 side events were organised by States and/or NGOs.
  • The outcome reports of the UPR Working Group of the following 14 States were adopted: Turkmenistan, Burkina Faso, Cabo Verde, Colombia, Uzbekistan, Tuvalu, Germany, Djibouti, Canada, Bangladesh, Russian Federation, Azerbaijan, Cameroon and Cuba.
  • Three new Special Procedures mandate-holders were appointed to the following mandates: Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Belarus, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Eritrea, and a member from the Western European and Other States of the Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent.
  • The core group of the resolution on the ‘Situation of human rights in Myanmar’ and the core group of the resolution on the ‘Situation of human rights of Rohingya Muslims and other minorities in Myanmar,’ were able to merge their resolutions into a single text on the ‘Situation of human rights of Rohingya Muslims and other minorities in Myanmar’, which was adopted by a vote. The resolution establishes a new ‘ongoing independent mechanism to collect, consolidate, preserve and analyse evidence of the most serious international crimes and violations of international law committed in Myanmar since 2011′ and ‘to prepare files in order to facilitate and expedite fair and independent criminal proceedings.’
  • 24 texts were considered by the Council: 24 resolutions, and one President’s Statement. Of these, 14 were adopted by consensus (58.3%), and 10 by a recorded vote (41.7%). The number of adopted resolutions represents a considerable reduction (29.4%) on the number adopted one year previously – in September 2017 (HRC36). HRC36 saw the adoption of 34 texts.
  • Eight written and/or oral amendments were put forward by States during the consideration of texts and resolutions. All were rejected by a vote.
  • Ten of the texts adopted by the Council (41.7%) had Programme Budget Implications (PBI) and nine required new appropriations not included in previous Programme Budgets. The total costs of the newly mandated activities amounted to a total of $22,907,500, at the time of writing.

Briefing by the High Commissioner for Human Rights

 

H.E. Ms Michelle Bachelet opened HRC39 with her first official public address as UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. States and civil society alike saw it as an opportunity to assess the position and chart the likely course of the new High Commissioner in the exercise of her mandate. To read URG’s analysis of her inaugural speech, please click here.

High Commissioner Bachelet delivered a strong and carefully balanced first speech.

The first part of the speech set out the broad parameters of her strategic approach to her mandate. In particular, she sought to simultaneously allay the concerns, on the one hand, of civil society and some Western States, which are worried she may choose to avoid, or at least reduce the frequency and volume of, public condemnation of serious human rights violations; and on the other hand, of other States (especially developing countries), which would like the new High Commissioner to forge a more cooperative relationship with States, emphasising dialogue, consensus and quiet diplomacy.

The High Commissioner understood that this was a false choice, and thus chose to commit herself to pursuing both goals – in line with the fullness of her mandate as provided by the General Assembly in its resolution 48/141 of 20 December 1993.

Regarding the role of the High Commissioner in calling out violations of human rights, and providing a ‘voice to the voiceless,’ Ms Bachelet was clear that this will remain a core part of her mandate and her work, and indeed, considering her personal background, it could never be otherwise.

‘I will strive to be the voice [of all people] and their strong defender, in complete objectivity, without fear or favour.’ ‘I bring with me’ she concluded, ‘my fundamental attachment to the courage, the dignity and selflessness of all defenders and activists for human rights.’

After reaffirming her commitment to address situations of violations ‘without fear or favour’ and wherever they occur, Ms Bachelet revealed that she would nonetheless be different to High Commissioner Zeid, that she would chart a new course. In particular she explained her belief in working with States, which retain the primary responsibility for the promotion and protection of human rights, in a relationship characterised, where possible, by cooperation, dialogue and consensus.

While she had been a victim of violations, and the daughter of victims; she had also ‘headed a UN body, and […] been honoured to lead my country, twice, as its President.’ She thus possesses necesarry political skills and judgement, and an unwavering commitment, ‘to bridging the differences between communities.’

Notwithstanding ‘the political differences that may divide some of the countries in this room,’ she expressed her conviction that ‘this Council must strive for consensus.’ ‘I believe there should be more engagement by all member States – not sterile disputes; not withdrawals; but collective, coordinated and cooperative work to sustain core principles and common goals […] The most effective solutions are grounded in principle and in openness, in collective agreements and coordinated actions.’

‘I hope to reinforce our common understanding. We can surpass national borders. We can promote more multilateralism, more cooperation, more dialogue, more consensus and more coordinated action.’

