I just returned from attending the 35th session of UNHRC in Geneva. It’s been a year since I’ve been there, and much has changed. Earlier, NGO’s had two minutes to make a statement, now they have cut down our time to a minute and a half. Security is also much tighter in terms of visitor passes, so I am fortunate that The Centre for Inquiry accredited me to attend.
On the question of why one attends these sessions when many think the UNHRC is not fulfilling its mandate, my response is that every statement is heard by the member states and is on record, so it does make a difference to speak out in any small way against human rights abuse.
Testimony Against FGM
I also had two other statements which I could not present due to lack of time. One is about the blasphemy law in Pakistan with focus on the killing of Mashal Khan, and the other about the persecution of LGBTQ groups in some countries. I left these papers at the Council for participants to read.
I was delighted that there was a Note by the Secretary-General about Report of the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women on the activities of the United Nations Trust Fund in Support of Actions to Eliminate Violence against Women.
Also of particular interest was the Report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights on the impact of multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination and violence in the context of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance on the full enjoyment of all human rights by women and girls.
In line with this mandate, there were many side sessions on the rights of women. I attended a session on “Accelerating the Eradication of FGM” hosted by The Inter-African Committee on Traditional Practices affecting the health of women and children, in which the first lady of Burkino Faso, Bella Sika Kabore, invited participants to work towards a “Ban FGM campaign” and, with partnerships, work to eradicate FGM by 2020. This is a very positive move because till about five years ago, FGM was not on the agenda.
I also attended a side event on Ending Child, Early and Forced Marriage hosted by The Commonwealth and Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, in collaboration with UNFPA and in association with the governments of The Netherlands and Zambia. Opening remarks were made by Ms. Kate Gilmore, OHCHR Deputy High Commissioner.
Religious Freedom was high on the agenda for many participants. However the OIC (Organization of Islamic Cooperation) understands religious freedom in different ways. They are still pushing for a mandate that religion must not be critiqued under their mandate of defamation of religion. On their website they say they are “the collective voice of The Muslim World!”
Many secular groups were pushing for respect for freedom from religion in countries where apostasy and blasphemy laws are rampant.
A bit of background:
The Human Rights Council is an inter-governmental body within the United Nations system responsible for strengthening the promotion and protection of human rights around the globe, and for addressing situations of human rights violations and make recommendations on them. It has the ability to discuss all thematic human rights issues and situations that require its attention throughout the year. It meets at the UN Office at Geneva. The council is made up of 47 United Nations member states which are elected by the UN General Assembly.
How does the Human Rights Council work?
The Human Rights Council started working in 2006. It decided rules for its work. All countries of the United Nations take part in the work of the Human Rights Council. But only some countries make decisions. There are 47 countries making decisions in the Human Rights Council. All countries at the United Nations take part in choosing these 47 countries.
Of special note are the opening remarks by Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights on June 17. His focus was bringing up a host of issues related to denial of access and lack of cooperation with UN bodies will not diminish scrutiny of a State’s human rights record. He spoke about the Israel-Palestine conflict (high on the agenda at the Council) and speaking of terrorism he said “I again condemn in the strongest of terms the cowardly and sickening attacks perpetrated against innocent people by callous terrorists operating in many parts of the world. Terrorism worldwide must be eradicated by government action – but smart action. Counter-terrorism must be prosecuted intelligently: that is, while preserving the human rights of all.”
The UNHRC covers a variety of issues from children’s rights to disability to freedom of religion. This session was no different with member states and NGO’s addressing a wide range of human rights issues.
Detailed reports and decisions of the council can be found on the UNHRC website here.