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human rights council meeting, march 2014

The 25th session of the Human Rights Council took place in Geneva from 3-28 March 2014 and was attended on behalf of ICJW by Rachel Babecoff.
Various and important human rights issues were raised, including reports on several countries, specific problematics like protection of the migrants and the relationship between freedom of expression and freedom of religion, human rights and counter-terrorism, sexual exploitation, violence against children and the fact that human rights defenders worldwide are facing increasing restrictions on their rights to freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly.

Of course we could not attend every meeting and every side-event, but following is a report of the sessions and events we did attend in line with ICJW ‘s objectives.

Migrants’ Rights at the Council

Secretary-General ban Ki-moon opened the twenty-fifth regular session on Monday, March 3, 2014, commencing the four-day High-Level Segment, with a high-level panel discussion on human rights mainstreaming, focusing on the promotion and protection of the human rights of migrants.

Approximately 232 million migrants currently live outside their countries of origin.
With an estimated one out of seven persons on the planet engaged in some form of mobility – across border or within their country – migration is a central component of current population dynamics and is a key enabler for development at the global level. It is interesting to know that in 2012, international migrants sent some USD 400 billion in remittances to their families and communities in developing countries, representing more than three times the level of official development assistance!

Contemporary migration is a multifaceted and complex phenomenon.
It can be temporary or permanent, forced or voluntary, and migrants can travel through regular or irregular channels. Migration affects all regions of the world; migrants move between countries of the global South as well as from developing to developed regions of the world, and migration has an impact on the economy, society and culture of countries of origin, transit and destination.

 While many migrants are able to move, live and work in safety and dignity, others are compelled to move as a result of poverty, lack of decent work, and environmental degradation. Human rights violations, including generalized violence, armed conflict, and persecution too often result in forced migration.

The Durban Declaration and Program of Action recognized that xenophobia against migrants constitutes one of the main sources of contemporary racism and that human rights violations against migrants occur widely in the context of discriminatory, xenophobic and racist practices. This is often reinforced by policies, legislation and regulations to restrict migratory flows, as evidenced by the increasing tendency to criminalize irregular migrants.
However, as the high-level panel has pointed out, at he heart of this phenomenon are individual human beings, all of whom have human rights. A human rights-based approach brings the treatment of migrants as human beings to the center of all policy and dialogue on migration, emphasizing that migration is not merely an economic or political phenomenon, but is a fundamentally human process.

While the Council deliberates a specific agenda item, parallel side-events take place, organized by missions and/or NGOs on the same topic. (Often the side-events are more interesting because there are experts and researchers, and less “diplomatic” speeches).

We attended an interesting side-event on Migration and the Post-2015 Development Agenda, organized by the Permanent Missions of Switzerland and Bangladesh and the Catholic Migration Commission. It made us realize the potential of migrants and migration. Another side-event sponsored by the Mission of Morocco on the The politics of Managing Questions of migration and asylum seeking offered, prior to the panel, a somptuous traditional Moroccan buffet. Often, sandwiches are provided to the participants, especially at lunchtime, but this buffet was exceptional…and certainly drew many people!

Children’s Rights at the Council

1. Access to Justice

Each year the UN Human Rights Council spends one day focusing on children’s rights. The focus of this year’s annual day on the rights of the child was access to justice.
Access to justice for children means that children, or their appropriate advocates, must be able to use and trust the legal system to protect their human rights. It covers every instance in which a child comes into contact with the law, whether the child seeks out the legal system or the legal system seeks out the child.

The barriers children face in accessing justice are well known : justice systems are complex and difficult to understand and are daunting for an adult, let alone a child. The perceived low status of children exacerbates the problems they face. In practice this low status takes the form of a lack of legal capacity to act without parents or representatives, a particularly problematic situation where there is a conflict of interests between a child and parent or where the perpetrator of a violation is within the child’s family environment. The  problem of accessing justice can be exacerbated for particularly vulnerable children, specifically children with disabilities (with albinism, for instance), those from ethnic minorities and girls, not to mention the costs involved in legal assistance. Children’s low status and lack of income means that this is an even higher barrier to them.

