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32nd session of the human rights council

The 32nd session of the Human Rights Council took place from June 13 – July 1, 2016, as reported by  Rachel Babecoff, ICJW Representative to UN Geneva. 

As always in June, the Human Rights Council1 (HRC) held its regular three-week session.
This relatively “light” session included a high-level panel discussion on the tenth anniversary of the Human Rights Council with the participation of former Council presidents. Panels also took place on the use of sport and the Olympic ideal to promote human rights for all, and on the contribution of parliaments to the work of the Council. Like every year, there was a full-day general discussion on the human rights of women.

Interactive dialogues were held with different Commissions of Inquiry on Syria, Eritrea, Belarus and South Sudan, whilst the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights provided updates on the situations in Central African Republic, Côte d’Ivoire Ukraine, Burundi, Siri Lanka and Myanmar.

Besides the countries, interactive dialogues were also held with Special Rapporteurs (SR) on thematic issues, inter alia: racism; migrants; poverty; health; human trafficking; transnational corporations, internally displaced persons; violence against women and discrimination against women; freedom of expression and summary executions.

Hundreds of parallel side-events also took place yet not all of them were valuable.
Worthwhile to recall for this 32nd session:

1. The Human Rights Council (HRC) opened its session with an address by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, in which he updated the Council on the activities of his Office.

In his oral update, High Commissioner Zeid stressed that the non-cooperation by some Governments would not result in its Office remaining silent in its scrutiny of their human rights situation. He urged every State to fully comply with international human right norms, particularly in situations of conflict. He said that refugee law should also be respected, especially the principle of non-refoulement, and the countries of Europe had to find a way to address the current migration crisis in a manner that respected human rights, including in the context of the European Union-Turkey agreement. He expressed his concern about the increase in the detention of migrants in Europe, including in “hotspots” in Greece and Italy, to which even unaccompanied children were frequently subjected, and deplored the widespread anti-migrant rhetoric in some European countries. Another great concern was the narrowing of democratic space in many countries around the globe.

Opening the session, Mr. Choi Kyong-lim President of the HRC, stressed that those responsible for the despicable terrorist attacks in Orlando, Damascus, Halgan, Baghdad, Tel Aviv, Istanbul and elsewhere had to be held accountable. He noted that in this session, for the first time (!), all 193 United Nations Member States were present, and he briefed delegates on the action taken on the reported threat against a non-governmental organization (ngo) representative during the thirty-first session of the Council. He called for extreme vigilance against reprisals, on or off-line.

However, everybody agrees that the Council does make a difference for people on the ground. For human rights defenders and victims of abuses, the HRC’s relevance lies in its capacity to expose violations and hold governments to account. While the HRC does not have enforcement powers like the Security Council, its political weapon is to shine a light, to expose violations and their perpetrators. When the Council recognizes abuses being committed in a given country, it takes action by appointing an independent mechanism to assess the situation and make recommendations, through engagement with the government and other stakeholders – including, and especially, civil society. This generates independent, international scrutiny that supports the causes of human rights defenders and provides legitimacy to their goals as no other institution can do.

However, the perception that addressing situations of human rights violations is solely an interest of the West is a key threat to the HRC’s ability to hold those responsible for grave violations to account. For States that regularly seek to delegitimize the Council’s role in addressing situations of violations (China, Russia, Egypt or Pakistan for instance), denouncing the politicized nature of the Council and excluding the sufferings of victims from the debate, is a more convincing argument than advertising their open support to abusive governments. The trust required is very fragile, especially when the Western countries continue to protect their allies whenever it suits them.

The achievements of the Universal Periodic Review (UPR)5 are also considered as one of the main achievements of the HRC. Again and ultimately, the Human Rights Council is only as strong as its members enable it to be, and its ability to live up to its human rights protection mandate resides in the election of strong and committed States.