Following on from her expressed commitment to multilateralism, including forging (where possible) a close, cooperative relationship with States, and her expressed belief that the Office of the High Commissioner cannot secure human rights progress on its own, but only by working with other parts of the UN human rights pillar; High Commissioner Bachelet expressed her admiration and support for ‘the work done by this Council, its mechanisms and experts.’ The UPR, she noted, ‘ensures ground breaking scrutiny of the human rights record of every State in the world. The inquiries led by the Council’s fact-finding expert missions and Special Procedures have uncovered essential facts that must be addressed.’ ‘Your expanding agenda and increased workload are not only a testament to the world’s failures to uphold human rights; they are also a mark of your importance.’

In addition to expressing support for the role and work of the Council itself, she also underscored her strong belief in the importance of strengthening the position of the human rights pillar in a reformed UN. ‘Human rights express the core purpose of the UN: we can only attain peace, security and sustainable development for all societies when we advance the dignity and equality of all human beings […] The new reforms underway at the UN present an opportunity to advocate, as powerfully as we can, that a human rights approach be at the centre of the work of our UN partners.’

In particular, in order to strengthen the effectiveness of the Council, and of the interconnectedness of the three pillars of the UN, the new High Commissioner urged progress in three interconnected areas: national implementation of international human rights obligations and commitments; the contribution of human rights to the 2030 Agenda and the SDGs; and the UN’s prevention agenda.

Find the full statement here.

High level dignitaries

In his statement to the Council, H.E. Mr Jorge Arreaza, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Venezuela (Bolivarian Republic of), rejected the reports of the previous High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, as biased against his country and expressed his hope that the new High Commissioner would not make the same mistake, but would remain independent. He called on the Council to reject unilateral coercive measures against any country. (link to statement)

H.E. Ms. Maria Luisa Navarro, Deputy Minister of Multilateral Affairs and Co-operation of Panama, expressed her country’s pride in having promoted important human rights principles during its membership of the Council, even if those principles did not enjoy the support of all members. She also highlighted Panama’s support for Special Procedures, as a key mechanisms to address allegations and violations of human rights. In closing, Ms Navarro urged States to reject exclusionary policies, and instead to promote respect for people of different ethnic, cultural and religious identities. (link to statement)

H.E. Mr. Zohrab Mnatsakanyan, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Armenia, started his address by reminding the Council of the recent democratic transition in Armenia, which had followed large protests in April and demonstrated the strength of civil society in the country. The newly elected Government had launched import reform plans, with a specific emphasis on the promotion of human rights and the rule of law. (link to statement)

In his address to the Council, H.E. Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, State Minister for the Commonwealth and the United Nations of the United Kingdom, lauded the previous High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, for his commitment to furthering the cause of human rights. He reiterated his regret over the US’s decision to withdraw from the Council, which should make people reflect on the various challenges the Council faces, such as its membership. Lord Ahmad conceded that although the human rights picture remains bleak in many parts of the world, this should not stop the international community from recognising the immense value of the UN human Rights system and from welcoming progress by those governments committed to change and progress. (link to statement)

H.E. Mr. Péter Szijjártó, Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade of Hungary, regretted that in recent times UN officials had published biased and unbalanced reports and statements about Hungary. He argued, somewhat unconvincingly, that UN officials must respect member States, and although they might be independent from member States, they should not be independent from the truth. Furthermore, he noted that UN officials are bent on imposing impossible things on Hungary and the Hungarian people, such as illegal migration. This should stop immediately. (link to statement)

Panel Discussions

A total of three panel discussions were held during the 39th session. The panels were on the following topics (click link for OHCHR meeting summaries).

Trust fund to support the participation of LDCs and SIDS

The Trust Fund for the participation of LDCs and SIDS in the work of the Council (set up in 2012) funded the participation of five (three female and two male) government officials at HRC39, from Afghanistan, Bhutan, Niger, The Gambia and Tuvalu. One of them, Tuvalu, does not have a Permanent Mission in Geneva. For all five individuals, it was the first time they had participated in a HRC session.

Commissions of Inquiry, Fact-Finding Missions and Investigations

Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar

The Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar (FFM) presented its final 440-page report to the Council during an interactive dialogue on 18th September. Mr Marzuki Darusman, the Chair of the Fact-Finding Mission, reminded the Council that as soon as the Mission had been established ‘the west of Myanmar literally went up in flames.’ The attacks/operations launched in August 2017 had driven hundreds of thousands of people from their homes, and had resulted in the deaths of at least 10,000 people. He underlined the extreme brutality employed by the Tatmadaw (the Myanmar military).

