Preparation for the new Human Rights Council

INTERFAITH INTERNATIONAL writes today: Here is a report of the meeting called by the High Commissioner for Human Rights (Ms. Louise Arbour) on 21 April 2006 at Geneva United Nations to explain the new Human Rights Council (HRC) and to prepare for it. Ambassador Arias (Panama) was present. He is the associate to Mr. Jan Eliasson, President of the United Nations General Assembly, for preparing the Human Rights Council

The new Human Rights Council will meet for the first time in Geneva on 19 June 2006 probably for two weeks. There are now at least 61 states candidates for membership in the Council – the election will take place 9 May 2006 in New York at a session of the General Assembly. Only 47 states will be chosen.

The April 21st meeting in Geneva was for the diplomatic missions and international organisations in Geneva as well as the NGOs to discuss freely with the High Commissioner for Human Rights what to do before 9 May and 19 June and to plan for an effective meeting beginning 19 June.

Various states and NGOs voiced their opinions and concerns. Pakistan, speaking for the OIC, hoped the new Council would deal with such matters as ‘Islamophobia’ and make contributions to the ‘dialogue among civilisations’. Some other governments pleaded for an early passage of the Draft Convention against Enforced Disappearances, and the Draft Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Both of these have been pending for a long time in the Commission on Human Rights.

Many governments asked the essential question ‘who will preside the 19 June meeting and set the agenda’ ? Perhaps a neutral ‘facilitator’ (whose country was not a candidate for the Council) should start to work now to prepare the session which would probably last from 19-30 June.

Many countries underlined the importance of continuing participation of NGOs in the work of the HRC, but no definite decisions have been made (since the HRC does not yet exist except on paper) about how, and under what circumstances, the NGOs will participate (the resolution creating the HRC stipulates only that NGOs will have the same rights as with the Commission on Human Rights).

How long will it take before ‘substantive issues ‘ (i.e. issues relating to actual violations of human rights) be discussed in HRC sessions ? I predict that during the first session (19 June – 30 June ?) some NGOs will be heard on certain specific topics. But mostly we will be observing the proceedural matters. As far as making statements about ‘Country situations’ or the victims of human rights violations is concerned, I hope we will be able to do this as soon as possible, but our possibilities may not be known until the modalities of the new Human Rights Council are set up. It is not certain which of the usual items on the agends of the Commission on Human Rights will be also on the agenda of the new Human Rights Council. The future of the ‘Sub-Commission’ (usually meets in August) is not known.

The Human Rights Council will probably hold its second session in September and perhaps again in November. Each meeting may last for at least four weeks (the rule is that it should meet 10 weeks every year). Even these dates are in flux.

It appears that most of the ‘special proceedures’ (special rapporteurs etc.) of the Office of the High Commissioner will continue under the new HRC. The ‘Treaty Bodies’ (Human Rights Committee, Comittitee on Social, Economic and Cultural Rights, Committee on Torture, CERD etc.) will also continue although perhaps modified.

There will also be the new ‘Univerasal Review Measures’ to monitor states which sit on the HRC.

Another question raised was whether there should be a ‘High Level Segment’ (heads of state and other top officials) at the June 19 meeting of HRC. Some ambassadors in Geneva said yes (Brazil, Indonesia, Canada, Cuba etc.) others said no (U.S.A., U.K. etc.) the latter objecting mainly because there were too many issues to settle at the first session.

Mexico’s ambassador suggested the following agenda for the June 19-30 meeting: (1) Racism / Xenophobia ; (2) Draft Convention on Enforced Disappearances and Draft Declaration on Rights of Indigenous Peoples; (3) Protection of Human Rights while Combatting Terrorism ; (4) Renewal of Mandates of Special Rapporteurs. The U.S.A. ambassador suggested. (1) extension of all mandates of ‘special rapporteurs ; (2) begin the ‘Universal Periodic Review’ (of states’ human rights profiles);(3) No ‘substantive’ discussions ;(4) Extend ‘special proceedures’ held over from Commission on Human Rights ; (5) let NGOs speak ; (6) discussion of ‘country situations’. U.S.A. is in favour of keeping ‘country-specific’ resolutions as in the Commission on Human Rights. The U.S. position is somewhat contradictory : if there are no ‘substantive discussions’, then how can ‘country situations’ be discussed ?

Cuba does not want ‘substantive matters’ to be discussed at the first session and does not want the second session of the Council to be held in November 2006 when it would conflict with the session of the 3rd Committee of the General Assembly in New York. Cuba wants the Sub-Commission to continue as usual. Russia raised the question : what if all the members of the HRC are not elected on May 9th ? Some candidates may not receive enough votes (96 needed) and the required number of 47 members may not be reached. What then ? Japan wished for HRC to establish a ‘work-plan’ for the coming year, and from the beginning to discuss ‘substantive issues’ (i.e. violation of human rights and how to react). China spoke supposedly helpful diplomatic generalities. India did not speak.

In general, the Western governments and some ‘important’ NGOs (Human Rights Watch, International Commission of Jurists, International Service for Human Rights, etc.) do not wish ‘regional groups’ to dominate the new council: they do not want an ‘Asian position’, an ‘African position’, an ‘OIC position’ etc. to hold as much weight as in the Commission on Human Rights.

This meeting on 21 April showed how eagerly government representatives in Geneva are taking the advent of the new Human Rights Council. Many informal consultations are taking place among them even though no one knows as yet which ones will be elected as members (vote on 9 May in New York). The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights is doing a good job in mobilising the Geneva actors (governments and NGOs) to be ready.

One question which was not discussed at the meeting (which I hoped to raise, but the list of speakers was too long) was how to make an impact on the problem of ‘Clash of Civilisations’ and those groups which by ‘provocation’ (as in the Damnish cartoon affair) stimulate extensive ‘clashes’. Perhaps the Human Rights Council should establish a Working Group to deal with these ‘clashes’ – and perhaps Interfaith International could propose this at the June 19 session. How much we can do publicly at the June session (that is, oral interventions before the Council about violations in certain countries) is not yet clear. Of course, we can no doubt distribute literature and probably (though not definitively) have some briefings in parallel to the session of the Council. Charles Graves, Secretary General of Interfaith International.

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