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human rights council 26th session - june 2014

Rachel Babecoff reports on the 26th session of the Human Rights Council at the UN in Geneva from 10-27 June 2014.

The Human Rights Council (HRC) is an inter-governmental body within the United Nations system made up of 47 States which are responsible for strengthening the promotion and protection of human rights around the globe. The Council was created by the United Nations General Assembly on 15 March 2006 with the main purpose of addressing situations of human rights violations and making recommendations on them. (it was known previously as the Commission and the Sub-commission on Human Rights).

As always, various and important human rights issues were raised at the 26th Human Rights Council (HRC) during the June 2014 session. These included specific problematics and reports on several countries. As the agenda was so packed it was obviously impossible to attend each and every meeting and side-event. Nevertheless, below are what I consider the highlights of this 26th session.

The HRC opened its regular session with an address from the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Ms. Navi Pillay, updating the HR Council on her Office’s activities. It marked the last time she did so before stepping down as High Commissioner on August 31st. Mr. Zeid Ra’ad Zeid Al-Hussein, currently the Permanent Representative of Jordan to the UN in New York, has been appointed to succeed her for a four-year term.

1. Safety of journalists
It is frightening to consider that, although the safety of journalists is simply essential to the civil and political rights, more than 1,000 journalists have been killed since 1992 as a direct result of their profession and, sadly, 2012 and 2013 are amongst the deadliest years. At least 15 had been killed since the start of this year. In many states, the perpetrators can virtually count on impunity.

2. Rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association.
People with disabilities, youth, women, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex persons, members of minority groups, indigenous people, internally displaced persons, and non-national persons, including refugees, asylum seekers and migrant workers…the list of marginalized groups ‘most at risk’ is long and the challenges they face worldwide in exercising, or seeking to exercise their assembly and association rights are enormous.
According to the Special Rapporteur (SR) on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and association, Mr. Maina Kiai, some States are taking advantage of their legitimate obligation to regulate areas such as counter-terrorism to target the activities of marginalized groups. Moreover, surveillance tactics ostensibly designed to prevent criminal activity are often used selectively to target certain groups who plan to stage
peaceful assemblies.

The UN Human Rights experts, including the Special Rapporteurs, are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the HRC. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in UN Human Rights, is the general name of the independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms of the HRC that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world.

They are charged by the HRC to monitor, report and advise on human rights issues. Currently, there are 37 thematic mandates and 14 mandates related to countries and territories, with 72 mandate holders. In March 2014, three new mandates were added. Special Procedures experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.)

3. Contemporary forms of racism on the Internet and social media

The SR on Contemporary forms of Racism, Mr. Mutuma Ruteere, highlighted the issue of racism on the Internet and social media, while warning that the rise of extremist political parties and groups poses a threat to democracy and human rights.

He urged States to observe their obligations under the International Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, and to regulate the Internet and social media responsibly. However, he cautioned that States must also bear in mind the protection of other fundamental rights such as the right to freedom of expression and opinion.

The SR noted that civil society actors frequently collaborate to defend the rights of victims of racism but he called on Internet service providers and social media platforms to “issue clear and transparent policies regarding racism, xenophobia, and other hate speech and to include them in their terms of service.”

Considering the number of stakeholders involved in issues relating to the Internet, social media, and racism, Mr Ruteere emphasized the importance of establishing clear responsibilities and roles.

Mr. Ruteere also submitted a report which reviews the latest developments in the human rights and democratic challenges posed by neo-Nazis, skinhead groups and similar extremist political movements.

The report identifies the main areas of concern where consistent vigilance against racist and xenophobic crimes is required. It calls for additional efforts to combat the rise in extremist groups, and highlights good practices developed by States and other stakeholders. Extremists continue to blame vulnerable groups for society’s problems and incite intolerance and violence against them, the SR warned. Stakeholders need to ensure better protection for victims and prevents future crimes.

“Prompt, thorough and impartial investigations are the first step in the fight against impunity.” Mr Ruteere stated. “Political leaders and democratic parties must condemn messages based on racial superiority ».

3. Migrants

Migration has become one of the most challenging issues of our time which is why the issue reappears frequently during the sessions of the HRC.

The report presented by Mr. François Crépeau, SR on the human rights of migrants was based (like most of the reports) on information received while meeting with migrant workers during country visits, and complaints continuously received from migrants themselves, civil society organizations and other sources on their behalf.

A major pull factor for migration is the need for migrant labour in destination States. Migrants, especially irregular migrants or migrants with a precarious administrative status, are often willing to do the ‘dirty, difficult and dangerous’ jobs that nationals would not, at the exploitative wages that unscrupulous employers would offer. Migrants are sometimes accused, including in the public debate, of ‘stealing’ jobs by accepting lower wages and poor working conditions. However, States seem to invest very few resources in trying to reduce the informal sector and sanction employers who profited from exploitative working conditions to boost their competitiveness. Fighting labour exploitation of migrants by sanctioning exploitative employers would contribute greatly to reducing the size of the underground labour markets that is a key pull factor of irregular migration.