2. Mr. François Crépeaux, Special Rapporteur (SR) on the Human Rights of Migrants, presented his report on the impact of bilateral and multilateral trade agreements on the human rights of migrants. Although trade relations had significantly advanced economic growth, a constructive assessment of the ways in which the international trade regime had unfolded revealed deeply entrenched power unbalances and asymmetries. In particular, trade agreements had favored movement for high-skilled executives and expats, to the detriment of low-wage migrant workers. The SR highlighted the need for comprehensive international legal frameworks which acknowledged the structural demand for low-wage migrant labor across societies. He stressed the need to analyze the interplay between the “push factors” causing people to leave their homes and the “pull factors” attracting them to certain countries, and to maximize opportunities resulting from increased trade and facilitated mobility. States have to ensure that their trade agreements reflected their international human rights obligations, and refrain from ratifying agreements which undercut existing social protections.

In conclusion, he said that at the heart of migration are human beings who have fundamental rights who and are entitled to dignity, regardless of their status. Facilitated and well-regulated mobility mechanisms are necessary in trade agreements, to not only protect the human rights of all migrants, but also to optimally realize the numerous benefits that come when mobility and trade are properly enhanced.

3. Mr. Chaloka Beyani, Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Internally Displaced Persons stressed that at the end of 2015 there were more than 40 million people who had been internally displaced by conflict, with countless more displaced due to disasters, violence and development projects. More attention must be given to the role of development and business activities as a “push factor”, while greater consideration has to be given to the protection of people displaced within their countries of origin, and in particular to marginalized groups and their vulnerability to displacement. States need to prioritize solutions that improved self-reliance by integrating internally displaced persons into national safety nets, education programs, labor markets and development plans.
In his concluding remarks, the SR stressed that internal displacement was not a transitional phenomenon, with the evidence pointing that the average duration of displacement was 17 years…

4. Mr. Philip Alston, SR on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights said that until the economic and social rights were given their full due, the international community would continue to struggle to address extreme poverty as a human rights issue.

Although there had been progress, the broader picture shows that in the overall political and economic trajectory of most States today, economic and social rights are either implicitly or explicitly marginalized or contradicted. Even in countries where economic and social rights are constitutionally recognized, that has not led to significant follow-up action in most of those States. A survey by the Centre for Economic and Social Rights of the UPR7 has revealed that while 37 per cent of all recommendations made in the UPR Process concern civil and political rights, only 17 per cent relate to economic, social and cultural rights. The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund ignored both sets of rights. Non-governmental organizations present a mixed picture, with many groups doing “extraordinary” work at the national level, while economic and social rights remain peripheral and unintegrated to the largest international organizations.

The marginalization matters, because inequality will not be tackled meaningfully without a
6 The Special Rapporteurs (SR) are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the HRC. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures’ experts work on a voluntary basis: they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.

sustained focus on economic and social rights. Putting economic and social rights back on the map means laying a foundation through a framework of recognition, institutionalization and accountability.

5. Ms. Maria Grazia Giammarinaro, SR on Human Trafficking, especially women and children, presented her report, which focused on the issue of human trafficking in conflict and post-conflict situations and on protecting victims of trafficking and people at risk of trafficking, especially women and children.

She stressed that human trafficking in conflict and crisis situations is not a mere possibility, it is a consequence of conflict, but it is rarely detected and addressed. She pointed at the trafficking of women and girls for sexual exploitation, which features within the broader picture of sexual violence against civilians during conflicts. Women are subject to sexual exploitation also as a result of so-called negative coping mechanisms of their families, as was seen in temporary or forced marriage of refugees. Another issue is the trafficking of children for forced military service which leads to children performing a variety of combatant and supportive roles, and even being used as suicide bombers and human shields. In post-conflict situations, it is common for societies to experience a rise in trafficking for sexual exploitation purposes, as well as a rise in migration schemes resulting in trafficking and labor exploitation. 

Ms Giammarinaro deplored that peacekeeping operations continues to be the occasion for shameful incidents of sexual abuses. Persons in conflict situations and fleeing conflicts can also be vulnerable to trafficking for purposes of organ removal.

