U.N. Human Rights Council concludes main annual session; Summary of key resolutions

The U.N. Human Rights Council concluded its main annual session on Friday, March 28. Before the start of the session, Freedom House published an updated report on Freedom in the World, which listed eight countries and two territories that suffer from the “worst of the worst” human rights violations: North Korea, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Libya, Sudan, Burma (Myanmar), Equatorial Guinea, Somalia, Tibet, and Chechnya. The human rights records of another eleven countries and territories ranked just slightly above. Amongst the more than two dozen resolutions adopted by the council this session, only those on Myanmar and North Korea condemned “worst of the worst” violators. The situation in Somalia was addressed, but in a weak manner with government actions enjoying more praise than criticism. There was also a weak resolution on the Congo, a country in the midst of a large-scale humanitarian crisis. By contrast, Israel —ranked as “free”— was strongly condemned in five one-sided resolutions.

Egypt, for the African Group, sponsored the resolution on the Congo, entitled. “Human rights situation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and strengthening of the technical cooperation and consultative services.” The resolution asks the international community to provide aid to the Congo, “welcomes the cooperation” of the Government with U.N. special procedures, and “notes with satisfaction the decision of the Government to establish a national agency to combat sexual violence against women and children as part of its policy to fight impunity.” The resolution also calls for a human rights liaison as a “local cooperation mechanism,” but does not explicitly call for the reinstatment of the U.N. independent expert on the Congo (whose mandate was eliminated last year).

The vote was 33 in favor of the resolution with 14 abstaining, including the European Union (EU) countries, Canada, Switzerland, Japan, South Korea, and Nicaragua. The EU explained that it could not support such a toothless resolution. It chose to abstain rather than to vote no because of the importance of reinstating some form of scrutiny over the Congo, even if it is only a human rights liaison rather than an independent rapporteur.

The EU had actually proposed its own resolution on the Congo, which more forcefully condemned its violations of human rights and proposed a broader mandate for the U.N. expert on the Congo. Not only was the resolution shot down in favor of the watered-down version of the African Group, but the EU’s attempt to amend the African text was also defeated by a vote of 18 to 21 with 8 abstentions. The amendments involved a few paragraphs from the original EU resolution, including expressions of alarm at the recruitment of child soldiers in the Congo and the “widespread acts of sexual violence against women and children, which in the majority of cases are…used as a weapon of war.”

During the council’s proceedings, Germany deplored the hostility of the African Group in undermining the EU’s efforts to address the human rights violations in the Congo. Egypt retorted that it is inappropriate to use such condemnatory language in the council, saying that it could easily throw back the word “hostile” at the EU, especially considering the group’s tardiness in putting forth one of its draft resolutions in a manner that would provide certain delegations adequate time for review.

Egypt, for the African Group, also proposed the resolution, “Assistance to Somalia in the field of human rights,” which “welcomes the latest developments in Somalia,” and urges the international community to provide Somalia with development and humanitarian assistance. The resolution also renews the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on Somalia for six months. The EU complained that the mandate was not extended for the full, customary period of one year, but still chose to join consensus on the resolution.

The council passed a resolution “deploring the grave, widespread and systemic human rights abuses” of North Korea and extending the mandate of the country’s U.N. independent expert. The vote was 26 to 6, with 15 countries abstaining. Voting “yes” were the EU and other democracies, along with most of sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America, as well as Jordan and Saudi Arabia. Shamefully, four democracies abstained: Brazil, India, Senegal, and South Africa.

A resolution condemning “the ongoing systemic violations of human rights” and extending the mandate of the Special Rapporteur in Myanmar passed with consensus. To achieve this consensus, however, the EU proposed oral amendments to water-down criticism of the military junta, including toning down of the condemnatory language and praising the cooperation of the Government. Without removing themselves from the consensus, Russia and China expressed reservations to the resolution. China said that “Any action of this council has to respect the sovereignty of national states,” and Russia protested that “the resolution on Myanmar is a further example of the politicized and one-sided approaches of this council.”

The five resolutions condemning Israel deal with the Gaza War, Israel’s “occupation” of the Syrian Golan, the right of Palestinians to self-determination, Israel’s settlement activities, and general criticism of Israel for its treatment of Palestinians.

“Follow-up to Council resolution S-9/1…” was adopted by a vote of 33 to 1, with 13 abstentions. Canada was the only “no” vote and the EU abstained. The purpose of the resolution is to seek implementation of the biased resolution of the Special Session held to address Israel’s military incursions into Gaza during Operation Cast Lead. The resolution condemns only Israeli conduct, neglecting to name Hamas as the aggressor for launching rockets that deliberately target Israeli citizens, using civilians as human shields, and attacking from urban areas. It expressly downplays the nature of the rocket attacks, calling them “crude,” and falsely accuses Israel of “targeting” civilians despite the many attempts of the Israeli army to avoid civilian casualties. It also creates an inquiry commission to investigate only Israeli conduct.

