Showdown at Human Rights Council

Yesterday, the Human Rights Council got a taste of how its 2014 sessions will look like, with the return of Cuba, Russia and China as full members. What was supposed to be a procedural, organizational session to elect the new President and Bureau for the 2014 session, developed into a very controversial and heated exchange.

The cause of this friction was the topic of the high-level panel on human rights mainstreaming to take place in March 2014, most probably with the participation of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. The President of Human Rights Council, Ambassador Henczel of Poland, tried to bridge the two proposals: one on the role of the UN in the prevention of human rights abuses, proposed by a cross-regional group of states, and another on migration, proposed by the African Group. His compromise proposal was to hold the panel on human rights mainstreaming on the topic of migration in the morning, followed by a high-level panel on prevention in the afternoon.

This proposal seemed to enjoy the support of everyone in the room. But not that of a group of like-minded countries, including Russia, Cuba, Egypt and China, who were not happy and repeatedly took the floor to express their displeasure. First was Russia who claimed that the Council was constantly breaking its rules, especially since they would elect the 2014 president in 2013. Also they claimed that the compromise position was in violation of the rules. Cuba, Egypt and China continued on the same path, arguing that the Council constantly breaks its rules, that we cannot have two panels, and that in any case, it is the 2014 Council that needs to decide.

The President explained that the rules of the Council gave him enough flexibility to adjust the program of work of the upcoming session. He was supported by the US, Hungary and Germany. The Hungarian Ambassador read relevant parts of the rules, while the German Ambassador expressed his surprise by the repeated claims that the Council was constantly breaking its rules. He also welcomed the new HRC members, which would bring “fresh, legalistic interpretations” of the rules.

Cuba was not pleased with the outcome and insisted that the President state that this would not be a precedent. The President obliged and stated that this decision was not a precedent (which contradicts his own assertions that it was completely in his power according to the rules to do so). Cuba remained unhappy and required this in writing. The President explained that the webcast has replaced the written record, which triggered another round of harsh statements, requesting the legal basis for this. After further explanations of the President, Cuba decided not to continue further.

The rest of the meeting was in more constructive terms. The Ambassador of the Central African Republic took the floor to describe the urgent human rights situation in the country, asking for a special session of the Council in January. One of the outcomes should be to appont the Independent Expert who was established in September 2013 but has not been named yet. The African Group, the US, France and the European Union supported the request for a special session.

Last but not least, the Council elected by acclamation the President and Vice-Presidents of the 2014 sessions. Amb. Baudelaire Ndong Ella of Gabon will be the President, while the Ambassadors of Italy, Czech Republic, Argentina and India will serve as the Vice Presidents.

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