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A non-sequitur at the Human Right Council and a virtual UN General Assembly in New York


Today in The Geneva Observer, the UN’s 75th birthday of course. But first, let’s pick up where we left off last Thursday with the allegations of non-compliance and breach of code of conduct made against Agnes Callamard and Joe Cannataci. China, Russia and Saudi Arabia had joined ranks with others to lodge complaints and request a full separate debate before the Council. The request was denied by HRC President Elisabeth Tichy-Fisslberger. Initially, member states would have been able to comment on the allegations during yesterday’s session. But that didn’t happen either, as the Special Procedures Coordination Council to which Tichy-Fisslberger had referred the matter concluded that these very serious claims had been presented in a  “manifestly frivolous or untimely manner" and that the group of States had failed “to provide concrete information that would allow for proper examination. Seasoned HRC observers tell the G.O that the matter will most likely not go away but that, for the time being, the kerfuffle has been firmly put on the back burner by Tichy-Fisslberger and the Coordination Council.

The big items on the HRC agenda over its first two days were the High Commissioner on Human Rights’ traditional global human rights update, the request for an urgent debate on Belarus (requested by the EU, which passed and will be held 10 am this Friday (September 18, 2020)), and the discussion on the impact of COVID-19 on Human Rights. However, the first order of business of the 45th session of the HRC as it got underway at the Palais des Nations was for it to agree to apply the same COVID-related measures and the extraordinary modalities for the session (which would be the same as the 44th session).

In New York, the UN General Assembly (UNGA) also got started, for its part, in full virtual mode. Next week (the second week) is when world leaders traditionally stand at the famous green marble podium and address the assembly, and the virtual format will change things quite a lot.

File photo: The UN General Assembly Hall in New York © Shutterstock

Firstly, there will be no audience of diplomats and other world leaders, so no reaction shots and no public walkouts. Secondly, while the format will allow more leaders who would not usually travel to NYC to appear, there will be no in person bilaterals in corridors and hotels around New York. And thirdly, as leaders will pre-record their speeches, we have hope this means they will rigidly stick to their allotted 15-minute time slots. The UNGA is famous for its speakers going well beyond their allotted time slots—think Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi’s rambling hour and half long speech from 2009, or the still all-time champion Cuba’s Fidel Castro’s record holding four hour, 29 minutes marathon effort from 1960.

The UNGA should have been gathering to celebrate the UN’s milestone 75th birthday. But with COVID-19 and what Antonio Guterres calls a most dysfunctional relationship between China, Russia and the US, these celebrations are somewhat muted. Richard N. Haass, President of the Council of Foreign Relations (an US non-partisan foreign policy thinktank), has written a fascinating run-down of The UN’s Unhappy Birthday. His analysis is sobering: “The case for multilateralism and global governance is stronger than ever. But, for better or worse, it will have to take place largely outside the UN.” It should be said that Haass is very much part of the US foreign policy establishment that Trump et alblame for the state of the UN and the Security Council. Haass sees continued multilateral leadership by larger countries in forums such as the G7 and G20 (which bypass the UN) as a positive, and suggests that the “one member state one vote” system is a fundamental structural problem. His conclusion is that “overall the UN has disappointed, owing to great power rivalries and member countries’ reluctance to cede freedom of action” as well as  “the organization’s own shortcomings” “a spoils system that puts too many people in important positions for reasons other than competence, lack of accountability, and hypocrisy (such as when countries that ignore human rights sit on a UN body meant to uphold them).”

File photo: Michelle Bachelet ©UN

Which brings us smoothly back to the Human Rights Council… Where the High Commissioner for Human Rights (HCHR), Former Chilean President Michelle Bachelet, presented a global update on the situation on human rights situations around the world.

She singled out several particularly concerning and pressing issues, including:

  • The protests in Belarus,

  • the rights of LGBTIQ+ persons Poland,

  • the fire in the migrants’ camp in Lesbos (Greece),

  • the humanitarian situation in Lebanon following the Beirut port explosion (see our piece)

  • Sharply rising COVID-19 cases in the Occupied Palestinian Territories,

  • Intimidation, imprisonment and violence against human rights defenders, journalists and other political prisoners and prisoners of conscience in Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Mexico, El Salvador, Colombia, Brazil, Honduras, and others,

  • the issues of systemic racism and police brutality in the US,

  • the human rights in Venezuela and Nicaragua, and of Rohingya Muslims and other Minorities in Myanmar.

The omnipresent backdrop to all this of course is the liquidity crisis hitting the UN system (as readers of our Briefings are aware), which is being compounded by the multiple crises left in COVID-19’s wake. And Michelle Bachelet predicted that the difficulties would continue well into 2021. But while the liquidity crisis is hitting the whole of the UN, it should be remembered that the Human Rights pillar only accounts for 3.7% of its overall budget. As Bachelet said in her statement, the “human rights-based approach … is the foundation of prosperity and political stability. And it protects vulnerable people from the worst impacts of crises.” If Human Rights are indeed the foundations for peace and security and for protecting hard fought development gains (the other two UN pillars), it may be time to step up its funding to reflect that.

All the best, The Geneva Observer

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