“Human rights in the occupied Syrian Golan was accepted with an identical vote as the previous resolution (yes, abstain, no = 33, 13, 1). It wrongly addresses the territorial dispute in the Syrian Golan, which is unrelated to individual rights, while neglecting to mention Syrian support for enemies of the peace process and sponsorship of terrorism.

A resolution on the “Right of the Palestinian people to self-determination” was adopted without vote, though Canada removed itself from consensus. The resolution breaches the U.N.’s non-selectivity principle by enacting a self-determination resolution concerning the claim against only one member state. There is no resolution, for example, condemning the fact that Hamas does not recognize the right of the Jewish people to self-determination in Israel. Israel, in fact, recognizes Palestinian national aspirations, but beleives that the establishment of a Palestinian state can only happen through a process of negotiations that does not jeopardize Israeli security. The resolution fails to mention the role of Hamas terrorism and that of other extremist groups in severely impeding the right to self-determination of both Palestinians and Israelis.

By a vote of 46 to 1 (Canada), the Council adopted a resolution “expressing grave concern” at Israel’s “very serious violations” through settlement activity in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT). The unbalanced text ignores Palestinian terrorism and other violations.

The fifth resolution on Israel entitled, “Human rights violations emanating from the Israeli military attacks and operations in the Occupied Palestinian Territories…” addresses a variety of purported violations of Palestinian rights. It condemns Operation Cast Lead, while downplaying the nature of Hamas rocket attacks (“crude”). It demands the release of Palestinian prisoners and detainees, without specifying the type of prisoners or grounds for release. It requests the lifting of check-points in the OPT, despite the risks such measures would pose for Israeli security. The resolution amounts to a selective and disproportionate attack on Israel. 35 countries voted yes, 4 voted no, and 8 abstained. Admirably, Germany, Italy, and the Netherlands broke with EU consensus, voting no with Canada. Switzerland, unfortunately, joined the yes votes.

Aside from country-specific resolutions, the council passed a number of other resolutions of interest. “Combatting defamation of religions,” sponsored by the Organization of the Islamic Conference, passed this year with 23 votes, an increase in two from last year. 11 countries voted no, including the EU, Switzerland, Canada, and Chile. 13 countries abstained, including Bosnia, Brazil, and Mexico. The resolution is an attempt to gut the concept of human rights of its original meaning, which is to protect individuals from harm or state control, not to shield a set of beliefs from critical inquiry. It is an assault on freedoms of speech and religion. The resolution also unjustly prioritizes the protection of Muslims and Islam, specifying no other religious faith or community.

South Africa for the African Group presented another resolution supporting the OIC’s “defamation of religions” campaign. Entitled, “Elaboration of complementary standards to the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination,” its purpose is to advance the work of an Algerian-chaired committee in which Islamic states and their African allies are attempting to add new legal prohibitions to existing international law that would define criticism of religion as a violation. 34 states voted in support, including Chile and Brazil. The EU, along with Switzerland, Japan, and South Korea voted against.

The council passed the EU-sponsored resolution on “Discrimination based on religion or belief” by a vote of 27 to 1 with 24 abstentions. The resolution stressed the need to provide all people with equal protection of “freedom of thought, conscience and religion or belief,” especially religious minorities throughout the world. Shockingly, South Africa stooped to a new low as the only “no” vote. During consultations, South Africa had proposed an amendment that would stress “the role of the media in perpetuating negative stereotyping of religions.” South Africa’s no vote was in reaction to the EU’s rejection of this amendment. A number of states that abstained had also expressed their support for South Africa’s proposal. Some of them, including Pakistan and Egypt, had also objected to the resolution’s recalling of resolution 6/37 on Freedom of Religion, passed by the General Assembly and the Human Rights Commission. They said they still had reservations to that resolution, which had been adopted without their votes. During consultations, China had protested the inclusion of “freedom of conscience” in the resolution.

Denmark’s resolution on “Torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment…” passed by a vote of 34 to 0 with 13 abstentions. Among those abstaining was Egypt, claiming it could not accept the resolution’s support for a U.N. report that strongly condemned the death penalty.

A South African-sponsored resolution on racism was adopted with consensus, although the EU expressed its concern about the unhelpful manner the resolution was presented while there are ongoing negotiations on the subject in the context of preparations for the Durban Review Conference. The resolution emphasizes the flawed 2001 Durban Declaration and Program of Action and follow-up mechanisms.

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