UN Human Rights Council Witnesses ‘Turning Point’


By Frédéric Burnand

Despite some jolts, the democratic uprising in the Arab world has yielded its first results at the United Nations Human Rights Council.

The organisation’s 16th session came to a close in Geneva on Friday with agreement on sending an independent commission to investigate killings and other crimes in Ivory Coast, which is on the verge of civil war.

The 47-member forum unanimously approved a resolution put by Nigeria on behalf of African countries which condemned atrocities and called for a halt to the violence.

“This session marks a significant turning point and shows the council’s ability to cope with crises in real time,” Eileen Donahoe, the United States representative at the council, told a media conference.

Until last year, the Human Rights Council struggled to convince people that it was doing any better than the discredited UN Commission on Human Rights, which it replaced in 2006.

Since becoming members in 2009 of a body that they it previously boycotted, the US under President Barack Obama has pushed with all its weight to break deadlocks facing the organisation, dominated by states which are reluctant – not to say hostile – to any progress on human rights.

At the same time it has joined other countries in putting forward resolutions.

This line, followed by Switzerland since 2006, increasingly results in the smoothing out of interregional confrontations that have blocked the council from the outset.

“Palpable change”

The democratic claims brandished in the majority of Arab regimes – even if to date only two have removed their dictators – is strengthening this movement and shaking the negative role played by certain states at the heart of the council, in particular those from North Africa.

Libya has just seen itself be suspended from the council, following a special session devoted to it ahead of the main session.

Algeria is henceforth the only north African state not to have changed line at Geneva.

“Tunisia, where there’s been a very strong movement in favour of human rights and which has already adopted a series of international conventions in this area, has invited the High Commissioner for Human Rights to open an office in Tunis to strengthen the implementation of these rights,” Adrien-Claude Zoller, director of the non-governmental organisation Geneva for Human Rights, told swissinfo.ch.

Although Egypt is represented by the same diplomats as it was under Hosni Mubarak [the former president who stood down in February after 30 years], it has changed its tone.

“The change is palpable,” Zoller said. “Its diplomatic service, which is coordinating a movement of non-aligned people, is using a language significantly less radical or conservative.”


This reorientation of diplomacy in Egypt is also having an effect on another very conservative organisation at the heart of the council: the Organization of Islamic Conference (OCI).

Egypt is one of the pillars of the OCI, alongside Pakistan, a country itself weakened by internal trouble, particularly the murder of high-ranking Christians.

As a result, the desire of the OCI to impose a condemnation for religious defamation, by linking it to the defence of freedom of opinion, came to nothing when a new resolution on the subject was put forward.

Africa in isolation

And that’s not all. With the winds of democracy blowing over North Africa, the African group is in the process of losing its voices within the council. These diplomats were the tools used to defend the negative positions of African countries, according to Adrien-Claude Zoller.

“These states are showing signs of panic. To maintain the cohesion of the group, they have a tendency to harden their position further,” he said.

“In one of the projects for a resolution concerning the Democratic Republic of Congo, they wrote that the council should no longer involve itself with the country even though atrocities were continuing to be perpetrated.”

But there are signs of hope. Nigeria, with the African group, put forward a resolution to send a mission to inquire into atrocities committed in Ivory Coast where fighting and violence has steadily worsened since the refusal of President Laurent Gbagbo to step down following his electoral defeat.

Civil societies in Geneva

The effects of the Arab world’s calls for democracy are far from revealing their full impact, including on the rest of the world.

But whatever the result of this revolutionary movement, it powerfully confirms the fact that human rights are universal – and people are ready to die for them.

As proposed by several participants during a recent meeting to discuss the future of International Geneva, Geneva and Switzerland should enable civil societies from around the world to have more of a voice, either on the fringe of or within the Human Rights Council.

This, it was agreed, would be a means of reinforcing the specific nature of International Geneva.
(Translated from French by Thomas Stephens)


swissinfo is an enterprise of the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation (SBC). Its role is to inform Swiss living abroad about events in their homeland and to raise awareness of Switzerland in other countries. swissinfo achieves this through its nine-language internet news and information platform.

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