Dispatches from Geneva: 1st Week of the Human Rights Council (25th February 2013-1st March 2013)

By Aisha Onsando, CIVICUS Intern, Geneva

The 22nd Session of the Human Rights Council opened with a high level panel commemorating the 20th Anniversary of the adoption of the Vienna Declaration and plan of action. The panel consisted of more than 70 dignitaries. Many speakers expressed concern for country situation’s already on the Council’s agenda such as Syria, Mali, Sri Lanka, DPRK and Bahrain. There was a general call for greater involvement by the Human Rights Council and the Commissioner of Human rights with a particular call for the extension of the mandate of the special rapporteur on Syria.

The High level panel also focused on the legacy of the Vienna Declaration and plan of action. Article 5 of the Vienna Declaration stresses that all human rights are universal, indivisible and interdependent and interrelated, that the international community must treat human rights globally in a fair and equal manner, on the same footing, and with the same emphasis. While the significance of national and regional particularities and various historical, cultural and religious backgrounds must be borne in mind, it is the duty of States, regardless of their political, economic and cultural systems, to promote and protect all human rights and fundamental freedoms.

This was the main focus of the majority of the high level panelists on the real contribution that the Vienna Conference contributed to the human right’s discourse. No right is more important than any other. No group of rights can be given primacy over the other. No right is fully achieved until they all are.

In her opening address Navi Pillay called Human Rights Defenders “the heroes of our time (who) must be encouraged and protected in their work.” Representatives from the Czech Republic, the Netherlands, the EU, Estonia and Botswana addressed the need for a robust civil society and highlighted instances in which the space for civil society is being intentionally shrunk. Norway is proposing a landmark resolution on the ‘Protection of the Human Rights Defenders’. CIVICUS was present at the first round of consultations on the draft resolution and will closely follow the progress of the draft.

On a personal note, it was interesting to observe the behind the scenes engagement between civil society and state actors. It is amazing the work Renate can get done with a conversation even when the interactive dialogue is cut short before they get to NGOs. The voice of civil society is being heard- at cocktails, at side events and even in the corridors! The interdependence of human rights stressed by the high level panelists and the interventions by states extends logically to the interdependence of actors in sphere of human rights protection. No government can be said to protect and promote human rights without engaging with civil society. No government is upholding its human rights obligations without creating an enabling atmosphere for a vibrant civil society. No human rights defender is safe until all citizens consider themselves human rights defenders.

The ‘Power of Empowered Women’ side event was of particular interest to the all-women CIVICUS Geneva office. The event was organized by female Ambassadors and included a panel of women human rights defenders from around the world who told their extraordinary and moving stories. Their stories illustrated the progress that women have made and the work left to be done.

The High Level Panel on the mainstreaming of Human Rights was focused on centralizing the Human Rights perspective in the post 2015 agenda. With the deadline for the Millennium Development Goals rapidly approaching, the general consensus is that the way forward must be grounded in a human rights based approach. The Secretary General proposed 3 principles for the post 2015 agenda; i. Human Rights ii. Equality and iii. Sustainability. The high level panel stimulated a lively debate but it was clear that it barely scratched the surface of the myriad of considerations in shaping the post 2015 agenda.

All in all it was an incredibly jam-packed week for the CIVICUS Geneva office and we had a good time unwinding and sampling the delicious food at the national dress party at the end of the week. The human rights council is a fascinating prism to observe both the protection and promotion of international human rights but also a reminder of the crucial contributions made by civil society and human rights defenders.

Aisha Onsando is an Advocate of the high court of Kenya participating in the CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation learning exchange at the human rights council focused on strengthening the voice of African civil society at the Human Rights Council. She was educated at the London School of Economics and is committed to strengthening Human Rights protection in Kenya.

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