Confiscation of documents is another big problem. Lack of familiarity with local laws and language difficulties frequently prevented migrants from being aware of specific hazards in their work. Migrant domestic workers, the majority of whom are women and girls, are extremely vulnerable to violence and abuse. Access to justice is an illusion for many migrants and certainly for most irregular migrants.

In concluding remarks, the UN independent expert said that the support of the private sector in the development of policies for taking in migrant workers and protecting their rights was essential in developing a positive narrative which would help counter the increasing populist attitudes. From the recruitment phase to the return of migrants to their countries of origin, migrants had to be able to access national human rights institutions and the justice system without fear of being persecuted. Countries of origin also had a responsibility in that respect, and should provide their citizens with tools to voice their grievances. 

There is a daunting challenge in dealing with migration at the international level, while embracing the growing mobility as an asset and not as a threat.
Adding on to this, on June 13th 2014, a group of Special Rapporteurs (on Slavery, Migrants,Trafficking,Sale and sexual exploitation of Children, and Internally Displaced persons) welcomed the adoption by the International Labour Conference of a legally binding international Protocol to respond to today’s challenge of forced labour worldwide. 

This new Protocol, an addition to the Forced Labour Convention from 1930 (Co29), addresses existing gaps and strengthens the body of instruments on forced labour, including child labour, trafficking in persons, slavery and slavery-like practices, and related human rights violations. It will hopefully assist more than 20 million people who are victims of forced labour today.

Side-events on migration, such as « Migration in Dignity and Security » or « Slaving Away, Migrant Labor exploitation and Human Trafficking in the Gulf » were extremely interesting as they denounced dreadful human situation.

4. Trafficking in persons

Available information on trafficking in persons for the removal of organs is often unverified, the SR on Trafficking in Persons, Ms. Joy Ngozi Ezeilo, said during the presentation of her latest report “however, emerging forms of trafficking in persons such as trafficking for the removal of organs do in fact occur in many parts of the world and are not rare”. The nature and scope of trafficking in persons have significantly expanded in the past decades, and it is now widely accepted that women, men, boys and girls are trafficked and that the forms of trafficking are as varied as the potential for profit or other personal gains.

According to the International Labour Organization, more than USD 51 billions are generated by human trafficking caused by forced economic exploitation, including domestic work, agriculture and other economic activities. Other emerging and less well-known forms of trafficking need to be addressed, such as illicit recruitment practices, trafficking in men for forced and exploitative labour, trafficking for forced begging and criminal activities, trafficking for forced or servile marriage

The SR highlighted, among other challenges, the need for a more cohesive interpretation of what constituted trafficking in persons, strengthening accountability of State and non-State actors, including civil society, in anti-trafficking efforts, improving compliance mechanisms, and closing the gap between the obligations and implementation in practice.

I also attended several side-events on the issue, such as « Fighting Trafficking in Human Beings » and « Protecting and Safeguarding the Human Rights of Children ».

5. Women
a. Violence against women

The SR on Violence against Women, Ms. Rashida Manjoo, noted that the absence of a legally binding agreement at the international level to address violence against women, and the shift from gender specificity to gender neutrality in States’ responses to violence against women were among the main challenges to be addressed. Her report highlighted other continuing challenges, including the persisting public/private dichotomy in responses to violence against women; the failure of States to act with due diligence; and the lack of transformative remedies to address the root causes of violence against women. She also pointed out that the current austerity measures have had a disproportionate impact, not only in the availability and quality of services for women and girls victims of violence, but more generally, in areas such as poverty reduction measures, employment opportunities and benefit schemes.

b. Full-day discussion on women
The HRC held its annual full-day discussion on Women’s Rights with two panel debates.

The first panel « The Impact of Gender Stereotypes on the Recognition and Enjoyment of Women’s Human Rights » observed that almost every State in the past few decades had acknowledged women’s equality – in principle. Yet it was rarely fully realised. One problem constituted the lack of real commitment from decision makers, but another obstacle stemmed from deep-seated gender stereotypes about women’s supposedly proper attributes, characteristics or place in the family and society. This phenomenon has been amplified by information and communication techniques; however these vehicles were a double-edged sword and could also contribute to combatting prejudice. Gender mainstreaming was key and measures had be taken to organize and evaluate policy processes to ensure that gender perspectives were included at all stages.
The second panel discussion focused on « Women’s Human Rights and the Sustainable Development Agenda ». Speakers recognized that sustainable development had to be grounded in human rights principles of equality and non-discrimination. Inequalities were not just problems for the people whose lives were most affected, but had broader consequences for society and harmed all.

