Week One of the 23rd Session of the Human Rights Council

The World Federation of United Nations Associations (WFUNA) is a global nonprofit organization representing and coordinating a membership of over 100 national United Nations Associations.

The 23rd session of the UN Human Rights Council opened on Monday at the Palais des Nations, Geneva (27 May – 14 June 2013). The three week session addresses both country and thematic specific situations including extreme poverty, business and human rights, women’s rights, democracy and the rule of law. States will also adopt 13 Universal Periodic Reports.

During the first week, WFUNA focused on the following:

High Commissioner's Opening Statement

Ms. Navi Pillay kick-started the session with her Opening Statement and immediately turned to the deteriorating situation in Syria, where a sectarian civil war is at the edge of spilling over to neighboring countries with refugee host countries having long since exhausted their capacities. She underscored the international community’s responsibility to protect the Syrian population at a time when their government blatantly fails to do so. “We cannot - we must not – continue to ignore their plea”, she said, urging the Security Council to refer the situation to the International Criminal Court.

Turning to other crises, Ms Pillay expressed dismay over persistent unwillingness by some countries in transition to involve NGOs in constructive dialogues: “Civil society is key to the framework of human rights and remains vital to advancing the human rights agenda”. The cross-national challenge to combat terrorism cannot be used to justify human rights violations in the name of counter-terrorism. Rather, adverse human rights actions nurture acts of terrorism, she said, emphasizing that such practices are self-defeating, and that the need for increased transparency and accountability regarding the use of drones is of outmost urgency.

Following the financial crisis, 114 million more people have been pushed below the poverty line and 64 million jobs have been lost. The most marginalized groups have been bearing the burden of the consequences, instead of those primarily responsible. On this note Ms Pillay highlighted that austerity measures must never be used as an excuse to infringe on human rights. Upholding human rights remains essential during times of financial hardship to avoid ripple effects, including increasing vulnerability to extremist and xenophobic discourse.

General debate

The situation in Syria was at center stage during the general debate. Countries condemned the grave and widespread human rights violations committed by all parties to the civil war with emphasis on gross violations perpetrated by regime troops. Honduras and the United Kingdom echoed the High Commissioner's call to the Security Council to refer the situation to the International Criminal Court. Statements were issued by several Member States including Cuba, China, Iran and Jordan calling for a political solution.  Syria, however, said that OHCHR exaggerated the situation and that the Office presented no credible proof of allegations.

Several States expressed concern that economic, social and cultural rights were put aside when implementing austerity measures. Treating all human rights on an equal and unbiased footing must always be a top priority, in particular during the financial crisis. In this view, current trends towards increased intolerance and racism must be tackled said delegates from Argentina, Costa Rica, India and Malaysia.

The imperative importance of ensuring an enabling environment for human rights defenders was also discussed. Norway, that tabled a resolution on protection of defenders during the previous session, reiterated the need to protect advocates, especially from gender-based harassments. Member States including  Botswana, Czech Republic and USA were joined by  NGOs in stressing unprecedented restrictions on NGOs. Adverse legislation in some countries has led to shrinking space for NGO activities paving the way for continued reprisals.

Report by the Special Rapporteur on health

Mr. Anand Grover, Special Rapporteur on the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health, presented a thematic report on the right to health of migrant workers and another on the right to access to medicines. Concerning migrant workers, the Special Rapporteur expressed concerns about discriminatory legislations of many States. Irregular migrants are particularly vulnerable and are often hindered from full enjoyment of right to health because of fear of being arrested, detained or deported. In this view, Mr. Grover recommended the inclusion of all migrant workers in national social protection schemes.

Report by the Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants

Mr. François Crépeau presented his report on management of the external borders of the European Union and its impact on migrants’ human rights. He voiced concern about European border-control policies that, by considering migration flows as a security issue, overlook the option of a human rights based approach. Harmonization of national legislation regarding immigration policies is highly desirable; however, human rights and legal guarantees have not been adequately developed in EU legislation and existing regional legislation is not fully implemented by individual States. This undermines the legitimacy, legality and validity of migration-control mechanisms.

He recommended States to keep the rule of law and human rights as core values in domestic immigration policies and called on destination countries to consider alternatives to detention and to limit the use of these facilities as a tool of border-control.

Clustered Interactive Dialogue on health and migrants

Regarding the right to access to healthcare, several States, including China, Libya, South Africa and Sudan highlighted the importance of local production of medicines in order to keep prices reasonable and acceptable. The USA, on the other hand, argued that local production does not necessary ensures lower prices and accessibility. Several States, including Algeria, China, Cuba, Indonesia and Mexico, highlighted the importance of strengthening international and North-South cooperation to ensure the right to health.