She also drew attention to the specific vulnerability of people fleeing conflicts. For migrants, internally displaced people, refugees and asylum seekers, the clandestine nature of their journey, the corrupt conduct of their facilitators, and restrictive migration policies, all operated to exacerbate opportunities for traffickers. A shift is needed in anti-trafficking policies, she underlined, from an approach aimed at identifying trafficked persons to an approach focused also on prevention. Indicators of risks of trafficking should be used by trained personnel in every entry point of the large influx of migrants. Anti-trafficking measures should be incorporated in all humanitarian interventions in conflict zones, and UN agencies should carry out trafficking prevention activities.

6. The HRC held its annual full-day discussion on the Human Rights of Women, with two panel discussions.

- During the first panel discussion on Violence against Indigenous Women and Girls and its Root Causes, Ms. Kate Gilmore, UN Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights,said that the prevalence of violence against indigenous women was not known, and the lack of comprehensive civil statistics and demographic surveys limited research and prevented the analysis needed. Still, there was enough to know that indigenous women and girls were three times more likely to suffer violence than other women. 

In Canada for example, Aboriginal women were five times more likely to die from violence than Canadian women. In Australia, from 2001 to 2010, the rate of domestic assault reported to the police was six times higher for Aboriginal women. In Guatemala, 40 per cent of indigenous girls were married before they reached the age of consent. Their access to justice was limited because of language barriers, male domination and other issues; this meant impunity for crimes and violations perpetrated against indigenous women and girls. It was noticed that despite their natural resources, indigenous people accounted for the world’s poorest people as a result of racism, and geographical and political marginalization, which in turn placed them in a vulnerable situation, whereby they suffered from intersecting and multiple human rights violations.

- The second panel discussion focused on Women’s Rights and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Ms. Kate Gilmore, said that the ambition of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development was a gift by Member States who had agreed on it in unanimity. The Agenda extended far beyond Member States, as it was a promise to all: parliaments, academia, private sector and all other stakeholders, and it came from the largest-ever public consultation undertaken by the UN. 

By 2030, a billion new persons would be added to the world population, which meant that by the time those 15 years had ended, the world would have the largest-ever generation of the young, but also of the old. For women, the urgency of that Agenda could not be overstated: today one in three women experienced sexual violence at the hand of someone they knew, while maternal mortality had dropped by close to 50 per cent, but remained at levels far too high to be tolerated because the loss of life while giving life was preventable and at a very low cost. 

Today, one in nine girls was married before the age of 15 in areas where development lagged behind. 

Over the past 15 years, incidents of death from HIV/AIDS had reduced for most age groups by 30 per cent thanks to extraordinary efforts, but had increased by 50 per cent for adolescents, largely because of reluctance to have an open conversation about reproductive health and intimate relationships. 

Gender equality is not just a numbers game, but without a number that tracked and so enabled the accountability, the Agenda would be empty. Women had to be given a voice, and those excluded had to participate and be represented, including the poor, disabled, indigenous and minority women.

7. Ms. Frances Radday, Chair of the Working Group on Discrimination against Women in Law and in Practice, pointed out that due to the different biology of women and men, an identical approach to treatment, medication, research, budgeting, and accessibility to health services for women and men in fact constituted discrimination. Equality in health required, among other things, access to affordable modern methods of contraception, maternal health care, and access to safe termination of pregnancy where required.

8. Mr. Mutuma Ruteere, SR on Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and related forms of Intolerance presented two thematic reports.

- The first report was on xenophobia, its trends and manifestations, especially in the context of the current migration crisis. The SR said that in the current era of increased mobility, widespread forms of overt physical violence, hate speech, and discrimination were rooted in xenophobia. He recommended that Governments and stakeholders give due attention to a set of key elements in designing and implementing strategies, which included a local diagnosis of the situation, implementing preventive actions, promoting social solidarity, identifying the appropriate scale of intervention, and review and assessment. 

