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The UN General Assembly and UN Human Rights Council: A Dynamic Duo?

August 28, 2012|By Ryan Kaminski, Leo Nevas Human Rights Fellow
The United Nations General Assembly (GA) and Human Rights Council (HRC) are two bodies that work hand-in-hand to keep the diplomatic pressure on regimes that commit the most deplorable actions. Their recent actions regarding the dire situation in Syria is a perfect example of this relationship, as they continue to bring further political and diplomatic weight to bear on Syria’s few remaining geopolitical allies to change course. All of this occurs despite the often high level of criticism both bodies receive for being perceived as ineffective.

In early August, the GA, voted to condemn “continued widespread and systematic gross violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms by the Syrian authorities and pro-government militias” in Syria. The act itself was hardly shocking; the HRC also condemned Syria’s rights violations in July, and multiple times since April. It also was not the first time the GA opted to denounce Syria on its growing array of human rights violations, having passed resolutions on the issue twice before.

Nevertheless, the GA resolution itself was rather unique in attacking the UN Security Council for not doing enough to address the situation in Syria.  Specifically it deplored, “the failure of the Security Council to agree on measures to ensure the compliance of Syrian authorities with its resolutions.” Although, it did not name the countries specifically, the GA resolution was implicitly venting frustrations with Russia and China. The two countries have vetoed three pervious proposed Security Council resolutions related to Syria.

The drama doesn’t stop there. Reportedly, an early draft of the latest GA resolution, circulated by Saudi Arabia, even called for Syrian president Bashar al-Assad to resign.  Although this was ultimately removed from the text after some UN member states voiced concern that the GA would be explicitly endorsing regime change, it was a significant development. The HRC laid the groundwork for this to happen. The HRC increased the focus on Syria through resolutions and special sessions, a Syria-specific Commission of Inquiry, and a country-specific rapporteur to assess and report on human rights violations there.

This was not the first time the GA accepted the baton from the HRC for a major human right issue.

When Libya’s Muammar al-Qaddafi threatened to massacre his own people, the HRC voted unanimously to recommend that the GA (only the GA can suspend HRC members) suspend Libya, which was a HRC member at the time. Days later, the UN General Assembly, heeded this advice and suspended Libya from the body—despite having technically voted to grant Libya a seat on the HRC during an earlier election.

The syncopation of acts related to Syria within these institutions has kept attention on Syria’s human rights violations in the public eye and in the press. Meanwhile, the GA and HRC continue to encourage and support the expansion of international humanitarian relief to address ongoing turmoil and chaos across Syria. Perhaps most interestingly, the back-and-forth of the Syria issue between the HRC and GA has allowed for small, but important “wiggle room” so each organ can augment its impact on the situation through new tactics and strategies.  Again, the GA’s recent decision to criticize at the Security Council based on human rights is important news, as is the fact that the GA almost voted to call for regime change within one of its earliest members.

The progress should accomplish much in dispelling tired stereotypes that view both organs as mere debate societies. With the 21st session of the HRC and 67th session of the GA both scheduled for September, let’s hope both bodies will continue to work together to promote and protect human rights.


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