Sunday, September 15, 2013

Human Rights Council 24 : A Game of Inches

Being back in Geneva for the 24th session of the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) has given me a fresh perspective on the work of human rights bodies, the politics of the HRC, and the role civil society plays within these structures. When most people think of human rights, they imagine the broad, liberal ideals for mankind that only seem to be demanded by political dissidents and touted by the global North. The reality, as seen through the prism of various human rights mechanisms and their processes, paints a far different picture of political and
diplomatic maneuvering and the relatively universal demand and application of human rights. Today, the fight to protect, promote and enshrine human rights principles is indeed a globalized endeavor complete with the complexities and nuances that come with it. It is within this context that HRC member states implement human rights strategies for their countries and others.

This past week, the HRC began with the backdrop of human rights abuses old and new. The massive humanitarian crisis in Syria and Egypt’s troubling leap away from democracy via military coup took center stage in the early proceedings, briefly overshadowing both enduring abuses and relatively new issues, such as LGBT rights. Recurrent human rights abuses, like sexual and gender-based violence and the criminalization of freedom of expression and opinion, also received attention and spurred discussion. And aside from the hot-button issues that dominate the main chambers of the Council, states and NGOs hold their own side events that typically shed light on narrower issues, such as informal negotiations to extend the mandates of Special Rapporteurs (human rights experts appointed by Special Procedures) and the human rights situation in the Middle East and North Africa.

Since the HRC meets for three weeks, and that there are hundreds of actors pushing different agendas and highlighting specific issues, I’ll just focus on my own experiences at the Council as an observer and part of an advocacy team that encourages human rights policy outcomes through side events of our own and liaising between human rights defenders and the relevant levers of influence.

Many diplomatic Missions and NGOs host side events at the Council. For example, FIDH hosted and cosponsored a side event focusing on the criminalization of legitimate expression on the
A police officer, flanked by local militia members, tries
to stop a foreign journalist from taking photos outside 
the Ho Chi Mihn City Court during the trial of a blogger
in August 2011. (AFP, Photo Ian Timberlake)
Internet in Thailand, Cambodia and Viet Nam. The objective of these side events is to educate and lend a sense of urgency and magnitude to problems that many people might not know much about. We invited human rights defenders from our network of human rights groups to serve as panelists who spoke about the situation in each of the countries. Each of them shared their personal and professional perspectives on the issue.

One of the panelists, a human right defender from Thailand, also came to Geneva to have meetings with diplomatic Missions and various international bodies. She was representing her husband, who was jailed for up to 30 years for allowing a satirical article to be published on his website. The article was deemed insulting to the Thai monarchy, and so her husband was punished along with others for their 'crimes against the state.' We also hosted another human rights defender from the DRC who focuses on sexual violence in the DRC. Similar to the defender from Thailand, we set up meetings so that she could articulate the dire situation women face in the conflict-embroiled DRC. Both defenders held low- and high-level meetings coordinated by FIDH. 

I was assigned to attend and summarize a few different side events hosted by other organizations and Missions. A lot of the time, these side events are described in quite general terms yet focus on very specific issues, with the reason being that the hosts want to avoid any political attempt to stunt the execution of the event. An interesting example of this was the first side event I went to entitled "the human rights situation in MENA." Hosted by CARE International, the event was actually entirely focused on how women have been affected throughout the 'Arab Autumn' of 2011 to present. And while the hosts tried to be neutral in naming the event, the presentation itself was highly political and focused most of its attention on former President Morsi's failure to combat violence against women, with no mention of the social and cultural values in Egypt that reinforce this violence. Nonetheless, they presented a very important issue that has many people concerned. Even Amnesty International hosted a similar event last week presenting on the issue.

Two other side events from this past week deserve special mention. The first focused on LGBT rights, hosted by the Permanent Mission of Brazil. The panelists included high-level officials (the Ambassadors from Brazil, Norway and the United States) and civil society representatives. This event in particular highlights the advantages of securing diplomats and practitioners in the field: not only did the issue garner the support of powerful diplomats but the event included experts that spoke on methods to remedy the situation and placed the issue of LGBT rights in a global context. The panelists spoke about how this issue, while seeming minor to some, affects every corner of the planet and is grossly neglected. One panelist, the former head of the LGBT Liaison Unit of the the Washington (D.C.) Metropolitan Police Department, presented methods his Unit uses to strengthen police sensitivity to LGBT issues and the Department's ties to the community. The result was higher trust among civil society, more people felt comfortable reporting crimes, and an overall heightened sense safety for the LGBT community. One should not underestimate the impact that presenting on best practices such as this, along with high-level endorsement of the issue, can have on the LGBT rights discourse.

In another strain of diplomacy at the HRC, the last side event I attended centered on informal negotiations for a resolution that would extend the mandate of a human rights expert that investigates abuses of the right to peaceful assembly and association. Side events such as this one engender the highest levels of political maneuvering by states working on common language for the resolution. Seemingly benign phrases such as states "Welcoming" the reports of the human rights expert were contested by Cuba, Egypt and Russia, among others, because these countries do not exactly 'welcome' these reports. They pushed to rephrase the clause to far more diluted language. Another preambular paragraph highlighted the fact that civil society organizations require access to "resources" in order to function properly. Arguments about what falls under the umbrella of 'resources' and how far to extend that logic ensued. From a legal standpoint, the event devolved into a game of wording, a necessary endeavor to reach broad consensus for a resolution that will be put up for a vote during the last days of the Council.

Overall, my experiences during this past week draw attention to some important workings within the HRC. Organizations like FIDH, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and many others bring human rights defenders to the Council to lobby their cause. Side events help draw even more attention to human rights abuses of various kinds and severity, some of them reflecting just how states and NGOs alike navigate the political dimensions unique to the HRC. While many people bemoan the politics and bureaucracy, the HRC is essentially a game of inches that slowly, incrementally advances and adopts measures to amend human rights abuses. At the end of the day, pressure is placed on states to improve their human rights situations through multidimensional means which draw upon governments and civil society alike. Although progress is slow, the HRC is gradually changing human rights situations across the globe for the better. And that's something that we can all get behind, regardless of the politics.

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