He stressed that strategies for countering xenophobic discrimination had to be context-specific and carefully adapted to domestic realities. The role of local actors, including local government, was paramount in designing and implementing tailored, local administrative and other measures to overcome local barriers to integration and peaceful cohabitation.

The second report focused on combatting glorification of Nazism and neo-Nazism, and referred to reports of violence perpetrated against Roma, Muslims, Jews and other minorities and vulnerable groups. The SR strongly condemned the denial of the Holocaust, and expressed concerns about cyber-racism and hate propaganda through social media platforms, as well as about the proliferation of extremist groups in sports. He called upon States to provide for heavier sanctions regarding offences with racist, xenophobic, anti-Semitic or homophobic motivations, and to collect data. He insisted that education remained the most effective means of countering the negative influence of extremist movements. 

During the interactive dialogue, delegations expressed concern that many of the issues raised in the report showed no signs of improvement and noted the continued threat to human rights and democracy of extremist political parties and movements, whose influence had increased in several areas of the world, particularly in Europe.

9. Mr. Paulo Sérgio Pinheiro, Chairperson of the Independent Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic reported that the situation was progressively deteriorating, especially in Aleppo and Idlib. Of particular concern were the allegations of recruitment of hundreds of children under the age of 15 in Idlib by Jabhat al-Nusra and other al-Qaeda affiliated groups. Mr. Pinheiro said that more than half of Syrians remained displaced, with those seeking safety outside the country under deadly risks as they placed their lives in the hands of traffickers. It was imperative for States to take immediate steps to trace thousands of unaccompanied children who disappeared after arriving to Europe and were feared to be exploited by criminal networks. He recalled the Commission’s findings of the continuing genocide against the Yazidis, which must lead to much more assertive action by the international community, and especially by the Security Council.

It was interesting (and devastating) to hear what Syria, speaking as the concerned country, said: for more than five years, according to them, there had been unprecedented incitement and instigation in the Council as countries with a black record of human rights violations worked to convene special sessions and issue decisions purportedly caring for the human rights of Syrians, while their actions did not hide their intention to prolong the crisis in Syria through supporting terrorism and undermining the peace negotiations in Geneva. The Commission’s report was based on the unreliable account of witnesses and organizations supported by other States while it ignored thousands of testimonies that the Syrian embassy had made available. It was high time to stop abusing the Council and recognize that the war in Syria was not a war between Syrians but a war against terrorism that affected all Syrians…. As a matter of fact, it is exactly what is almost always heard from the concerned country following a report….

10. Israel
Business as usual, except that the time allotted to scrutinize Israel is shrinking from session to session: where we used to spend the whole day on the infamous item 7, four items (6; 7; 8 and 9) were dealt with during this session! As usual Israel was not in the room to take the floor as a concerned country

9.  Defence for Children International drew attention to Israel’s use of administrative detention for children. They said that Israel was the only country in the world that systematically prosecuted between 500 and 700 children in military courts each year.

11. Conclusion
The HRC concluded its thirty-second session after adopting 33 resolutions on a wide array of issues, among them : youth and human rights; trafficking in persons (…) and protecting victims of trafficking in conflict and post-conflict situations; arbitrary deprivation of nationality; right to nationality and women’s equal nationality rights; elimination of female genital mutilation; business and human rights: improving accountability and access to remedy; access to information on the internet; impact of arms transfers on human rights; rights of migrants in the context of large movements; Syria; Ukraine; Eritrea; Belarus and Côte d’Ivoire.

The Council created a New Mandate on Protection against Violence and Discrimination Based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity and filled four vacancies of Special Procedures mandate holders, including a new Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief. Ahmed Shaheed (Maldives).

The Council also adopted the outcome of the Universal Periodic Review of 14 countries
Documentation, statements, resolutions and reports relating to this and all Human Rights Council session are available on its webpage. Detailed, speaker-by-speaker coverage of every public meeting can be found on the webpage of the United Nations Information Service in Geneva.