What to Watch at the UN Human Rights Council

February 23, 2012|Deborah Brown, Leo Nevas Human Rights Fellow

Next Monday, the UN Human Rights Council will commence its 19th session in Geneva. The upcoming session is the longest of the year and will bring together the highest ranking diplomats from capitals around the world. Foreign ministers from the U.K., France, Sweden, and other European powers will join with their counterparts from Cuba, Russia, Iran, and dozens of other countries at the world’s leading human rights body. During a particularly tumultuous period for human rights, the Council’s agenda is jam-packed. As always, all sessions of the Human Rights Council are webcast with English translation.


The most contentious issue at the Council may come from Sri Lanka, where in 2009 the government declared the end of a decades-long civil conflict with the defeat of the separatist group known as the Tamil Tigers. A report of the UN Secretary-General found evidence indicating that serious violations of international human rights and humanitarian law took place in the last months of the conflict, which resulted in thousands of civilian deaths, for which there has been virtually no accountability. Due to aggressive diplomacy by the Sri Lankan delegation, instead of condemning the violations of human rights and humanitarian law by government forces, the Council passed a resolution in May 2009 (before the U.S. joined the Council), largely commending the Sri Lankan government for ending the conflict. The U.S. recently announced that it will support a resolution at the 19th session calling for accountability for the atrocities committed, focusing for the time being on domestically led initiatives. If successful, this initiative will help turn the page on a particularly dark chapter for the Council.   

The Council will also follow up on a number of concerning situations in the Middle East that it had previously addressed through investigative, monitoring, or technical assistance missions. The chair of the UN Commission of Inquiry (COI) on Syria is expected to give a scathing report on the atrocities taking place there. He will likely present the COI’s findings on individual accountability, and may recommend that they be referred to the International Criminal Court. The Council will also select a special rapporteur for Syria to continue the work of the COI.

Libya will rejoin the Council this session, after being suspended last March. Despite agreeing to cooperate with monitoring and assistance efforts by the Council, Libya has recently taken a more confrontational approach. With disturbing reports of human rights abuses emerging from Libya, including torture, members of the Council may push for the establishment of a special rapporteur to report on and make recommendations for Libya. The special rapporteur on Iran will report for the first time to the Council and member states will have to decide whether to renew his one-year mandate.

Additionally, some very hot “thematic human rights issues” will be debated at the 19th session: Internet freedom and LGBT rights. There will be a panel discussion on freedom of expression online, which has the potential to pit countries seeking to preserve the openness of the Internet as a platform for free speech and assembly against those which would like to see a larger role for the government in regulating and monitoring the Internet. Sharp divisions are also likely to surface during the panel discussion on discrimination and violence based on sexual orientation and gender identity. The basis for the discussion is the UN’s groundbreaking report on discrimination faced by LGBT individuals and it should include a dialogue on appropriate ways to follow up on the report’s recommendations, which include repealing laws that criminalize homosexuality and introducing measures to prevent cruel and degrading treatment of LGBT individuals.

While human rights groups and governments, including the U.S., have commended the Council’s improved record in recent sessions, the body still faces criticism for failing to address situations where serious violations of human rights abuses are alleged, such as Sri Lanka. The Council has also come under fire for giving a platform to countries with poor human rights records to speak on controversial human rights issues, thus lending legitimacy to standpoints that run counter to human rights principles. The 19th session presents the opportunity for the Council to counter such criticism with concrete action or to reinforce its current reputation.

Labels: Advocacy, World Bulletin