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report from the human rights council in geneva

Rachel Babecoff, ICJW representative to the UN in Geneva, reports on t he 24th session of the Human Rights Council (September 9-27, 2013)
After an absence of several years, I am back at the Human Rights Council in Geneva, and I am very excited and happy to join Léonie and Mary Liling.  From 1999 to 2007, I represented ICJW at the UN in Geneva, with Leila Seigel and Léonie de Picciotto. 
To my report on this session, I added some personal impressions on the significant changes that have taken place at the “Palais des Nations”. 

During the 24th session of the Human Rights Council, I heard presentations from 19 independent human rights experts and attended numerous panels and discussions, either at the HRC plenaries or at side-events. The range of topics is overwhelming, mostly thematic but also country related: the annual discussions on gender integration; the special Representative of the Secretary-General for children and armed conflicts; the  report of the Working Group on the use of mercenaries; the report of the Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery; the interactive dialogue on the promotion of truth, justice, reparation and guaranties of non-recurrence; and… the latest report of the Commission of Inquiry on Syria! 
The 47-member body also approved the outcomes of the Universal Periodic Reviews (UPR) of several countries and held general debates, according to the Council’s agenda.  The same agenda items are reviewed at the three yearly sessions (March, June and September), every year. 

I am an “old hand” at human rights, however, in this session, I discovered a new approach towards Human Rights: rights of children of parents sentenced to the death penalty or executed; right to access truthful archives; human rights and femicide; human rights and the internet (the launch by the Office of the High Commissioner on H.R. of a database to combat racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance, for instance); rights of older persons as well as of albinos. 

The whole concept of human rights is becoming very specific and increasingly complex. Every basic right interacts with a multitude of other rights (civil, social, economic, cultural rights) in a rapidly changing world. 
In addition to the plenary sessions (6 hours, sometimes 9 hours a day), we tried to attend the increasing number of side-events, informal meetings, organized by permanent missions (representations of governments), and non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Often, these informal meetings are co-organized by NGOs and states representatives, thus highlighting the role of civil society as an important partner! 

Nowadays, these informal meetings take place all day long, while previously, they were held during the lunch break of the plenary sessions. This is due to the huge increase in the number of side events and their importance. Often we decide to miss the plenary sessions so as to attend these small informal meetings, with highly qualified panelists and possibilities for Q & A, very useful for networking! Moreover, a number of special UN websites relate to the HRC sessions: agendas, reports, references, press releases in several languages. It is even possible to follow the sessions at home. In other words, working conditions have completely changed. 

Last but not least, item 7 of the HRC agenda, which all Jewish NGOs dread: "Israel bashing day", we call it. Whatever one’s opinion about the Israeli government’s policy, this singling out of Israel is unbearable. Israel is the only state, which has an agenda item of its own (item 7: Human rights situation in Palestine and other occupied territories) out of 193 member states of the UN. These 193 states are all dealt with, if necessary, under one single agenda item, (item 4: Human Rights situations that require the Council’s attention).Why?   
Israel faces another discrimination at the UN. Without membership in a geographical group (there are 5, none wants Israel !), which do  select and appoint experts and other important UN officials, Israel is denied not only the right to elect but also the right for her citizens  to be eligible. 

Last year in March, Israel suspended its relationship with the Human Rights Council, saying Israel would come back when two conditions would be met: to be reviewed under item 4 (like all other countries) and to be included in a geographical group. 

One of the key elements of the Council is the UPR (Universal Periodic Review) that calls upon all States, to fully uphold all human rights and fundamental freedoms.  Under item 6 of the agenda of the Human Rights Council, each state is called upon, in turn, to declare how their governments implement and improve the human rights instruments in their countries.    

Having suspended relations with the HCR, Israel was not present for her UPR , an unprecedented event that was widely denounced. It has been postponed from January to October 29, 2013. So far, Israel has not yet declared its intention whether or not it will attend in October. 

Bearing all these facts in mind, the statements during that plenary meeting, even those by Islamic or Arab countries did surprise us when item 7 came up, with a totally new mood:  all of them mentioned two states, with the 1967 borders and east Jerusalem as the capital of the Palestinian state. Might this be due to the ongoing peace talks? (though they were rarely mentioned). All the countries that took the floor were very careful about using the words “Palestinian people” and not mentioning the names of the Palestinian Authority or of Hamas. 

A small victory of this session, and maybe not a small one, but certainly the result of some successful Israeli diplomacy: the E.U. countries did not take the floor under item 7! they spoke of Israel under item 4.   

However, this was not the case for the side events, extremely harsh towards Israel. It is also interesting to note that ICJW was, regrettably, the only Jewish NGO present at these meetings – and to take the floor. 

At one of these side-events (Israeli’s non-cooperation with the Human Rights Council), I asked questions about item 7. As a representative of a Jewish NGO in this hostile environment is not always easy, yet it was worthwhile because both, the representative of the Palestinian mission in Geneva and the representative of the EU, separately, invited me for a cup of coffee, afterwards. Mary spoke at another side-event (Palestinian Refugees in Diaspora and their Right of Return, where to?) referring to Security Council Resolution 242. It was not properly answered. Nevertheless, we -  ICJW representatives- were seen and heard. 

Léonie co-signed a joint statement with the Mothers’ Legacy Project, under Item 8 in the Vienna Declaration and Program of Action to the 24th Regular Session of the UN Human Rights Council. 

Overall it was a good session for ICJW: we were there and visibly there at this fall session of the HRC.  All of us (Léonie, Mary and myself) think that personal contacts are the key to building bridges between women, in the UN and in the world, and to support human rights.