Mr Darusman clarified that the pervasive use of exclusionary and discriminatory rhetoric underlies many of the recorded atrocities, and that the same system that had persecuted the Rohingya  from birth to death awaited the displaced upon their return. Therefore, no repatriation should take place without explicit human rights guarantees. The Mission also concluded that a large number of the Tatmadaw’s actions which amounted to crimes against humanity, could also be classified as war crimes. Finally, the Fact-Finding Mission put forward a five point accountability framework, that included an international judicial mechanism, an independent mechanism to conduct criminal investigations and prepare for prosecutions, a properly resourced office to support the work of the High Commissioner and the Special Rapporteur, a trust fund to address the needs of victims, and a short-term mechanism to ensure that there was no gap.

Myanmar, speaking as the concerned State, repeated the  Government’s stance that it could not accept the Mission’s mandate nor it findings. It accused the Mission of trying to encourage national disunity through its report, which did not adequately reflect the Government’s efforts to bring peace to the country. Myanmar also informed the Council that the Government had established a national Independent Commission of Enquiry, tasked with investigating allegations of human rights violations and related issues following the terrorist attacks of August 2017.

Commission of Inquiry on Burundi

During an interactive dialogue at HRC39, the Commission of Inquiry on Burundi presented its latest report to the Council. Mr Doudou Diène, the Chair of the COI said an additional 400 testimonies from victims and witnesses of human rights violations had been collected by the Commission over the past 12 months.  He noted that serious human rights violations in Burundi had persisted during this period, adding that some violations constituted crimes against humanity. Mr Doudou Diène requested that the mandate of the Commission be extended for another year in light of the upcoming elections in 2020, and given the lack of another independent mechanism for Burundi.

Ms Françoise Hampson, member of the Commission, stressed that State agents, in particular members of the National Intelligence Service and the police, were committing serious human rights violations. These were often ordered by administrative authorities and included such violations as arbitrary arrests, detention, torture and ill treatment. Another serious issue of concern was the growing role of the Imbonerakure in controlling the population, as many testimonies had identified them as the main perpetrators of violations. Finally, Ms Hampson expressed the Commission’s doubts about the judiciary’s independence and its capacity to prosecute perpetrators of human rights violations and crimes. It therefore called upon the International Criminal Court to fill the gap.

Burundi, speaking as the concerned State, rejected the Commission’s report, stating that it was part of a politically motivated lie. The report spread hatred and caused division. The country also wondered how different organs of the UN could hold such different views on the same country. Contrary to the Human Rights Council Commission’s report, a recent Security Council’s report had been very positive.

Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arabic Republic

During an interactive dialogue at HRC39, the Independent International Commission of Inquiry (COI) on the Syrian Arabic Republic presented its latest report to the Council. In the light of the 20th anniversary of the the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, Mr Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, the Chair of the Commission, expressed his regrets and concerns that the Guiding Principles were being completely ignored in Syria, where over six million Syrians were internally displaced, including one million displaced in the first half of 2018. Displaced civilians were exposed to increased risk of violence and an array of human rights violations and abuses, including inter alia, lack of adequate standard of living, and sexual violence and abuse. Mr Pinheiro, stressed the importance of keeping human rights and accountability at the centre of the international debate on Syria.

Syria, speaking as the concerned country, noted that the Commission’s latest report was characterised by double standards and contradictory accusations that had nothing to do with reality. Syria further condemned the biased treatment of war crimes allegedly committed by different parties to the conflict.

Commission on human rights in South Sudan

The Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan gave an oral update to the Council on 17th September. Ms Yasmin Sooka, the Chairperson of the Commission, stated that during its last mission to South Sudan, it had heard testimonies of wanton killings and numerous accounts of sexual violence. Furthermore, arbitrary detentions and torture at the hands of national security forces had also increased. In her statement she also referenced a 2017 study by the Global Women’s Institute and the International Rescue Committee, which found that over 65% of women and girls in South Sudan had experienced sexual violence at least once in their lives.

Ms Sooka also expressed concern about the sustainability of the current peace deal and reminded the Council of the Commission’s call for the African Union and the Government of South Sudan to fast track the establishment of a Hybrid Court. Unfortunately, six months later it has not been established.