Marta Santos Pais, Special Representative for the Secretary-General on Violence against Children said that children must be afforded free legal assistance by professionals especially trained in children’s rights and emphasised the special provisions for children in the UN Principles on Access to Legal Aid, which provide that legal aid should be free of charge, guided by the best interests of the child and available to children when there’s a conflict of interest with their parents.

Courts are a powerful but not exclusive means of challenging children’s rights violations. Non-judicial means of challenging violations, which may be less intimidating, were also discussed in the Council (depending on their specific mandates, ombudspeople can be empowered to investigate complaints, conduct hearings and inspections on site, and support actions in the court if necessary).

2. Sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography

“I continue to be mad at the level of social tolerance on sexual tourism against children. I am mad that some try to justify it”, stated the Special Rapporteur on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography, Najat Maalla M’jid, as she delivered her final report to the Human Rights Council. (It was the last time for many of the special procedures rapporteurs presenting their reports during this 25th session of Council, as an unprecedented number of them were replaced towards the end of the session. This was, inter alia, the case of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967, the controversial Richard Falk, who after a-six-year mandate had to be replaced).

Ms M’jid spoke about the “major problems” surrounding access to justice in a world without borders - the internet - where new forms of child sexual exploitation continue to emerge and spread across the web. Millions of children worldwide are still victims of sexual exploitation .The sexual exploitation of children on the Internet is increasing at an alarming rate, the images are increasingly violent and the children younger and younger; while online solicitations for sex are increasing dramatically.  Trafficking of children for sexual exploitation is growing, primarily affecting girls.  Sex tourism involving children is rampant in the world with destination countries changing rapidly.  With regard to child prostitution and the sale of children, including for illegal adoption, organ transfer and forced labour, the lack of quantitative data does not mean that those phenomena are declining.

Justice is not sufficiently adapted to children, or to tackle corruption and impunity.  
Preventive measures does not take into account all risk factors.  The Special Rapporteur recommended legislation be strengthened, policies be reviewed to take into account the evolution of phenomena in an increasingly connected world.  Calling for strengthened support for her mandate, the Special Rapporteur stressed the importance of formulating concrete recommendations focused on action.  Because of the multidimensional nature of the sale and sexual exploitation of children and its links with other phenomena such as migration and the development of the Internet, it was important that the mandate cooperated not only with human rights and child rights mechanisms but also the private sector, particularly Internet and telecommunications, and tourism and travel service providers.

On Friday 7 March, ICJW co-sponsored an interesting side-event on Child Sexual Exploitation – Creative Prevention, Advocacy and Healing, and was able to provide a extremely well known panelist, Ms Lorella Bertani,  a Swiss lawyer specialised in legal advocacy in child trafficking and pornography. The others co-sponsors were: Marche Blanche; Prevent Child Sexual Exploitation & Trafficking; Innocence in Danger Worldwide; National Association of Women’s Organizations; Les collectif des Femmes Africaines du Hainaut; Inter-African Committee; The Peace Fighters; Ariel Foundation International; Ariana-Leilani Children’s Fondation International.
The side-event was very well-attended and ICJW received lots of positive feedback –emails- from many NGOs.

3. Children in Armed conflict

The plight of children in armed conflicts received much attention during this March 2014 session, with the ongoing conflict in Syria dominating. Torture, killing, wounding, arrest and detention (including with adults), lack of healthcare, denial of education, recruitment and sexual violence are all part of it.

The Special Representative of the Secretary-General for children and armed conflict (SRSG), Leila Zerrougui, presented her annual report and spoke about a campaign her office has launched with the UN agency. Children not soldiers seeks to galvanise support to end and prevent the recruitment and use of children by national security forces by 2016. The eight countries the campaign will support are: Afghanistan, Chad, Democratic Republic of Congo, Myanmar, Sudan, South Sudan, Somalia and Yemen. Ms Zerrougui also mentioned the importance of not forgetting the role of non-state actors.

