24th session of the UN Human Rights Council comes to an end
States make progress on resolutions on Syria and Bahrain, but dither on Egypt and Sudan
September 30, 2013
During the 24th session of the United Nations Human Rights Council, while some serious human rights violations received the attention of States, others were left without the necessary support. On the one hand, the positive highlights were the resounding manifestations of support for a resolution on the conflict in Syria, followed by the presentation of reports and a resolution on the country, in addition to a joint statement by several countries on the human rights situation in Bahrain, the approval of two firm resolutions on the protection of human rights defenders and the statement from a group of countries on the need to create a binding international instrument for companies and human rights. On the other hand, the Council disappointed by approving a resolution considered incompatible with the human rights violations taking place in Sudan and by not presenting a concrete proposal on the situation in Egypt.
Brazil, meanwhile, demonstrated its commitment to human rights by signing a joint statement with more than 45 other countries on the situation in Bahrain and by taking a firm stance on the primary responsibility of the Syrian government to protect its population, before voting in favor of a resolution on the country that was adopted at this session of the Human Rights Council. Brazil also voted for the two resolutions on human rights defenders and against all the amendments, more than 10 in total, proposed by a group of countries to dilute the language and content of these resolutions. However, although Brazil was one of the countries most affected by the allegations of U.S. espionage, it did not propose any concrete measures to the Council, the main body for addressing this matter that deals with the protection of human rights.
After three weeks of intense debates and the approval of 39 resolutions, including the renewal of the mandate of the Special Rapporteur for Health by the Brazilian government and the presentation of more than 60 reports, civil society organizations, among them Conectas, concluded their participation in the session with a joint statement congratulating the Council for the advances and identifying, as highlighted above, the failures of the session.
The Special Rapporteur on the Right of Everyone to the Enjoyment of the Highest Attainable Standard of Physical and Mental Health was created on the initiative of the Brazilian government in 2002 and the renewal of the mandate was decided by the Brazilian delegation. In this session, the renewal, which will last for three years and was adopted by consensus by the Council, was a mere formality, without any substantive alterations to the previous mandate. Read the full resolution in English.
Human rights defenders
Two resolutions on human rights defenders were adopted at this session of the Council. One on the role of civil society and the other on reprisals against human rights defenders, both of which were supported by Conectas through a joint letter signed with organizations from different countries.
Brazil supported both resolutions the way they were proposed and voted against the amendments, more than 10 in total, intended to weaken the texts and dilute their content. As a result of their strong protective language, they encountered powerful resistance from some countries, including China, Russia, India, South Africa and Venezuela, primarily in relation to the creation of a focal point in the United Nations for the issue. While the resolution on the role of civil society was adopted by consensus in spite of some opposition, the resolution on reprisals against human rights defenders that cooperate with international organisms was adopted with 31 votes in favor, 1 vote against and 15 abstentions.
Business and human rights
The delegation from Ecuador, during the general debate on the right to development, under agenda item 2, presented a joint statement, which did not have the support of Brazil, on the need to create a binding international instrument that clarifies the human rights obligations of international corporations and establishes mechanisms to remedy the victims of human rights violations. Conectas and other civil society organizations, in a joint letter, supported this initiative, highlighting its importance given that “the operations of many transnational corporations and private companies cause the destruction of the means of subsistence, the territories and the environment of the communities where they operate.”
The charges of espionage against the U.S. government were addressed by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, in her opening statements at the opening session in Geneva and the matter was also mentioned by the Brazilian delegation during the general debate on agenda item 2. The government of Brazil highlighted the responsibility of the Human Rights Council on human rights violations involving espionage, particularly the right to privacy of citizens, provided for in article 17 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. However, little was done to enable the Council to take any concrete steps on the matter and no resolution was proposed.
