President Donald Trump in his address to the UN General assembly in New York last week critiqued some of those countries holding positions in the human rights council that offer no human rights for their own citizens.
I tend to agree with him as I have seen during my trips to the UNHRC in the past five years the rise of the influence of the OIC and the plight of certain communities under authoritarian regimes.
There is a consensus that the United Nations is a body that is impotent and has no influence on world events. In a way that is correct. However, it is the only international body we have, and sooner or later, we do make a difference since everything is tabled and recorded.
At the very least, the member states who attend are forced to listen.
This was the case as I headed out to Geneva for the 36th session of UNHRC. I am accredited with The Center for Inquiry in Washington and was accompanied by Robyn Blumner, president and CEO of CFI. We agreed to be there during the middle week of the session when most people are there.
Apart from the formal sessions and the plenary, the council is a place that is always buzzing. There are more people schmoozing in the Serpentine bar than in the main hall where the statements are made. There is a buzz of different languages, costumes and cultures which holds the attention.
Added to this are the peacocks roaming the gardens of the council. The place is beautiful.
The highlight of my UN visit this time was meeting Ensaf Haider, wife of jailed Saudi blogger Raif Badawi, who was sentenced to 1000 lashes and 10 years in a Saudi prison for urging religious freedom.
Ensaf who has been out of Saudi Arabia since 2012, now has political asylum in Canada and lives in Quebec with her three children. Her only aim in life is to free her husband from Saudi jail and lashes.
Ensaf addressed the council and spoke directly to the Saudi Ambassador saying, “My husband did not commit any crime. He only aspired for a better future for his country.”
I was fortunate to be able to spend some quality time with Ensaf who is a beautiful human being both inside and out. She is brave and committed to getting her husband out of jail and said she needs the world to help.
She said, “When Raif was going to be lashed, the whole world rallied for his cause. But I’m afraid they will forget, and I want to ensure that the world never forgets. I’m doing this not as a personal mission but for universal human rights and I will continue till he is released and my children see their father.”
Ensaf has a special message for Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. She said that if he can give millions to Omar Khadr and speak about giving citizenship back to Canadian terrorists, he can and should give honorary citizenship to Raif Badawi (like he did for Malala Yousafzai). This would be very symbolic and send a strong message to the Saudi leaders.
I traveled back to Toronto with Ensaf and made her a promise that my organization and I will rally to her cause and that of Raif Badawi to help ensure that the world never forgets.
One perk of being at the UNHRC are the side events which are much more interesting than the plenary. I attended a few of these.
One informational side event was about defending female victims of terror. It’s not something that is talked about enough. There were actual victims of terrorist attacks present – one in a wheelchair. We learnt that women, who are equally victims of terror, face more discrimination. They are legally socially, economically and emotionally deprived of support and in many cases (those who have been raped) are ostracised from their communities.
The UN is working on a resolution to give these women greater participation in peace and security efforts and amplify their voices to be recognized as direct victims of terrorism.
One interesting fact I noticed is that the whole world is at the Human Rights Council to speak about their grievances. Everyone has a beef with their state and leaders and is eager to blame someone else for their woes. There are people supporting their state and those against the state. Luckily, they all have a voice at the council in the form of NGO’s who are invited to speak under Item 4 which is the General Debate.
In this context there was a side event about the oppression of the Baloch people (Balochistan is the largest province of Pakistan). It’s controversial whether this province wanted to be part of Pakistan but was annexed by military action anyway. The Baloch people are largely tribal and they claim that the separatists have been systematically targeted by the Pakistan military.
Ironically, at another event hosted by Pakistan, the rhetoric was more on the lines that the roots of Pakistan’s violence in Balochistan is a result of colonization. One of the speakers at this event said that it’s a conspiracy by India and intervention of USA for subversive purposes. The speaker, who is a Cambridge graduate, went on to say that there is a tendency in the International community to create “rogue” states like Pakistan, Iran and Korea.