Side-events concerning childrens’ rights that we attended

1.    Child Marriage, Too Young to Wed

-    It concerns 13.5 million girls each year
-    It affects girls of all religions, of all the races  and from all the countries,
-    Poverty is the major issue
-    Forced marriage is a major abuse, a gross violation of human rights and communities must be held accountable

Keeping in mind that there are no quick and easy solutions for this sensitive issue, a few proposals:
1.    Collecting better data (Where? When? How?)
2.    Strengthening legal frameworks
3.    Proposing alternative for girls to marriage (School - not only primary but also secondary! The World Food Program, for instance, gives food to families if the families keep their daughter at school).
4.    Empowering girls (safe space, family planning, economical opportunities)
5.    Work with communities (religious leaders, men, boys)

2. Child sexual exploitation during major sports events

Looking ahead to the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil, this side event, led by Najat Maalla M’jid, the Special Rapporteur on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography, explored the risks to children associated with major sports events, as well as ways to protect children in the context of such events.

Sport events increase the risks of exploitation of children, including child sex tourism, child prostitution, child trafficking and child pornography, however little data exists concerning these risks. While child trafficking and exploitation have received the most attention, issues such as displacement, construction and labour issues require a greater focus.

There are good practices emerging, as well as practical initiatives such as smartphone apps, hotlines and public facilities aimed at providing information on potential violations, and directing children and others to relevant authorities and services. The panel members emphasised the need for long-term campaigning on this issue.

3. Children and the Conflict in Syria

According to the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for children and armed conflict, Leila Zerrougui, the situation in Syria has deteriorated, disproportionately affecting civilians, including children. There have been more than 10,000 deaths of children in Syria since the outbreak of the conflict in March 2011; over three million children are internally displaced persons (IDPs), and the conflict has created 2.5 million refugees. Violations of human rights in Syria, including children’s rights, are rife, with children facing rape, mutilation, arbitrary detention, and torture, as well as being recruited as soldiers and used as human shields. In particular, the rights of children to education and healthcare have been heavily affected. Half of the 4.8 million children of school age in Syria are out of school; and one in five schools in Syria are no longer in use because they have been damaged in the conflict or are sheltering internally displaced persons (IDPs). There is a lack of food and medicine in besieged areas, with many children suffering malnutrition.

4.  Children with Albinism

People with albinism face extreme levels of violence, discrimination and exclusion all over the world, but especially in Africa. Horrific cases of killing, maiming and exclusion of children with albinism were just some of the rights abuses discussed at this side event. A video presentation from Navi Pillay, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, was delivered, in which she mentioned that her office receives hundreds of complaints  of violations of the human rights of children with albinism. Societies with entrenched beliefs laced with superstition and a lack of awareness about the condition mean that respect for the human rights of people with albinism remains elusive, despite growing exposure at the international level with the first resolution on the issue passed at the Human Rights Council last year.

C. Womens’ Rights at the Council

1.    Honor Diaries (Side-event)

We attended the first European screening of the new, award-winning film “Honor Diaries”. This film brought together an international group of women’s rights activists (Muslim or of Arab origin) to examine the impact of the concept of  “honor” on the rights of women and girls world-wide. We did not know, then, that ICJW NY co-sponsored a side-event during the CSW58 (in New York), presenting the same film!!!!!! The president of Muslims Facing Tomorrow, Mrs Raheel Raza, an extraordinary woman who appeared often in the movie, and the producer, Mrs Paula Kweskin, attended the panel and answered questions.
We decided to ask for a copy in order to present it to the CSW-Geneva, especially to the sub-group (to which Rachel belongs), researching and writing 10 Advocacy Briefs on Violence Against Women as several of the themes appeared in the movie.

