Progression and regression at the 21st session of the Human Rights Council

The 21st session of the Human Rights Council saw some worrying signs of regression, with, however, some notable bright spots. The session saw a number of significant thematic developments. The issue of reprisals had a high profile with the Council’s first ever panel discussion dedicated to the problem. As there will be no resolution on the issue until September 2013, the challenge now is to ensure that action is not shelved, and that concrete steps are taken in the meantime to protect against and respond to reprisals.

However, even while the Council dedicated more time to discussing reprisals, human rights defenders continued to face harassment. A human rights defender from Bahrain, Mr Mohammed Al-Maskati, who tweeted about his attendance of the Council session, began to receive extremely threatening phone calls. A few weeks after his return to Bahrain, Mr Al-Maskati was arrested and briefly detained, facing charges of taking part in “illegal protests” and “gatherings”.

In a very worrying development, negotiations on the resolution “From rhetoric to reality: a global call for concrete action against racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance” saw attempts from Egypt with the support of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation to insert language relating to defamation of religions. Although this proposed text ultimately did not make it through to the final draft, the attempt is worrying re-emergence of language that falls within the concept of blasphemy, as opposed to the more constructive framing of the debate as “intolerance” towards individuals of faith.

A controversial resolution on traditional values, led by the Russian Federation, was adopted by 25 votes to 15, with 7 abstentions. These efforts to legitimise traditional values are seen by many as a threat to universal human rights standards. This resolution follows on from a resolution adopted at the 16th session of the Council, which requested the Council’s Advisory Committee to prepare a study on traditional values and how they could be used to promote human rights. Since that study has not yet been presented to the Council, there was criticism from States and NGOs about Russia’s decision to push ahead with yet another resolution. The latest draft of the Advisory Committee’s study presents a more balanced examination of traditional values in relation to universal human rights law, and it is unfortunate that the Council did not wait for the finalised study before adopting this latest resolution.

Useful resolutions on the safety of journalists, and on peaceful assembly and association were also adopted at this session, in both cases by consensus.

The response on country situations was disappointing. Several resolutions adopted under item 10 revealed the limits of a cooperative approach. Item 10, with a focus on assisting a country to promote and protect human rights through providing technical support, takes the cooperation of the concerned country as its starting point.

The renewal of the mandate of the Independent Expert on the situation in the Sudan exemplified the difficulties with this approach. There had been calls from human rights defenders to renew this mandate under item 4 rather than item 10, as a means to enable the situation on the ground to be better reflected in the resolution, and also so that the mandate holder could be given a monitoring function along with his current role of assessing technical assistance needs. In the event the resolution was once again renewed under item 10, with language that is stronger than the previous resolution on Sudan but it remains a minimal acknowledgement of the human rights violations taking place. The bulk of the resolution welcomes developments in Sudan, including the record of the Government in promoting and protecting human rights, the cooperation extended to the Independent Expert and the steps taken by the Government to implement the recommendations it received during its Universal Periodic Review.

At the adoption of the resolution, several States pointed out that the Government had thus far failed to give the Independent Expert full access to all parts of the country, making it difficult for him to complete his work. Sudan stated that it had full readiness to cooperate, and that it would continue with the approach it has adopted to date. To date, however, Sudan has not permitted the Independent Expert to access Darfur despite his request, and human rights violations continue unabated on the ground.

Resolutions were also adopted under item 10 on South Sudan, Mali, Yemen, and Somalia.

Under item 4, the Commission of Inquiry on Syria held its latest interactive dialogue with the Council. After the previous extension of the Commission’s mandate in March, the Council again decided to extend the mandate, this time until the 22nd session of the Council in March 2013. The resolution also requests the Secretary-General to provide the Commission with additional resources, including staffing. The President duly appointed Ms Carla del Ponte and Mr Vitit Muntarbhorn to the Commission, joining Mr Paulo Sergio Pinheiro (Chairperson), and Ms Karen Koning AbuZayd. The latest resolution on the situation in Syria once again fails to make a direct call for referral to the International Criminal Court. However the number of States that called for referral to the ICC during the interactive dialogue increased.

Elections will take place in December for new members of the Council. There is only one contested election: that for the WEOG openings sees Germany, Greece, Ireland, Sweden, and the US contest three seats.

The session was also the last to be presided over by Ms Laura Dupuy Lasserre. Her successor will come from the Eastern European Group of States. Ms Dupuy Lasserre has become a strong President, who has taken some good initiatives during her 18 months in charge. It is to be hoped that some of those initiatives, particularly her strong stance on reprisals, set a precedent that future Presidents will follow.

Heather Collister is a Human Rights Officer at the International Service for Human Rights.