By J Nastranis
An array of nations have criticised the Human Rights Council for overstepping its mandate among others by delving into matters that fell within the domestic jurisdiction of States, politicising human rights and unfairly targeting some countries.
As the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) discussed the Council’s annual report on November 4, several other countries – including the U.S. and those from Europe – however spotlighted the link between ensuring fundamental freedoms and achieving sustainable development.
The universal periodic review, the critics agreed, was a very useful tool in upholding and allowing Governments concerned and members of the international community to engage with each other on equal footing in order to improve human rights in all countries. However, they warned, the review process should not be the “end-all and be-all” of the human rights protection process.
Briefing Member States on the Council’s latest report, its president Choi Kyonglim from the Republic of Korea said it was exploring new opportunities to advance human rights based on the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.
In its many debates, the Council had focused on the relationship between climate change and the rights of the child, the contribution of civil society in preventing abuses, women’s equal rights and business and human rights, he said.
Given its many resolutions on a wide range of issues, the Council had demonstrated its ability to overcome political differences, Choi Kyonglim added. Despite its tireless efforts and those of the wider United Nations, however, human rights abuses were still rampant, humanitarian conditions were worsening and armed conflicts continued to rage.
“But we cannot lose our hope and optimism,” he emphasized. “These two words are our guiding lights, with which we illuminate the darkest corners of the world.”
Over the course of 2016, he noted, the Council had established an Independent Expert on protection against violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity and a Special Rapporteur on the right to development.
Challenges persisted in regards to the universality of its work and small countries had been encouraged to strengthen national processes to enable more engagement. The active participation of civil society was also central to the work of the Council, he said.
The Council is an inter-governmental body within the United Nations system made up of 47 States responsible for the promotion and protection of all human rights around the globe.
UN General Assembly President Peter Thomson from Fiji said the Council had time and again indeed “shone a light” on human rights violations, helping to establish new international norms and provide accountability. It now had a central role in promoting the 2030 Agenda and ensuring that its implementation was pursued in a manner consistent with international human rights standards.
With much more work remaining to be done in the decade ahead, the international community must stand firmly in its support of the Council’s work, however difficult that might be, he stressed.
In the ensuing discussion, many delegates expressed concern in particular over the adoption of resolution 32/2, titled “Protection against violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity”.
Russian’s representative said international cooperation was increasingly important and the United Nations must ensure ongoing dialogue between States. While the Council played a particularly crucial role, its agenda had become a tool for airing political grievances and demonizing certain States. Citing certain dubious actions that had diluted the work of intergovernmental bodies, he said the Council itself was becoming a platform to test-run politically loaded matters.
UN bodies with human rights mandates should not encroach on matters of international security, development, counter-terrorism and human trafficking. They must also have limits and avoid duplication. The Council’s agenda went beyond its mandate and jurisdiction, he said, expressing alarm at “relentless efforts” to bring up other matters, including issues of sexual orientation and gender identity.
Overstepping its mandate was becoming a typical characteristic of the Council. While welcoming the objectivity of the universal periodic review process, he raised concerns about other worrisome trends that could discredit the work of the United Nations in protecting and promoting human rights.
Speaking on behalf of the African Group, Botswana’s Permanent Representative to the UN in New York, Charles Thembani Ntwaagae emphasized the importance of universality, objectivity and non-selectivity in the Council’s work.
Expressing support for the Council’s agenda item on technical cooperation and capacity building on human rights issues, he stressed that related advisory services should only be issued upon the request of the State concerned, based on its priorities and national ownership and with full respect for sovereignty and political independence.
Deploring all forms of stereotyping, exclusion, stigmatization, prejudice, intolerance, discrimination, hate speech and violence, he expressed deep concern over attempts to introduce and impose new notions and concepts that were not internationally agreed upon, particularly in areas where there was no legal foundation in any international human rights instrument.
The African Group was even more disturbed at attempts to focus on certain persons on the grounds of their sexual interests and behaviours, while ignoring that other types of intolerance and discrimination regrettably still existed.
Spotlighting the Council’s adoption of resolution 32/2 as such an attempt, he expressed concern that such efforts were being pursued to the detriment of issues of paramount importance, such as the right to development.
Alarmed that the Council was delving into matters that fell within the domestic jurisdiction of States, the African Group believed that notions of sexual orientation and gender identity should not be linked to existing international human rights instruments.
Recalling that the Group had tabled a resolution to defer the consideration of resolution 32/2 in order to engage in further discussions on the matter, he reiterated a call for the suspension of the appointed Independent Expert’s activities, pending the determination of clarity on the issue.
However, United States Ambassador Sarah Mendelson emphasized that those issues related to resolution 32/2 clearly belonged on the Council’s agenda. No one should face violence or discrimination because of his or her sexual orientation or gender identity, she said.
Delegations raised other concerns, with some saying they had been unfairly targeted. Israel’s representative Nelly Shilo said special items, politicized debates, preposterous reports and unfounded accusations had characterized the attitude of the Council towards her country.
“Instead of trampling in the political swamp,” she said, “it is crucial that the Human Rights Council finally focus on promoting human rights.” While Israel had faced many security challenges, it remained committed to upholding human rights.
Raising a similar concern, Iran’s Mohammad Reza Ghaebi said it was regrettable that certain countries had been persistent in politicizing the issue of human rights. He urged the Council to firmly maintain its fairness and mutual respect for different religions, values and cultures while refraining from imposing a single lifestyle on others. It was more important to focus on issues such as confronting violent extremism and raising awareness towards the imminent threat of terrorism, he said.
India’s Mahesh Kumar said that intrusive monitoring and finger-pointing while dealing with specific human rights situations was inimical to the Council’s objectives. The Council must continue to strengthen its adherence to principles of universality, transparency, impartiality, objectivity and non-selectivity, bearing in mind the significance of national and regional particularities and historical, cultural and religious backgrounds.
The universal periodic review mechanism provided a forum for non-politicized, non-selective and non-confrontational discussions. The mechanism should not be adjusted, as any such attempt could dilute the universal support it currently enjoyed. Related issues could not be approached in isolation, nor could addressing them ignore the complex relationship between human rights, development, democracy and international cooperation, he said.
The representative of Maldives said that as a small island developing State at the forefront of climate consequences, it had long advocated that the climate change issue and its impact on populations be viewed through a human rights lens. Despite its situation, the island state had maintained a strong presence at the Council. “We are proud to have given a voice to the smallest members of the international community,” Maldives’ representative Aisha Nqeem said.
Underlining the need for the Council to avoid a repeat of the negative practices that had discredited its predecessor, the Human Rights Commission, Deputy Permanent Representative of Cuba to the United Nations, Ambassador Ana Silvia Rodríguez Abascal, expressed regret over the Council’s increasing trend to impose double standards in its consideration of human rights.
“The Council must be rescued from a situation in which selectivity and political manipulation will prevail,” she stressed, noting that the universal periodic review, which was the sole comprehensive mechanism for the consideration of human rights, had distinguished itself from the Human Rights Commission through its respect for the principles of objectivity and non-selectivity.
Emphasising the need for those principles to also be observed by the Council’s special procedures and its treaty bodies, she said that, as long as the current unfair and exclusive international economic and political order continued, the Council must take a stand in favour of equity and democracy. In particular, it must reject such universal and coercive measures such as those Cuba had faced for more than 50 years.