South Sudan, speaking as the concerned State, informed the Council about the improved security situation in the country.  With the signing of the Revitalized Peace Agreement on 27 June 2018, the Government of National Unity was confident that the improvement would continue.  It further stated that the Government had formed a ministerial committee to discuss the establishment of a hybrid court. The work of this committee had been delayed due to the negotiations leading to the Revitalized Peace Agreement, but would now resume. In conclusion, South Sudan requested technical assistance and capacity-building support from the international community in order to maintain and improve the security situation and implement the new Agreement.

Universal Periodic Review

Adoption of the UPR Working Group outcome reports

The Council adopted the UPR outcome reports of Turkmenistan, Burkina Faso, Cabo Verde, Colombia, Uzbekistan, Tuvalu, Germany, Djibouti, Canada, Bangladesh, Russian Federation, Azerbaijan, Cameroon and Cuba.  A total number of 2,944 recommendations were made to these 14 States, out of which 2,248 were accepted in whole or in part, 32 were partially accepted, and 664 were noted or rejected.

General debate under item 6

During the General Debate under item 6 held on 21 September 2018, Tunisia delivered a statement on behalf of the Arab Group in which they called for the UPR to be strengthened and its scope broadened to make it more effective. The Group also reiterated the need to have national legislation aligned with international commitments.

The Bahamas reiterated that the UPR was a process that created an enabling environment for international cooperation in the field of human rights, and it noted that technical cooperation and capacity-building were important to support States in their efforts to overcome the challenges of implementation.

Austria, speaking on behalf of the European Union (EU), noted that for the UPR mechanism to have real impact on the ground, technical assistance should be provided to the country under review. It further stated that it was important to have ‘action-oriented, specific and measurable conditions.’ Furthermore, the EU used its item 6 statement to strongly condemn reprisals against persons who cooperate with the human rights mechanisms.

Togo, speaking on behalf of the African Group, noted that it is important for UPR recommendations to remain realistic. In effect, it said that the high number of recommendations should be recalibrated, with particular attention paid to the implementation of recommendations from previous cycles.

Special Procedures

Interactive Dialogues

17 mandate holders (13 thematic, four country-specific) presented annual reports at HRC39 (all of which are available here). During 12 interactive dialogues (seven ‘clustered’ and five individual), 108 States delivered statements (either individually or jointly), of which 26% were from the African Group, 26% from APG, 8% from EEG, 18% from GRULAC, 21% from WEOG, and 1% from other countries (namely the State of Palestine and the Holy See).

Appointment of new mandate-holders

Three 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. Anaïs Marin (France) was appointed as Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Belarus.
  2. Daniela Kravetz (Chile) was appointed as Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Eritrea.
  3. Dominque Day (US) was appointed as member from Western European and other States for Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent.

To inform the appointments, the Consultative Group, made up of representatives of Ethiopia, Ecuador, Singapore, Israel and Azerbaijan, scrutinised around 25 individual applications for three vacancies. The Consultative Group sent its recommendations to the President of the Council on 9 August 2018 for two vacancies. On 7 September 2018 it sent an addendum to its report to the President regarding the mandate of the member from Western European and Other States of the Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent. Following ‘broad consultations in particular through the regional coordinators,’ ‘to ensure the endorsement of [his] proposed candidates,’ the President followed the recommendations of the Consultative Group in two out of three cases. His proposals were sent to the Council via letter on 21 September. For the member from Western European and Other States of the Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent, the President decided to put forward a different candidate to the one ranked number one by the Consultative Group.

As of today, there are 56 Special Procedures mandates (44 thematic, 12 country-specific), and 80 mandate-holders (56% male, 44% female).

General debates under item 5 & item 10

The general debate under item 5 (human rights bodies and mechanisms) took place on the 21st September 2018, after a presentation of the report by the Inter-governmental Working Group on a Declaration on the rights of peasants.

Regarding the Working Group’s report, Togo, speaking on behalf of the African Group, noted with appreciation the multilateral process that had resulted in the current draft of the Declaration, which was a ‘priority occupation of the African Group’ as it pertained to persons central to continued development on the African continent. Cuba, Ecuador, Bolivia, India and China also spoke in support of the draft.

Switzerland noted that the final text regrettably diverged from what it could accept, but emphasised that the negotiation process had been satisfactory. Most other WEOG States, which would later abstain during the vote of the resolution, ostensibly due to concern over the Declaration’s implications under international law, chose to remain silent on the topic.

