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30th session of the human rights council

Rachel Babecoff, ICJW Representative at the UN in Geneva, reports on the 30th Session of the Human Rights Council from  September 14 - October 3, 2015.

“For most purposes, the World Bank is currently a human rights-free zone. In its operational policies, in particular, it treats human rights more like an infectious disease than universal values and obligation.” Philip Alston, Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights (in a new report on the approach to human rights by the World Bank, the most important international actor on poverty alleviation).

On September 14th, 2015, the Human Rights Council (HRC) of the United Nations opened its thirtieth regular session1 in Geneva, Switzerland. This session was the last one in 2015 and represented more than 130 hours of plenary meetings and over 200 hours of panels or side-events organised by governments or NGOs on extremely specialized issues. Presentations were given by human rights’ experts, special rapporteurs, working groups and forums on various issues.

It was « business as usual » I would say, but always so sad. What a world we are living in…
Highlights included an interactive dialogue with the Commission of inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, a panel discussion on the situation of human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and a panel on the impact of the world drug problem. 

The Working Groups on private military and security companies, and on enforced disappearances presented their reports. An annual discussion on the integration of the gender perspective and a half-day discussion on the rights of indigenous peoples took place. The HRC held interactive dialogues with the Special Rapporteurs (SR) on contemporary forms of slavery, on the rights of older persons and on hazardous wastes. We heard updates on several countries.

Below is a choice of what might be worthwhile for us to know.

As always, the session opened by hearing an address by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, in which he updated the Council on the activities of his Office since last session in June 2015. I think it is an excellent synthesis of where the human rights community stands today and I’d like to quote some extracts :

"Mr President: After a year as UN High Commissioner for Human Rights I, together with many of my colleagues at the Office, feel exhausted and angry. Exhausted, because the system is barely able to cope given the resources available to it, while human misery accelerates. 

From poverty of annihilating proportions in many conflict-ridden areas where peace remains elusive, to the denial of the civil and political rights of peoples trapped between the pincers of ruthless extremists and governments fighting them ; hatred ; bigotry; racism – it all seems too overwhelming. And angry, because it seems that little that we say will change this. To take one utterly shameful example, despite the horrific human rights violations in Syria that have been investigated, enumerated, discussed, we must continue to deplore the international community's failure to act. 

Unless we change dramatically in how we think and behave as international actors – Member States, inter-governmental organizations and non-governmental organizations alike – all of us, in the human rights community, will be inconsequential in the face of such mounting violations.

And yet the selflessness of the finest UN staff (…) working in the most difficult, dangerous, environments to record and report on human rights violations ; and the stunning courage of human rights defenders throughout the world ; the loneliness and pain of refugees and other rights-holding migrants ; the hundreds of millions who suffer from hunger, discrimination, torture – they prevent us from conceding defeat.

We are mindful, also, that some countries in the Middle East – Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey – and in Europe – Germany and Sweden – show commendable humanity and leadership when it comes to hosting refugees and migrants needing protection. And there are millions of ordinary people who in opening their individual homes to refugees and other migrants have also demonstrated remarkable generosity, and a kindness that should be repeated elsewhere. The outpouring of human conscience that surged up following the publication of the photograph of Aylan2, gave evidence for a counter-narrative to the mean-spiritedness of some decision-makers who have been whipping up the baser instincts of their populations. 

And so I implore decision-makers in Africa, the Americas, Asia and the Pacific – as well as Europe – to take swift action to establish effective and principled migration governance. States have a sovereign right to secure their borders, and to determine conditions of entry and stay in their territories. But they also have an obligation to respect international human rights law, refugee law and humanitarian law.

I concur that there is no one swift solution to the terror, the trauma, the deprivation and neglect that drive so many millions of people to leave all that they have, and all they have ever known. To restore human rights in their homelands will take long and focused work. And yes, it is true the people most responsible for their migration are those leaders who have failed to uphold human rights, and robbed their people of hope. 

But what we need from you, the distinguished members of the Human Rights Council, is a pledge to connect what you say here to material action on all fronts. The recommendations of the UPR and all other human rights mechanisms must be implemented; the standing invitations to Special Procedures, broadened; reports to mechanisms and treaty bodies must be accurate and timely; double-standards must be banished, and hypocrisy, recognized. We need your support to assist your countries, as well as others. We need you to accept scrutiny or criticism, and not to withdraw your voluntary contributions because we speak out. 

