The Human Rights Council: From Bangladesh to Geneva

I recently represented CIVICUS recently on a trip to Geneva to participate in Universal Periodic Review (UPR) sessions at the UN Human Rights Council. CIVICUS had made UPR submissions for Azerbaijan, Bangladesh, Colombia, Russia, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, all of which were being examined at the 16th session in April this year. Of particular interest was the session on Bangladesh for CIVICUS has been very active in its advocacy on that country in recent months. Trips to Dhaka, press releases on the NGO law and now a side-event at the HRC with FORUM-ASIA entitled ‘Bangladesh: Towards a conducive environment for Human Rights Defenders’ on 25 April 2013 have made us busy indeed.

The Bangladeshi activists that flew in from Dhaka for the event were clearly being watched carefully by officials from the Bangladeshi Mission. The Mission did not make much of a secret of it. They were there for all to see in the Serpentine Bar at the United Nations Palais des Nations in Geneva, their camera phones held up taking pictures of the activists. I also saw them recording what the activists said at the CIVICUS and FORUM-ASIA side-event. Although it is welcome that the Bangladeshi Mission attended, their attentions, which felt akin to surveillance at times, did not make for an altogether pleasant interaction with the activists. Particularly when it is noted that one of the NGO’s – Odhikar, had experienced surveillance coupled with the threatening and harassment of its staff back in Bangladesh in recent years. What is more surprising though is that these intimidating attentions were occurring in the serene environs of Geneva, amidst a faux-convivial air of polite handshakes and back slapping between the activists and the Bangladeshi delegation. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

Reflections on the 21st Session of the UN Human Rights Council

by Kevashinee Pillay  with assistance from Tor Hodenfield

As a South African activist equipped primarily with national and regional experience, the 21st Session of the UN Human Rights Council Session was my first practical exposure to the UN human rights system. The 21st Session, which took place in Geneva, Switzerland, from 10 – 28 September 2012, has provided a valuable introduction to the contours and realities of the intergovernmental decision-making process. In the three short weeks that I have worked as a CIVICUS intern through its UN Learning Exchange Programme, I have duly reaffirmed my belief that civil society voices must be given greater recognition in regional and international human rights mechanisms.

A politicized entity, the UN Human Rights Council is greatly subject to the imperatives of individual governments. However, the Council also provides key entry points for civil society engagement and advocacy. Principally, Council sessions provide CSOs with strategic opportunities to make interventions which may otherwise fall on deaf ears domestically. Furthermore, international, regional and national civil society, using a variety of platforms including side events, oral and written interventions and meetings with diplomats, can expose and raise awareness about human rights violations which may be censored or misconstrued in countries without independent media. However, public expressions of empathy made by foreign delegates and members of the Council are rare among governments with questionable human rights records. By the end of the three-week session, I could almost always predict states’ responses to certain issues.

The process by which states adopt resolutions was of great intrigue. While states generally seek consensus to adopt resolutions, they can also call for a vote on specific resolutions. During the 21st Session there were several welcomed resolutions adopted protecting the rights of civil society including those pertaining to the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and association and the safety of journalists. While the adoption of resolutions represents a crucial step in creating international and national accountability mechanisms, without adequate, binding measures to ensure implementation of resolutions, we must question whether Council resolutions serve as an adequate deterrent for perpetrators. Continue reading

Israel severs ties with UN Human Rights Council: what might the implications be?

The Israeli foreign ministry announced on 26 March 2012 that it has cut all contact with the UN Human Rights Council, the High Commissioner for Human Rights’ Office and the Human Rights Treaty Bodies. Israel has refused to cooperate with a fact-finding mission to investigate the settlement issue and whether the rights of Palestinians are being abused.

A resolution authorising the inquiry into the impact of settlements on Palestinian rights was adopted on 22 March 2012 by the 47-member council with 36 votes in favour and 10 abstentions. Only the US voted against it. Continue reading

Voices of Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan civil society heard at the UN

Limited information and awareness of the notorious violations of human rights in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan reaches the international community. To combat this, CIVICUS recently helped to support local civil society representatives to visit the UN in Geneva and get their voices heard.

Both Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan are notorious violators of human rights — in particular, the rights of citizens to freely represent their views, the rights of religious people to conduct religious instruction and to bear religious materials, and the rights of reporters to go about their jobs. The result of speaking out against the regimes of both countries is often long prison sentences in which torture is a daily reality. Continue reading