During the item 5 general debate, Tunisia, on behalf of the group of Arab States, called for ‘all rights [to be placed] on an equal footing […] especially the right to development and economic, social and cultural rights.’ Mutual respect and constructive dialogue were emphasised as the cornerstones of achieving human rights. In a similar vein, Pakistan, on behalf of the OIC, emphasised the UPR as a particularly effective, non-confrontational forum for the exchange of ideas and best-practices. The UPR had led to many countries amending or creating domestic legislation in order to fulfil their obligations under international human rights law.

Austria, speaking on behalf of the EU, cited a growing number of countries who refused to cooperate with OHCHR and the Council’s mechanisms as a cause for concern, along with the rising tide of reprisals against human rights defenders, as documented in the Secretary-General’s report on the subject.

Mongolia spoke to commit itself to revising domestic laws so the country’s NHRI could carry out its mandate fully in line with the Paris Principles. Tunisia, speaking in its national capacity, drew attention to its standing invitation, which had resulted in 18 visits by mandate-holders since 2011.

During the general debate under item 10 (technical assistance and capacity-building), which was held on the 27th September 2018, Togo, speaking on behalf of the African Group, while recognising the contribution OHCHR has made in the field, called for closer cooperation with concerned countries and for the exchange of best practices. Pakistan, on behalf of the OIC, lauded technical cooperation and capacity-building as ‘the most effective, non-politicised, impartial and objective tool at the disposal of the Council to prevent human rights abuses.’

A statement made by Denmark on behalf of the core group of the resolution on ‘Human rights and implementation of the 2030 Agenda,’ emphasised the interrelated and mutually-reinforcing nature of human rights and the 2030 Agenda. Furthermore, they underscored the fact that technical cooperation and capacity-building could make a real difference in integrating human rights into national policies and frameworks on SDG implementation.

Australia, speaking on behalf of a group of States, used their item 10 statement to highlight the plight of persons with disabilities in the Pacific region (who make up to 15% of the population). It was contended that technical assistance and capacity-building has an important role to play in building effective programmes to combat discrimination and exclusion.

Tuvalu called upon the international community to combat climate change – which poses an important threat to the enjoyment of human rights in Small Island Developing States. It also expressed its appreciation for the UN Voluntary Technical Assistance Trust Fund, which enables its participation in the sessions of the Council, a sentiment echoed by other SIDS and LDCs including Afghanistan, the Bahamas, Bhutan, Gambia and Niger.

OHCHR item 10 general debate summary (Link)

OHCHR item 5 general debate summary (Link)

UNTV item 10 (Part 1)(Part 2)

UNTV item 5 (Part 1)(Part 2)

HRC elections

Two informal events held during the session offered a platform for reflection on the upcoming Council elections, scheduled to take place on 12th October in New York.

The first event, held on the second day of the session and sponsored by Amnesty International, ISHR, and the Permanent Missions of Albania, Canada, Chile, Mongolia and Senegal, provided an opportunity for around nine of the candidate States (out of 18) to present their candidatures, including their pledges and commitments for membership, and for civil society to engage them in dialogue.

The second event, hosted by the Permanent Mission of Norway and the URG on 24th September, marked the launch of the yourHRC.org Guide to the 2018 Human Rights Council elections. The Guide presents an objective analysis of each of the candidates for election, measuring their cooperation, participation, contribution and commitments against the standards of membership set down in GA resolution 60/251. Find out more at: yourHRC.org.

Both events aimed to enhance transparency and accountability in the Council elections, as well as to promote a higher observance of the standards set by the General Assembly in 2006.

Resolutions

The 39th session of the Council concluded with the adoption of 24 texts (23 resolutions and one President’s Statement). This is ten less than the number of texts (34) adopted at the 36th session in September 2017, and as such represents a significant decrease year-on-year (29.4%). This number of adopted texts is exactly in line with URG’s predictions (i.e. that 24 texts would be adopted at HRC39), based on its computer modelling of State behaviour at the Council. See here for more information on URG’s model and its predictions for future sessions.

Furthermore, when combined with the 42 texts adopted at the 37th session and the 20 texts adopted at the 38th session, the total number of texts adopted in 2018 is 86. This represents a significant decrease (24%) compared with the number of texts adopted in 2017 (113), and is the lowest number of texts adopted by the Council in a single year since 2011 .

Around 42% of the texts at HRC39 were adopted by recorded vote. This the highest percentage of voted resolutions since the establishment of the Council.