Ultimately it is you who exercise sovereign authority and bear that responsibility toward your own people. It is you who should be answerable to them – to respect and not fear them ; to serve and not enslave them ; to dignify, and not discredit them. My Office will be there to help where and when we can, upon request, and to comment when we receive information that raises concern. But in this, we are not infringing on the sovereign rights of any country.

The search for truth can do many things, but it does not weaken, violate or assault. But sovereignty is indeed threatened when tyranny in one country flings millions of people into flight and turmoil, and fuels the savagery of extremists who respect no laws or borders.

 Sovereignty is jeopardised when epidemics, unleashed by abject living conditions and failures to ensure health-care, endanger lives everywhere. When leaders responsible for crimes against humanity go unpunished, and a culture of impunity feeds future cycles of violent instability across whole regions. When massive floods and endless droughts, kicked up by climate change, modify every parameter of people’s livelihoods regardless of State frontiers. 

When criminal networks, including human traffickers, are able to operate across countries freely. When corruption and cronyism eat away at the rule of law, the sense of community, the possibility of sustainable development and the legitimacy of government authority. These are factors which truly do endanger the sovereignty of States. Upholding human rights is intrinsic to the obligations of sovereignty, and constitutes the fundamental basis for a healthy State. The voice of human rights is raised in support of your governance – to assist in building societies that are resilient, peaceful and prosperous. Instability is expensive. Conflict is expensive. Offering a space for the voices of civil society to air grievances, and work towards solutions, is free.

When States limit public freedoms and the independent voices of civic activity, they deny themselves the benefits of public engagement, and undermine national security, national prosperity and our collective progress. Civil society – enabled by the freedoms of expression, association and peaceful assembly – is a valuable partner, not a threat. Yet for several years, I and my predecessor have enumerated at this Council States that have taken extremely serious steps to restrict or persecute the voices of civil society. While I will continue to list them, I am devastated to have to report that there are now too many countries on that list for me to name them here today.

The United Nations' 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) constitutes universal recognition that the challenges faced by any one of us may swiftly become crises faced by all. It grasps that these challenges cannot effectively be met by tinkering around the edges of economic, social and political governance, but require a fundamental shift in the dominant development model in all countries. The new Agenda offers real hope for stability, prosperity and conflict prevention. It points to development that is sustainable, equitable for all, environmentally sound, and grounded in human rights. Its promises must be implemented.

In December, the international community will gather for the United Nations Conference on Climate Change, an issue so vast and threatening to peace, prosperity, social justice, and indeed life itself, that it demands we seek solutions together – or face irreparable damage to humanity. Climate change is a threat multiplier, a force that intensifies the likelihood of poverty and deprivation of all kinds ; conflict ; and the precarious migration of people.
On 13 July (2015) I gave Member States a comprehensive briefing on the OHCHR Change Initiative. I emphasized that our planned regional hubs will position the Office to work more closely with Member States, ensuring real universality and facilitating greater support for this Council’s recommendations. The hubs will better balance our work geographically, and they will require no rise in our regular budget resources. In fact, decentralising resources will result in savings that will be reinvested, to strengthen the support we are able to provide. It is in this context that I appeal to Member States to endorse OHCHR’s regular budget proposal for 2016-2017, amounting to $198.7 million. I believe that this budget request should be considered minimal, in regard to the breadth and depth of the work we do, and it reflects a very significant effort to make the Office more efficient and more cost-effective. We count on your Governments to assist (…).

(…) Our lives are connected to one another. Actions and decisions in one country affect many other States ; they shake the lives of many people, no less important and no less human than you and I. When the fundamental principles of human rights are not protected, the centre of our institution no longer holds. It is they that promote development that is sustainable ; peace that is secure ; and lives of dignity. Thank you."

1. Contemporary Forms of Slavery

Ms. Urmila Bhoola, Special Rapporteur8 (SR) on contemporary forms of slavery, noted that global businesses with supply chains involving complicated networks of subsidiaries, franchises, suppliers, contractors and subcontractors were more likely to encounter contemporary forms of slavery. Ms. Bhoola stated that, relating to the question on efficiency of the international legislation to address forms of slavery in global supply chains, there was no universal law to regulate the responsibility of businesses. States played a key role in that respect and had to determine the most appropriate legislative mechanisms.

In the following discussion, speakers said that the effects of globalization and the practices implemented by certain transnational corporations in the labour market had led to a situation where the needs for cheap labour overrode the respect for human rights. It was vital that States in all regions increased their efforts to tackle the appalling scourge of contemporary forms of slavery. Migrants, refugees and children deserved a particular attention because of their vulnerability to slavery. A multi-stakeholder approach, which included businesses, labour unions and governments, such as the Fair Food and the International Cocoa Initiative, were important examples of preventing contemporary forms of slavery in a holistic manner.

2. Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances

In many countries governments have “more information on the number of mobile phones there than on the number of disappeared persons” explained the current Chair of the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances, during the presentation of his annual report. He added that it was very worrisome that, in 2015, the WG continued daily to receive new cases of enforced disappearances. 

The WG was also concerned about the increase in enforced disappearances carried out by non-State actors. They had started processing 384 new cases of enforced disappearances in the past year, and more than 43,000 cases were still unresolved, and this was only the tip of the iceberg.

The WG was working on the relation between migration and enforced disappearances and was interested in looking into the links between human trafficking and enforced disappearances. The chair of the WG said that the world had changed radically since the creation of the Working Group 35 years ago, but that the use of enforced disappearances had unfortunately not changed. The meeting concluded with a discussion involving Estela de Carlotto, one of the founders of the human rights organisation « Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo », who found her grandson 36 years after his abduction by the Argentinian military junta.

3. Use of Mercenaries

The HRC held an interactive dialogue with the Chair of the WG on the use of mercenaries, as a means of violating human rights and impeding the exercise of human rights to self-determination.

The Chair presented a study of national laws regarding private military and security companies, which found that each country included in the study, approached the privatization of the security industry differently, which resulted in patchy and inconsistent regulation. She identified regulatory gaps which might result in serious undermining of the rule of law and the accountability of private military and security companies personnel for violations of the law. 

She stressed that a comprehensive, legally binding international regulatory instrument was the best way to ensure consistent regulation worldwide and adequate protection of the human rights of all affected by the activities of private military and security companies.

4. Rights of Older Persons

In the presentation of her report, Ms. Rosa Kornfeld-Matte, Independent Expert on the rights of older persons, said that the aging of the population raised new questions about the needs and rights of older persons and stressed the importance of autonomy, including judicial capacity, and the existence of a solid system of social protection. The institutionalization of care and related lack of mechanisms for consent and respect for decisions of older people were challenges that persisted. In the ensuing discussion, delegations said that issues of autonomy, care and elder abuse were matters of crucial importance. Challenges that older people faced needed to be addressed accurately, including the challenges faced in humanitarian crises, as elderly were often the most vulnerable. October 1st was designated the International Day of Older Persons.

5. Nationality Rights

We attended two extremely interesting side-events about Nationality Rights. Nationality laws in 27 countries prevent mothers from passing their nationality to their children on an equal basis with fathers. Over 60 countries deny women equal rights with men in their ability to acquire, change and retain their nationality, and to confer nationality to non-national spouses. This discrimination results in a range of other significant human rights violations and suffering for individuals and families, contributing to myriad problems, including : statelessness, lack of public education. health care and other social services, child marriage, gender-based violence, unemployment and poverty. However, over the past decade over a dozen States have enacted reforms to remove gender discrimination from their nationality laws, while many others have committed to reforms through human rights review mechanisms and international meetings. The UNHCR launched a « Global Action Plan to End Statelessness ».

6. Integration of a Gender Perspective in the UN, with a focus on Gender Parity

At the time of the HRC’s establishment11, a principle of full integration of gender perspectives was included. Gender balance was given primary consideration in the selection and appointment of mandate holders, including Special Procedure mandate holders. However, since 2011 there had been a gradual but steady decline in the appointment of female mandate holders. The most drastic decrease has taken place in 2014 when the terms of a significant number of mandate holders ended and new experts were appointed. Women were traditionally appointed as mandate holders in areas that focused on women’s rights, namely violence against women or trafficking. 

It was said that States had to make more efforts to nominate women candidates for election and appointment to the mechanisms of the HRC. However, due to the non-binding nature of the resolutions adopted by the Council, there was no way to assess how States were implementing thematic resolutions, including those dealing with the issue of gender parity. In the interactive discussion that followed, speakers agreed that much remained to be done in achieving gender equality and parity and stressed the prime responsibility of States in combatting discrimination against women in practice and in law.

Women were 40% of the experts seated in the treaty bodies, but one-third of those women were seated on the Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), and many of the others were on the Committee on the Rights of the Child. It almost appeared as though some mandates were reserved to men, including mandates as obviously relevant to women as torture and summary execution, while specific mandates involving children were viewed as almost women-only domains.