Report by the Special Rapporteur on trafficking

Ms. Joy Ngozi Ezeilo, Special Rapporteur on trafficking in persons, presented her report on the relevance of the demand-side in fostering trafficking of human beings. Demand for cheap labor, child soldiers, domestic workers and organ trade are significant factors that contribute to this scourge. She recommended governments to identify and analyze root factors that generate demand for exploitative sexual services and to take strong legislative and policy measures to combat them. As national measures to address trafficking in persons often focus exclusively on sexual exploitation, she urged States to revise their national legislations to include and discourage all kinds of demand.

Report by the Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty

Ms. Maria Magdalena Sepulveda opened her statement by expressing appreciation for the adoption of the “Guiding Principles on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights” by the Human Rights Council last September. She urged all States to contribute to their implementation. Ms. Sepulveda then presented her report on the right to participation of people living in poverty. Lack of power is one of the characteristics of poverty and a major barrier to the full enjoyment of Human Rights. She called on States to guarantee access to transparent information by all social groups, with a special attention to the most marginalized ones.

Clustered interactive dialogue on trafficking and extreme poverty

A large number of States, including Algeria, Austria, Honduras and Moldova, agreed that a global policy to combat trafficking must be adopted. International cooperation and involvement of all stakeholders are key tools to effectively address this issue. In this regard, Indonesia highlighted the importance of the role of Civil Society Organizations in raising awareness about the problem. Pakistan, Thailand and Egypt focused their attention on the need to address discrimination to discourage demand and prevent exploitation on various grounds.

Panel on contribution of parliaments to the Human Rights Council

László Borbély, Romanian Chamber of Representatives, highlighted parliaments’ collaboration with civil society actors such as National Human Rights Institutions (NHRIs) as crucial to guarantee a balanced information flow. Juana Kweitel, Program Director of Conectas, underscored cooperation in the process of the UPR. Mr. Jorge Villarino Marzo, Congress of the Deputies of Spain, accentuated that parliaments are the main actors in achieving human rights improvements through their capacity to guarantee the participation of all citizens in political, economic and social live. Some countries including Algeria and Indonesia stressed the importance of adequate budget allocations by the parliament to uphold effective domestic implementation of international human rights commitments. NGO interventions underlined the need for parliaments to be more closely involved in the follow up process of UN human rights recommendations.

Urgent debate on human rights in Syria

An Urgent Debate on the deteriorating situation of human rights in Syria and the recent killings in al-Qusayr was held during the third day of the session sponsored by Turkey, the United States and Qatar. UN rights chief Navi Pillay opened the debate stating that the situation in Syria is spinning out of control and must be referred to the International Criminal Court. Flagrant disregard for international law permeates all sides to the conflict and she urged States with influence on both sides to pull together to achieve a political solution to the conflict.

Syria maintained that the Council and the High Commissioner attack the country with false accusations undermining the credibility of the Council. The Syrian delegate accused Turkey and Qatar of funding terrorists. The resolution tabled by the sponsors was, according to him, founded on lies and hypocrisy. Nevertheless, calling for a swift investigation on the events in al-Quasyr by the Commission of Inquiry on Syria, the resolution was adopted with 36 States in favor, 1 abstention and 8 voting against.

Panel on business and human rights

Ms. Navy Pillay, opened the High-level panel discussion on the role of the UN in advancing the business and human rights agenda. In her statement, she underlined the importance of the “Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights” in setting, for the first time, a global standard to prevent and address negative impacts on human rights linked to business activities. The principles, endorsed by the Council in 2012, have to be embedded into UN Agencies’ development strategies, policies and processes. Furthermore, she highlighted the important role that the UN can play in the promotion of human rights in business sectors in the Post2015 Agenda.

Ms. Ursula Wynhoven, Global Compact, presented the work carried out in developing, collecting and disseminating good practices. Ms. Kristin Hetle, UN Women, stressed the crucial role of businesses in promoting the creation of decent jobs and income for women adding that the responsibility to protect and fulfill human rights rests with States which have the duty to hold business accountable.. Ms. Shireen Said, UNDP, underlined the need to further expand the discussion to include the informal business sector. Director of Private Fundraising and Partnerships at UNICEF, Ms. Leila Pakkala, welcomed the integration of “Children’s Rights and Business Principles” into the policy framework of many companies and underscored the importance of providing States with guidance about their obligations. While Ms. Elisabeth Tuerk, UNCTAD, stressed the need for a regulatory framework to ensure that the private sector is part of the solutions and actively contributes to the accomplishment of MDGs.

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