6. Countries

a. Syrian Arab Republic
Mr. Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, Chairperson of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria, said that the conflict had reached a tipping point, threatening the entire region. Violence had escalated to an unprecedented level, and impunity was prevalent. Attempts to reach a negotiated political settlement appeared to have been abandoned. Influential States had turned away from the work required for a political solution and some continued to deliver arms, artillery and aircraft to the Syrian Government, or supported armed groups with weapons and financial support.

He said in concluding remarks that the Commission did not take sides in this conflict and the only side it took, was that of the victims. The list of perpetrators remained confidential until judicial authority was in place and it was now up to the international community to assist the work of the Commission by opening up roads towards international justice.
I attended a fantastic side event, not particularly on Syria but more generally on « Human Rights & Progressive Islam, and, as I wrote in my last report : things do change in the Muslim world and we hear more and more voices, often of women, denouncing their own harsh reality.

b. Eritrea
Among human rights situations that require the Council’s attention is Eritrea.
Althought the Ambassador of Eritrea said that the decision to ratify a number of international instruments were a sign of Eritrea’s commitment to implement recommendations accepted earlier, the characterization of Eritrea as an “emergency State” says it all.

An interactive dialogue was held with the SR on the Situation of Human Rights in Eritrea, Ms Sheila B. Keetharuth. Introducing her report, she called upon the Council and the international community to address the recurrent human rights violations in Eritrea, which spawned a monthly exodus of 2,000 people to neighbouring Ethiopia alone, and almost 2,000 persons to Sudan in May 2014. 

The mass flight of Eritreans, young and old, would subside if the cycle of impunity for persistent human violations was broken. The SR called upon the Government to end the indefinite national service, stop the militarization of secondary education, and close all secret detention facilities. Speakers in general were worried by the human rights violations committed in the framework of the national military service, including the indefinite extension of conscription, allegations of forced labour and the forced-conscription round-ups, recruitment of minors, and sexual violence against women in the service.

Following a side-event on « Human Rights in Eritrea, the Impact of Gross Human Rights Violations on Vulnerable Group within Eritrean Society » I was in total shock, although I knew that the number of Eritrean asylum seekers in Switzerland is the highest (in proportion) and that I have been working with this population for a long time. I had never realised the scale of the violations…

c. Israel

Almost all states and NGOs are deeply concerned by the ongoing Israeli settlement expansion in the Palestinians Occupied Territories, including in East Jerusalem. Many remain especially concerned by the hundreds of Palestinians administratively detained by Israel without being charged (administrative detention), the demolition of houses and the bulldozing of land, the control of natural resources, the air raids and the extra-judicial killings.

Some speakers said that the continued violations of the rights of the Palestinians by Israel in the full view of the international community confirmed the need for item 7 to remain on the agenda of the HRC and said that it was regrettable that some EU delegations had decided to cease their participation on this agenda item.These delegations review now Israel under item 4 (under which Human Rights violations of ALL countries are examined –the Syian Arab Republic and Eritrea for instance-) and which is considered by Israel as a victory.

As was explained in previous reports, Israel suspended its relationship with the HRC two years ago, denouncing unfair treatment, having an item of its own, item 7 and came back the 29th of October 2013 for its UPR- Universal Periodic Reiew. The item 7 was not cancelled, but it seemed that there were “accomodations” with western countries to take the floor under item 4 and not longer under item 7).

7. Conclusions

The HRC concluded its session by adopting 34 texts on a wide range of issues as well as its report for the session. Among the adopted texts, the Human Rights Council :
  • Addressing the continuing grave deterioration in human rights and the humanitarian situation in Syria, demanded that the Syrian authorities cooperate fully with the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria, and condemned all violence.
  • Condemned the widespread violations of human rights committed by the Eritrean authorities, extended the mandate of the Special Rapporteur for one year, and established a commission on inquiry on human rights violations in Eritrea.
  • Adopted a resolution on the promotion, protection and enjoyment of human rights on the Internet, affirming that the same rights that people enjoyed offline had also to be protected online, in particular the freedom of expression.
  • Decided to create a mandate of a Special Rapporteur on the rights of persons with disabilities, for a period of three years.
  • Recommended that the General Assembly proclaim 13 June as the International Albinism Awareness Day.
Other adopted resolutions concerned, inter alia, the negative impact of corruption on the enjoyment of human rights; the question of the death penalty; accelerating efforts to eliminate all forms of violence against women; the elimination of discrimination against women; the promotion of the right of migrants to enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health; the protection of Roma worldwide; human rights and arbitrary deprivation of nationality; human rights and the regulation of civilian acquisition, possession and use of firearms; and the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health.

Finally, during the session, the HRC approved outcomes of the Universal Periodic Reviews (UPC) of (in order of review) : New Zealand, Afghanistan, Chile, Uruguay, Yemen, Vanuatu, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Comoros, Slovakia, Eritrea, Cyprus, Dominican Republic, Viet Nam and Cambodia.

Respectfully submitted,
Rachel Babecoff
ICJW representative to the UN, Geneva
July 20th, 2014