7. Disposal of Hazardous Substances and Wastes

Mr. Baskut Tuncak, SR on the implications for human rights of disposal of hazardous substances and wastes, presented his thematic report on the issue of the right to information in the context of hazardous waste. He explained that thousands of different hazardous substances had been used by businesses with inadequate information on their properties and uses, as well as their fate as waste. The production and use of the majority of hazardous substances was unregulated at the international level. Such substances could be found in everyday-life products, and could as a result be found in people, including babies, all over the world, which could cause irreversible and devastating health effects. Rates of cancer, diabetes and other illnesses linked to hazardous substances has been on the rise over the past decades, affecting more importantly children, minorities, indigenous people, workers and low-income communities. 

Solutions required the right to information and the responsibility of businesses, which had the responsibility to develop safer alternatives. Businesses were responsible for identifying and assessing the actual and potential impact of hazardous substances and communicating information to other businesses, governments and the public effectively. He underlined that more than 90 per cent of hazardous waste was illegally traded or dumped, and that information on health implications of a number of chemicals remained largely unavailable.

8. Syria Arab Republic

Presenting the Commission of Inquiry’s report, Mr. Paulo Pinheiro said that Syria had fallen apart before the world’s eyes, the ties that bound a nation together had disintegrated and the shared history of Syria’s diverse communities had been torn apart by this brutal war. Civilians were being victimised on multiple grounds and children were particularly adversely affected. This disintegration was the price of doing nothing made manifest. As the war is heading to its fifth year, the Syrian tragedy has now reached European shores. The profound human suffering, long seen in the hospitals and camps of Syria’s neighbours, was etched on the haggard faces of refugees huddled in European train stations and camping behind razor wire at Schengen borders. This was the spiraling cost of the failure to bring Syria back to peace.

This refugee crisis – having existed for years in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq – was largely driven by the Syrian conflict. The two were inextricably linked and it was impossible to solve one without the other. The Syrian exodus was motivated by the fact that civilians were the primary victims of attack by the warring parties, and indiscriminate and disproportionate attacks were the main cause of civilian casualties.

The failure of States to commit fully to bringing the warring parties to negotiation was a blight on the world’s collective conscience, said Mr. Pinheiro, and far worse was the supply of money, weapons and training bestowed upon belligerents in Syria. States supplying arms had legal, as well as moral obligations, he said, stressing that responsibility for crimes rested with the people who held the weapons, and those who aided and abetted by putting the weapons in their hands, be they State or non-State actors.

Over the past four years, the Commission of Inquiry had provided the Council with detailed information about the crimes being committed by all parties in Syria and it was now time to curb the flow of weapons. The illusion of a military victory had not yet been dispelled and this reasoning was grotesque in the face of a country destroyed and a people crushed by suffering.

For Syria, speaking as the concerned country, the approach adopted by the Commission was far from being non-partial and failed to consider the armed operations of certain countries, such as the sponsoring of armed groups by Turkey, Jordan and Qatar. Saudi Arabia sponsored the so-called Islamic Army, which shelled Damascus, while the United Kingdom and the United States sponsored the so-called moderate opposition forces, which also used civilians as a shield.

9. Democratic People’s Republic of Korea

The HRC held a panel discussion on the situation of human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, with a focus on the issues of international abductions, enforced
disappearances and detentions for political reasons. The High Commissioner provided an oral update on the role and achievements of his Office, including on the field-based structure in Seoul.

In the ensuing interactive dialogue, speakers were disturbed by the catalogue and gravity of human rights violations involved, ranging from rape, forced abortion, infanticide in political prison camps, murder enslavement, enforced disappearances to violation of freedom of religion and belief. It was also noted that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea did not act alone. In the past two decades, many abductions and forced repatriations took place in and from China. China was complicit in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s crimes against returnees and its efforts to ensure silence and impunity for those crimes. As relations between the two Koreas had taken a new turn in recent times, both parties were urged to increase the number of families who were allowed to reunite ; there were still some 66,000 families who were to be reunited.

In its response, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, rejected the panel discussion, « which followed ill-minded political objectives and represented a product of conspiracy of the hostile forces led by the United States pursuing a plot against the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea ».

9. Also in this session:
  • An annual half-day discussion on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, focused on follow-up to the World Conference on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and its outcome document, noting that at the World Conference, States had committed themselves to real action in areas such as the impact of major development projects on indigenous peoples and the participation of indigenous peoples in decision-making. Another key commitment was to step up work to combat violence against indigenous women.