The situation in Syria was the focus of attention at many points during 24th session of the Council, and States steadfastly supported a peaceful solution to the conflict instead of a military response during the general debate on agenda item 2. Concern with the civilian population affected by the war in Syria was the emphasis of three reports presented during the session, among them the report of the Commission of Inquiry, and the text of the resolution approved by the Human Rights Council.
According to the report of Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict, the conflict in Syria highlights the complexity of her mandate, in particular on the matter of child refugees. According to the report that was submitted, three million children have either sought refuge outside the country or become internally displaced since the start of the conflict in Syria.
Chaloka Beyani, Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Internally Displaced Persons, regretted not having been able to visit the country and emphasized in his report that the serious violations of human rights and humanitarian law by the Syrian government and armed groups continue to cause mass displacements – today nearly 4.25 million Syrians live in this situation.
The Commission of Inquiry, chaired by the Brazilian Paulo Sérgio Pinheiro, highlighted that war crimes – such as indiscriminate killings, extrajudicial executions, torture, kidnappings and the use of child soldiers – and human rights violations – such as rape, forced disappearances and indiscriminate attacks on civilians – are occurring on a large scale in the country and are being committed by all parties involved in the conflict. The seriousness of the use of chemical weapons is mentioned in the report, although it also stresses that most of the violations have resulted from the use of conventional weapons. Annex II of the report submitted to the Council, based on 258 interviews conducted between May 15 and July 15 and on the analysis of evidence and additional documents, was contested by the Syrian government during the debate. Other debaters, meanwhile, supported the actions of the Commission of Inquiry and called on the government of Syria to guarantee access by the Commission and unrestricted humanitarian aid to the country. In his closing statements, the chairman of Commission asked the Syrian government to stop its indiscriminate shelling of civilian areas, as well as aerial bombardments of medical facilities.
With 40 votes in favor (including Brazil), 1 against and 6 abstentions, the Human Rights Council approved a resolution that condemns all the violations of human rights and humanitarian law in Syria, particularly the use of chemical weapons, and stresses the need to assure that those responsible for these violations are held to account. It also urged the international community to support the countries that are hosting refugees from the Syrian conflict.
Civil society organizations, among them Conectas, hadhoped that the 24th session of the Human Rights Council would adopt a country resolution for Bahrain. However, more than 45 countries opted only to issue a joint statement on the country – the third since 2012. On the positive side, this was the first time that Brazil signed this initiative led by the delegation of Switzerland. Moreover, the statement contained more protective language that the previous statements, signaling that the signatory countries will continue to monitor the situation in Bahrain and asking the Office of the High Commissioner to do the same.
Containing weak language compared to the seriousness of the human rights situation in this African country, the Human Rights Council adopted by consensus at this session a resolution on the country, albeit with few advances from the previous resolution.
Conectas and other civil society organizations, in a joint statement and a coordinated campaign on twitter, had been calling for a resolution that was more compatible with the human rights violations taking place in Sudan, for the creation of a Special Rapporteur for the country and for the transfer of the situation from agenda item 10 (technical cooperation) to item 4 (human rights situations that require the Council’s attention). None of these requests were considered in the new resolution.
Violations of human rights and international humanitarian law against civilians by government forces and allied militias are still a growing reality in Sudan. In the first five months of 2013 alone, some 300,000 people were forced to leave their homes in the region of Darfur and civil liberties have been increasingly restricted by the government, including through the arbitrary detention of opponents.
Democratic Republic of Congo
The Office of the High Commissioner submitted a report on the human rights situation in Congo between November 2011 and May 2013, stating that, despite efforts by the government, serious violations of human rights and international law are still occurring in the country, including acts that could amount to war crimes committed both by armed groups and by government forces. The violations include the mass rape of women and girls that occurred in the east of the country. The Human Rights Council adopted by consensus at this session a resolution on the country, calling on the international community to support the Office of the High Commissioner, and expanding and strengthening the technical cooperation to improve the human rights situation in the Democratic Republic of Congo.