2.    Can Women’s Rights and Gender Equality Shape the New Constitutions in the MENA Region? (MENA : Middle East and North Africa) (Side event)

This panel, with fascinating and extremely clever panelists, was organized by WILPF (Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom). The speakers were:
-    Zahra Langhi, from Libya
-    Radhia Ben Hadj Zekri, from Tunisia
-    Amal Basha, from Yemen
It is very interesting to see, through several side-events of this session, and previous HRC sessions, that Muslim and/or Arab women are speaking out (after their initial participation in the uprising of the “Arab spring” and after being more or less marginalized, depending on the countries). They are fiercely criticizing and denouncing themselves the societies they live in. It is the first time that I heard so many of their voices, and so loud!

D. Minority Issues at the Council

Rita Izsák, the United Nations Independent Expert on minority issues  said that millions of people belonging to national, ethnic, religious and linguistic minorities worldwide were trapped in a cycle of discrimination, exclusion, poverty and underdevelopment from which they could not break free without targeted attention being given to their situations.
“Disadvantaged minorities should be among the first targets of development strategies, yet too often they have been among the last,” she stressed. The expert’s report singles out lack of attention to the situation of minorities as one of the most serious deficiencies of the United Nations Millennium Development Goals (UNMDG).
Ms. Izsák also reminded that growing inequalities together with poor governance seriously endanger the peace and stability of societies.  She noted the impact on minorities of new and ongoing conflicts, including in Central African Republic, Myanmar, South Sudan and Syria, and pointed to factors including the impact of the global financial crisis on minorities.

Ms. Izsák also presented the recommendations of the Forum on Minority Issues at its sixth session, which took place  in November 2013 (Rachel attended the two-days Forum, which was specifically oriented towards religion that year), noting that the importance of protecting religious minorities was recognised by international law.  Violations of the rights of religious minorities included administrative barriers and other obstacles.  

E. Israel’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR)

Part of the session was taken up with consideration of the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) outcomes for the following States reviewed at the UPR Working Group’s session in October and November 2013 (in order of review) : Saudi Arabia, Senegal, China, Nigeria, Mexico, Mauritius, Jordan, Malysia, Central African Republic, Israel, Belize, Chad, Monaco, Congo and Malta.

Israel’s  review was conducted in the absence of the Israeli delegation, due to a strike in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, but on the basis of a letter that was read out. The letter said that Israel had carefully reviewed the 237 recommendations received during its second cycle of the Universal Periodic Review (UPR), held on 29 October 2013. Following the Working Group’s report, relevant Government Ministries, as well as civil society organizations were consulted in the process of drafting the replies to each of the observations and recommendations received.  As a result, Israel had been able to support 105 recommendations, either in whole or in part. Israel apologized for the absence and renewed assurance of its highest consideration.

During the discussion, speakers (States and NGOs) regretted that Israel had been unable to send a delegation to participate in the discussion but some of them pointed out that, given the strike, Israel’s absence could not be characterised as a failure to cooperate with the Council (which was the case before Israel’s UPR in October 2013, for almost two years. See our previous reports).

Delegations noted that previous recommendations had not been implemented and that all recommendations concerning the State of Palestine had been rejected.  Some speakers were concerned that Israel’s national report omitted any reference to the human rights situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT), where rules of international humanitarian and human rights law applied. Some NGOs said that Israel had failed to hold military personnel accountable for human rights violations in the Occupied Palestinian Territories and that Israel continued to build new settlements on a different regime than the one imposed on Palestinians.  They urged Israel  to cease houses demolitions and forced evictions.They were also concerned about the arbitrary detention of Palestinians and asylum seekers.

Also, due to the strike, the Israeli delegation did not attend the item 7 of the General Agenda of the Human Rights Council, when the OPT are discussed.

Respectfully submitted,
Rachel Babecoff
ICJW representative to the UN, Geneva
April 18th, 2014