  • A panel discussion on the impact of the world drug problem on the enjoyment of human rights. The Council referred to the first comprehensive report of the High Commissioner on the impact of the world drug problem on human rights, which addressed five main areas : the right to health, the rights relating to criminal justice, the prohibition of discrimination, in particular against ethnic minorities and women, childrens’ rights and the rights of indigenous peoples. The aim of the panel was to understand whether the international conventions in this area were being implemented, and the role of adopted policies in the area. The negative impact of the criminalization of drug use also continues to be of grave concern. The fear of criminal sanctions drive people using drugs away from lifesaving harm reduction services, leading to avoidable infection and premature deaths. The burden of highly disproportionate sentences for drug offences has largely been borne by vulnerable groups (including women and racial or ethnic minorities) and it is deeply concerning that certain States executed drug offenders in ever-increasing numbers.

  • A group of UN human rights experts16 urged the Government of Saudi Arabia to halt the execution of Ali Mohammed al-Nimr, a high school student arrested in 2012 by the Saudi authorities when he was 17, for his participation in Arab Spring protests in Qatif. Al-Nimr was reportedly subjected to torture by the General Investigation Directorate, which coerced him to confess the charges against him. Any judgment imposing the death penalty upon persons who were children at the time of the offence and their execution, are incompatible with Saudi Arabia’s international obligations, the experts said, while recalling the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, to which Saudi Arabia is a party.

  • A general debate on human rights’ situations relating to specific country situations took place, inter alia : Ukraine (since the outbreak of hostilities in eastern Ukraine in mid-April 2014, at least 8,050 people have been killed, and more than 1.5 million people displaced) ; the Democratic Republic of Congo ; Libya ; Sudan ; Cambodia ; Central African Republic (the UN should take all necessary steps to enforce its zero-tolerance policy and improve reporting procedures relating to sexual abuse, including of children, by peacekeepers) ; Somalia and Sri Lanka.

  • Discussions on Israel (infamous item 7 of the agenda) was fortunately a non-event, lasting less than 2.5 hours. All eyes were turned on meetings of the General Assembly in New York and other emergency situations elsewhere in the Middle East.


The Council passed several resolutions on (among others) : Sri Lanka; Syrian Arab Republic; death penalty; use of mercenaries; human rights and unilateral coercive measures; human rights and administration of justice; human rights and indigenous peoples; human rights issues in the context of efforts to end the HIV/AIDS epidemic by 2030; regional arrangements for the promotion and protection of human rights; right to peace ; and rights of peasants and other people working in rural areas. There was no resolution on Israel.

A Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights (Karima Bennoune from United States) ; one member of the Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent (Ahmed Reid from Jamaica) and one member of the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances (Henrikas Mickevicius from Lithuania) were appointed according to geographical areas.

The outcome of the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of 14 countries was adopted, concerning:  Belarus, Liberia, Malawi, Mongolia, Panama, Maldives, Andorra, Bulgaria, Honduras, USA, Marshall Islands, Croatia, Jamaica and Libya.

Side-events attended :
- Meeting between NGOs and Director General of the UN in Geneva.
- Post 2015 and human rights : the challenges and opportunities of implementation.
- Human rights in Maldives.
- Human rights situation in Ukraine.
- Human rigths in the USA.
- Human rights in the Middle East (Iran).
- Child Rights in Saudi Arabia.
- Libya’s UPR : Challenges and Opportunities for Implementation.
- Exil or death : Human Rights Defenders and the need for accountability in Libya.
- Why Burundi’s political crisis is a distress signal for dealing with the past.
- Criminalizing Religious Conversion in Nepal (organised by World Evangelical Alliance)
- Islamophobia, racism and hate in UK.
- Islamophobia in media.
- Challenges of UNRWA funding.
- Local Government and human rights.
- Violence against children in armed conflict situations.
- Achieving Equal Nationality Rights.
- Advancing universal birth registration : how are legislation, conflict and natural disasters hindering global efforts.
- Transgender Rights,
- How to get to 100 – and enjoy it !
- Publication Launch : There are alternatives : community-based protection and support to refugees, asylum-seekers and migrants.
- Screening of the documentary « I am not here » : the human rights of migrant domestic workers in an irregular situation.
- Screening of the award documentary « The man who saved the World » in commemoration of the UN International Day for the Total Elimination of Nuclear Weapon.

Documentation, statements, resolutions and reports relating to this and all Human Rights Council session are available on its webpage:
Detailed, speaker-by-speaker coverage of every public meeting can be found on the webpage of the United Nations Information Service in Geneva.