26th Session of the UN Human Rights Council comes to an end

A general view at a 26th session of the Human Rights Council. 26 June 2014. UN Photo / Jean-Marc Ferré A general view at a 26th session of the Human Rights Council. 26 June 2014. UN Photo / Jean-Marc Ferré

The debate on the accountability of companies that violate human rights gained real traction during the 26th session of the UN Human Rights Council (HRC), held between June 10 and 27 in Geneva, Switzerland. After a series of extremely polarizing negotiations, the result was the approval of two separate resolutions on the matter, in spite of attempts at consensus.

The first resolution determines that an intergovernmental working group shall immediately start negotiations on a legally binding international instrument to guarantee the accountability of transnational business enterprises. The second renews the mandate of the HRC Working Group on the subject. As far as Conectas is concerned, the two processes are complementary and reveal a pressing need to make real progress on the issue.

The positive signs on the subject of business and human rights were offset by serious setbacks in the debates on sexual orientation and gender identity. During the session, the council adopted a resolution that does not recognize the many different forms of the family – in contrast with the highest international standards of human rights. In its vote, Brazil abstained. The decision was condemned by Brazilian civil society, which has demanded formal explanations.

See below a summary of the highlights of the session:

Business and Human Rights

Over the course of the session, two different resolutions were adopted on business and human rights. The first, led by Norway, Argentina, Ghana and Russia, renewed, by consensus, the mandate of the United Nations Working Group (WG) on the subject and requested that the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, in collaboration with the WG, conduct a study on the “legal options and practical measures to improve access to judicial remedy” for victims of human rights violations committed by companies.

Conectas and partner organizations published a letter analyzing the work of the WG in its first three years and pointing out its main shortcomings. These weaknesses had already been discussed with the WG itself during an oral statement earlier in the session.

Some progress was made in the text of the resolution, such as the reference to the challenges in the area of effective judicial remedies. These challenges are also the subject of a study and of a new item in the upcoming UN Forum on Business and Human Rights.

Although the resolution makes reference to the jurisprudence of UN treaty bodies, States failed to include an explicit mention of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples or the jurisprudence of the Inter-American Court – which would contribute to the adoption of the highest standards of human rights by the WG. Neither did it make any progress in the language on human rights defenders, in defining public financial institutions as the WG’s primary target or in improving its working methods – one of the most important demands of the WG Observatory, of which Conectas is part.

The second resolution, led by Ecuador and South Africa, was approved by 20 votes in favor, 14 abstentions (including Brazil) and 13 votes against. It created an intergovernmental working group to elaborate a legally binding instrument on transnational corporations and other business enterprises – satisfying a demand expressed in 2013 by 500 organizations from around the world, including Conectas.

According to the Working Group on Business and Human Rights of Red-DESC, of which Conectas is part, while this resolution is likely to improve protection against human rights violations by companies, it also includes some constraints. One example is the limitation of the future instrument to companies that have a “transnational character”. The restriction was added to the text shortly before it was submitted to the Council.

Resolution on Protection of the Family

A long-time threat in the HRC, the resolution on the family was approved by the Council in this session, by 26 votes in favor, 6 abstentions (including Brazil) and 14 votes against.

The resolution affirms that “the family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society”. Although this language is echoed in key international treaties, jurisprudence has enhanced its interpretation to include recognition for a wide variety of forms of the family.

Because of this, countries such as Chile and France proposed an amendment recognizing this diversity. A strategic move by Russia, however, prevented the suggestion from even being discussed. Russian diplomats used a no-action motion, which was approved by 22 votes in favor, 4 abstentions and 20 votes against.

However, an even greater setback was successfully avoided: Saudi Arabia withdrew from the discussion an amendment that defined the family as being between a man and a woman.

Brazil, despite voting against the no-action motion and delivering an explanation of vote in accordance with its international commitments, abstained in the final vote. As a result, Conectas and partner organizations sent a letter requesting formal explanations from the Brazilian diplomats.

According to the organizations, the abstention “is completely at odds with the commitment made by the Brazilian State in relation to the Programme of Action of the International Conference on Population and Development, which was clearly reaffirmed in the Montevideo Consensus (…) and above all it contrasts openly with the sociodemographic reality of family structures in Brazilian society, as well as with the established legal norms on the matter.”

Actions of Conectas

In addition to monitoring the debates and the votes of the Brazilian government, Conectas presented a number of complaints at the 26th session of the Council on the persistent human rights violations in the country. In an oral statement, the organization, together with the Center for Legal and Social Studies (Argentina), spoke about the urgent need for the country to develop a consistent immigration policy that respects human rights, approve a new rights-based immigration law and ratify the UN Convention on the Rights of Migrant Workers, adopting similar measures to those approved by other countries in the region.

With the support of partner organizations, Conectas also denounced the setbacks to freedom of expression in Brazil both in another oral statement and during a side event organized by the INCLO coalition. In a third statement, the organization addressed the human rights violations taking place on account of the World Cup.

Click here to see all the oral statements made by Conectas in Geneva. 

In addition to these complaints, Conectas and partners organized a debate on the influence of NGOs on foreign policy in their countries. This debate was also used the launch issue 19 of SUR Journal. Diplomats discussed with activists strategies and good practices for relations between States and organizations before, during and after multilateral meetings – such as these sessions of the HRC.

Conectas was also able to present and debate its experiences working on international relations at an event organized by the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, which identified the need to democratize foreign policy.

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