The 29th Session of the Human Rights Council: Round-Up

Amelia Cooper

The 29th Session of the Human Rights Council closed last week, following three weeks of discussions that have culminated in the adoption of twenty-five resolutions with varying degrees of probity. In addition, six new Special Procedures mandate holders were appointed to address issues including, inter alia, the right to privacy, violence against women (including its causes and consequences), and the human rights of people with albinism. 

It is near impossible to provide a brief and cohesive summary of the Council’s session, due to the breadth of its agenda; however, there is an excellent report by the Universal Rights Group and a collection of detailed updates by FIDH for those seeking a more detailed analysis. Some outcomes are particularly notable in opening new fields for greater scrutiny (though that is not to say that they are more important than other resolutions adopted), such as: 

  • The passage of a resolution focused on the protection of migrants, including those in transit;
  • The passage of a resolution focused on the persecution of Rohingya Muslims and other minorities in Myanmar;
  • The passage of a landmark resolution condemning and seeking to combat child, early and forced marriage, the first of its kind; 
  • The adoption of a resolution focused on ensuring accountability for the violations of international law in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, following the release of a report by the independent Commission of Inquiry into the 2014 Israel-Gaza conflict. The USA has received condemnation from states and CSOs alike for being the only member state to vote against this resolution; 
  • The renewal of the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on Eritrea, which will facilitate further fact-finding into and human rights monitoring of a deeply troubled state; and 
  • The creation of a Commission of Inquiry into human rights violations committed in South Sudan. 

What merits specific and focused discussion, however, is the presence of what FIDH President Karim Lahidji referred to as a ‘full-fledged offensive’ by a coalition of conservative states seeking to ‘deny the universality of human rights’. Headed by Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Russia, this group of States has become increasingly active in attempting to curtail and recharacterise human rights with subjective concepts such as ‘defamation’ and ‘traditional values’. 

This session, debates over three resolutions were the epicentres of attacks on universality, pertaining to violence against women, freedom of expression and the protection of the family. Amendments proposed by a number of states challenged the very meaning of equal human rights for all and threatened the protection afforded to individuals regardless of their sex, gender identity or sexual orientation. 

With regard to the resolution on violence against women, Egypt, Russia and a number of Gulf states submitted amendments to withdraw condemnation of marital rape and intimate partner violence. Though these amendments were fortunately voted down, the rights of the individual within a family or domestic context were threatened by the renewal of the resolution on the protection of the family. 

Despite its seemingly innocuous – and almost quaint – sounding title, the resolution shrouds a pernicious agenda that refuses, first, to recognise that the family may exist in diverse forms, including having same sex parents or child-headed families (indeed, proposed amendments to include such a fact were blocked with the invocation of the Procedural No Action motion, a device used to block substantive debate). Secondly, it fails to acknowledge that human rights violations can occur within a family context (as illustrated in the resolution on violence against women), and represents a shift away from individual rights. It is a resolution that stands in stark contrast to the ideals that the Human Rights Council was formed upon: rather than promoting equality and non-discrimination, it enshrines their antithesis. 

The concept of ‘defamation’ reared its ugly head once again during negotiations on the proposed resolution to protect artistic expression, which has since been abandoned. As previously discussed here, moving away from the defamation agenda with the passage of Resolution 16/18 was widely celebrated; I sincerely hope that it does not gain traction in coming sessions. 

As ever, therefore, a mixed bag of results from the Council: some successes which deserve to be celebrated, but also a number of failures that require public and widespread condemnation. It is clear that we cannot be complacent: if anything, public vigilance is required more than ever to ensure that the founding principles of the Council continue to provide the basis of its work, and that the attempts to undermine universal standards are soundly rebuffed. The Council will meet again in September – it is incumbent upon the international community to reaffirm the principle of human rights for all, and on us to hold the Council and our governments to account for doing so.