14 (58.3%) of the texts adopted by the Council were thematic in nature, while 10 (41.7%) dealt with country-specific situations (an unusually high percentage). Of the latter texts, three addressed human rights violations under agenda item 2, two under item 4, and five sought to protect human rights through technical assistance and capacity-building (under item 10).

17 of the texts adopted by the Council (71 %) had Programme Budget Implications (PBI), requiring appropriations of $22,907,500 not previously covered by the UN regular budget.

In terms of operational effects, the resolutions adopted at HRC39 will result in three panels, one inter-sessional meeting, and 15 OHCHR reports. Seven existing mandates (five Special Procedures, one Commission of Inquiry, and one Group of eminent international and regional experts) were renewed. Perhaps most notably, one resolution (the joint EU-OIC text) established a IIIM-type mechanism, with an indeterminate timeframe for the execution of its mandate.

Resolutions listed in order of L numbers

Agenda item

TitleCore groupPBIsNew resource requirementsAdoption

2

Promotion and protection of human rights in the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela

Argentina, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Guyana, Honduras, Mexico, Paraguay, Peru$339’900

Vote

(23 – 7 – 17)

3

World Programme for Human Rights Education

Brazil, Costa Rica, Italy, Morocco, Philippines, Slovenia, Thailand$17’800

Consensus

10

Enhancement of technical cooperation and capacity-building in the field of human rights

Brazil, Honduras, Indonesia, Morocco, Norway, Qatar, Singapore, Thailand, Turkey$59’200

Consensus

3

Promotion of a democratic and equitable international order

CubaVote

(28 – 14 – 5)

3

The use of mercenaries as a means of violating human rights and impeding the exercise of the right of peoples to self-determination

Cuba

Vote

(30 – 15 – 1)

3

The safety of journalists

Austria, Brazil, France, Greece, Morocco, Qatar, TunisiaConsensus
3

Local government and human rights

Chile, Egypt, Republic of Korea, Romania$78’700

Consensus

10

Technical assistance and capacity building in the field of human rights in the Central African Republic

Togo (African Group)$15’000Consensus

10

Technical assistance and capacity-building in the field of human rights in the Democratic Republic of the Congo

Togo (African Group)$160’600

Consensus

3

The human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation

Germany, Spain

Vote

(44 – 1 – 2)

3

The right to development

Venezuela (Bolivarian Republic of) (NAM)$24’600Vote

(30 – 12 – 5)

3

Preventable maternal mortality and morbidity and human rights in humanitarian settings

Burkina Faso, Colombia, Estonia, New Zealand$217’400

Consensus

3

Equal participation in political and public affairs

Botswana, Czech Republic, the Netherlands, Peru$78’700

Consensus

4

Situation of human rights in Burundi

Austria (European Union)$2’529’800Vote

(22 – 8 – 17)

3

United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Peasants and Other People Working in Rural Areas

Bolivia (Plurinational State of), Cuba, Ecuador, South Africa$219’300

(resource reduction)

Vote

(33 – 3 – 11)

10

Assistance to Somalia in the field of human rights

Somalia, United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland$0

Consensus

3

Human rights and indigenous peoples

Guatemala, Mexico$58’000Consensus

8

National human rights institutions

Australia$102’000

Consensus

4

The human rights situation in the Syrian Arab Republic

France, Germany, Italy, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, the Netherlands, Qatar, Turkey, United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland

Vote

(27 – 4 – 16)

2

Human rights situation in Yemen

Belgium, Canada, Ireland, Luxembourg, The Netherlands$4’753’800

Vote

(28 – 8 – 18)

2

Situation of human rights of Rohingya Muslims and other minorities in Myanmar

Austria (European Union), Pakistan (Organization of Islamic Cooperation)$14’465’000

Vote

(35 – 3 – 7)

10

Technical assistance and capacity-building for Yemen in the field of human rights

Tunisia (Group of Arab States)$0

(additional resource requirements were already covered by PBI of the ‘Human rights in Yemen’ resolution)

Consensus
10

Technical assistance and capacity-building to improve human rights in the Sudan

Togo (African Group)$226’300

Consensus

President’s statements listed in order of L numbers

Agenda item

Title

Core group

PBIs

New resource requirements

Adoption

1

Reports of the Advisory Committee

President of the Human Rights Council

Consensus

Analysis and conclusions

The 39th session of the Council, the last regular session of 2018, was notable for two main things: the inaugural speech of the new High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michele Bachelet; and the body’s positive reaction to the departure of the United States as a member.

