P5 at the Human Rights Council: Path to a full blown stalemate?

When the Human Rights Council begins, virtually, its first session of the year next Monday, February 22, everybody’s attention will be focused on the return of the US and how it will influence the dynamics of the debates and the consensus building around the votes. After a three-year absence, Washington returns as an observer member, and with the promise, in Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s words, to again make the Council the place to “shine a spotlight on countries with the worst human rights records and fight injustice and tyranny.”

The US’ return also means that, for the first time in many years, all five permanent members of the UN Security Council, the P5 (US, France, the UK, China and Russia) will be in the same room. Diplomats and observers here see this as reinforcing the Human Rights Council’s role as the most important forum to engage in human rights diplomacy.  But they also share the fear that in a highly polarized world, the presence of the five heavyweights will result in a complete politicization of the human rights debate and, with it, lead to a diplomatic stalemate in several crises.

Last week's session on Myanmar (February 12) may have been a preview of things to come.  The resolution proposed by Europeans and co-sponsored by Washington called for the immediate release of the detained leaders, the return of the “legitimate government,” and for the UN Special Envoy, Swiss diplomat Christine Schraner Burgener, to be allowed into the country.

But while the text was eventually approved by consensus, the session also marked a rift between the great powers. Beijing warned that it was against holding a meeting to address the issue and dissociated itself from the consensus, arguing that “what occurred in Myanmar is a domestic issue of Myanmar. Based on the country's sovereignty, the international community should only help the parties to hold a dialogue.” The Chinese delegation said that any action should be taken “only to stabilize the country, not to deepen the crisis,” de facto accusing the resolution’s sponsors of exacerbating the situation.

Russia’s representative to the Council followed the same line: “This is a domestic issue. Attempts to put the events in Myanmar on the Council's agenda is unjustified and political,” it warned. For Moscow, the new government has already committed to holding elections, and the legal system “continues to function.” In the end, both Beijing and Moscow dissociated themselves from the resolution.

The shock, for many, may only be beginning.