On the first point, as this session report recalls, Ms Bachelet’s speech signaled a new departure for the High Commissioner for Human Rights and her Office. While committing to continue High Commissioner Zeid’s important work in publicly calling-out serious human rights violations by States and supporting human rights defenders, the new High Commissioner promised to engage States in a spirit of constructive dialogue and cooperation, including in the Human Rights Council. She expressed her firm belief that by working with States, the primary duty-bearers in the international human rights system, and by securing consensus and identifying common ground, it would be possible to drive real domestic change, and secure improvements in the on-the-ground enjoyment of human rights.

The High Commissioner’s speech, together with a number of other statements she delivered in New York, also provide indications as to the likely focus of her work in the coming years.

In this regard, she underscored her strong belief in the importance of strengthening the position of the human rights pillar in a reformed UN: ‘Human rights express the core purpose of the UN, we can only attain peace, security and sustainable development for all societies when we advance the dignity and equality of all human beings […] The new reforms underway at the UN present an opportunity to advocate, as powerfully as we can, that a human rights approach be at the centre of the work of our UN partners.’

In particular, in order to strengthen the effectiveness of the Council, and the interconnectedness of the three pillars of the UN, the new High Commissioner urged progress in three interconnected areas: national implementation of international human rights obligations and commitments; the contribution of human rights to the 2030 Agenda and the SDGs; and the UN’s prevention agenda.

On the first point, she called on all actors, including her Office, States, independent experts, NHRIs, parliaments, civil society and development actors, to ‘push forward together with the implementation of States’ [human rights] commitments.’ ‘Norms and laws are vital, but they must be applied. I am convinced that by building up national institutions, we can ensure powerful constituencies for rights, which can contribute to making rights real.’ As a key driver of the global ‘implementation agenda,’ the High Commissioner urged States and others to focus their attention on the development of mechanisms and tools at national level to coordinate the implementation, in an integrated manner, of ‘the recommendations of the Treaty Bodies, the Special Procedures and UPR,’ including with the support of ‘UN Country Teams and other actors.’

Strengthened domestic implementation will in turn contribute to both sustainable development and the prevention of violations and crises.

Regarding the former, she noted that ‘the 2030 Agenda […] opens a tremendous opportunity for greater integration of human rights goals, including the recommendations of the human rights mechanisms, into national policies and the work of the UN.’ Quite simply, in the view of Ms Bachelet, real progress with the achievement of the SDGs will not be possible unless States make progress in ‘the so-called sensitive area of human rights.’

Regarding prevention, the new High Commissioner drew attention to the important role of the Council, in cooperation with her Office and other relevant parts of the UN system, in building the human rights resilience of societies (to prevent violations from happening in the first place), and in responding promptly to emerging crises.

Making an analogy with human health, she reflected that: ‘Good doctoring is based on building resilience: strengthening healing processes and intervening to interrupt symptoms of pathology […] Human rights are a powerful medicine, which help heal wounds and develop resilience [of societies,]’ so that they are ‘more able to resist unpredictable shocks.’

With this in mind: ‘The Covenants, the seven other core human rights treaties, and the recommendations of all UN human rights bodies and experts, are fundamental contributions to the work of preventing, mitigating and ending human rights violations – including the inequalities and discriminations which torment so many of our fellow human beings.’

Where this ‘primary prevention’ fails, she called on the Council, with the support of her Office, to ‘build new strategies and stronger tools for prevention, early intervention and also accountability. I firmly believe that the power of justice can deter and prevent even the worst violations and crimes.’

Uncle Sam not missed

A second key talking point at HRC39 was the impact, or not, of the US’ departure from the Council (during the first week of HRC38). The general view amongst delegations is that, so far, the US is not being missed (e.g. the Council is continuing to take robust action against serious human rights violations) and, in some ways, its absence may even have led to improvements in the work and delivery of the world’s apex human rights body.

On the issue of robust action against human rights abuses, at the end of the session a group of twelve international NGOs delivered a joint statement welcoming the adoption of a number of ‘landmark resolutions on […] country situations, further enhancing its contribution to the protection of human rights.’ In particular, the civil society organisations drew attention to Council action on:

  • Myanmar – including the creation of the independent investigative mechanism, which they noted ‘is an important step towards accountability for the horrific crimes committed in Myanmar, as elaborated in the Fact Finding Mission’s report to this session.’
  • Yemen – the Council adopted a resolution (sponsored by Belgium, Canada, Ireland, Luxembourg and the Netherlands) renewing the mandate of the Group of Eminent Experts, to continue international investigations into violations committed by all parties to the conflict. Notwithstanding, the Council also adopted a separate resolution on Yemen, sponsored by the Group of Arab States (with Saudi Arabia to the fore), providing technical assistance and capacity-building support to the State.
  • Venezuela – the Council adopted a resolution bringing international scrutiny to the human rights and humanitarian crisis unfolding in the country.
  • Burundi – the renewal of the mandate of the COI ‘will enable it to continue its critical investigation and work towards accountability.’

The Council’s resolutions on Myanmar and Venezuela were historically significant for a number of reasons.

In the case of Myanmar, at the start of the session there were two separate draft resolutions: one by the EU on the human rights situation in the whole country, which sought to respond to the report of the independent international fact-finding mission on Myanmar, and further strengthen the international community’s efforts to secure accountability for the grave violations taking place; and one by the OIC focused mainly on the human rights violations committed against Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine state. In the end, the EU and the OIC reached agreement to table a single combined text, thereby greatly increasing the symbolic power of the Council’s intervention. This is historically significant because it is the first time the OIC has acted as the main sponsor of a country-specific resolution (beyond the situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territories – OPT) focused on nation-wide violations and establishing a robust accountability mechanism.

On the last point, with the final resolution on the ‘Situation of human rights of Rohingya Muslims and other minorities in Myanmar,’ the Council decided ‘to establish an on-going independent mechanism to collect, consolidate, preserve and analyse evidence of the most serious international crimes and violations of international law committed in Myanmar since 2011, and to prepare files in order to facilitate and expedite fair and independent criminal proceedings, in accordance with international law standards, in national, regional or international courts or tribunals that have or may in the future have jurisdiction over these crimes, in accordance with international law.’ This is, in effect, a Myanmar-focused version of the international, independent and impartial mechanism (IIIM) on Syria, established by the GA in 2016; and marks a major (though not yet definitive) step for the Council in its efforts to secure accountability for gross and systematic human rights violations.

Regarding Venezuela, the Council adopted a resolution on the ‘Promotion and protection of human rights in the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela’ welcoming a recent (June 2018) report by OHCHR on human rights violations in the country, expressing concern at the scale of reported abuses, calling upon the Government to accept humanitarian assistance, urging the Government to cooperate with OHCHR and the mechanisms of the Council; and requesting the High Commissioner to prepare a comprehensive written report on the human rights situation in Venezuela and to present it to the Council at its 41st session. This new resolution is particularly noteworthy and important because it was led and tabled by countries of Venezuela’s own regional group (GRULAC), namely: Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Guyana, Honduras, Mexico, Paraguay and Peru, (later supported by Canada and other WEOG States). This is the first time this has happened since the establishment of the Council in 2006 and, together with the EU-OIC resolution on Myanmar represents an important break with the notion, which has held for twelve years, that (with a few exceptions, such as African leadership on the situation in Eritrea), only Western (or Western affiliated) States can bring situations of serious violations to the Council’s attention.

Finally, the resolution on Venezuela is also symbolically important in the context of US membership of the Council, because a perceived lack of action on Venezuela was one of the principal reasons/excuses given by the Trump administration for America’s departure. Moreover, it is not implausible to say that a Latin American-led resolution on Venezuela would be difficult to imagine if the US had still been on the Council – because of the risk that the initiative would be perceived as US-driven and thus politicised.


Photo credits

Feature photo: A general view of participants of Human Rights Council 39th regular session. 10 september 2018. UN Photo / Jean-Marc Ferré

Michelle Bachelet, United Nations, High Commissioner for Human Rights at a Human Rights Council 39th regular session. 10 september 2018. UN Photo / Jean-Marc Ferré licensed under under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Marzuki Darusman, Chairperson, Independent International Fact-finding Mission on Myanmar briefs the press on the Humanitarian Situation in Myanmar, Geneva. 27 August 2018. Photo by Violaine Martin

Ms. Urmila Bhoola, Special Rapporteur on Contemporary forms of slavery speaks at the Human Rights Council (HRC) 39th regular session, 10 September 2018. UN Photo / Elma Okic

Mr Livingstone Sewanyana, Independent Expert on the promotion of a democratic and equitable international order speaks at the Human Rights Council (HRC) 39th regular session, 10 September 2018. UN Photo / Elma Okic

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