Human Rights Council

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16th Session of the Human Rights Council

28th February - 25th March 2011



The sixteenth session of the Human Rights Council closed on Friday 25th March 2011. Presided by H.E. Mr Sihasak Phunangketkeow of Thailand, this session of the Council adopted 40 texts: it created a new Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in Iran, decided to dispatch a Commission to Ivory Coast, adopted texts on the rights of the child, freedom of religion or belief, right to food, the protection of human rights in the context of HIV/AIDS, rights of persons with disabilities and extended the mandates on the situation of human rights in DPRK, Myanmar, of the right to water, freedom of expression, human rights defenders, violence against women, torture and racism. Independent Experts’ mandates on effects of foreign debt and on minority issues and the Working group’s mandate on involuntary disappearances were also extended.

Six members of the Advisory Committee to the HRC were elected, the position of Special Rapporteur (SR) on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and association allocated, and candidates approved for the Working Group on discrimination against women in law and practise, Experts on People of African Descent and the Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous People. Further texts were adopted concerning the review process of the council, the Social Forum, the follow-up to the report on the incident of the humanitarian flotilla, the right to development and the enhancement of international cooperation in the field of human rights.

This HRC session, the first regular session of the year, opened with an array of dynamic addresses by foreign dignitaries from all corners of the world for the annual High-Level Segment. Speeches touched on a range of topics, with the turmoil and revolutions in the Middle East, particularly Libya, featuring as recurrent themes. The four week session featured numerous presentations of high-profile reports and clustered interactive dialogues with Special Rapporteurs and Working Groups including the SR on the right to food; the SR on adequate housing as a component of the right to an adequate standard of living; the SR on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography; the SR on the promotion and protection of human rights while countering terrorism; the SR on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment; the SR on the Human Rights of Internally Displaced Persons; the SR on human rights defenders and the SR on freedom of religion and belief. Presentations to the Council from Working Groups included the WG on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances, the WG on Human Rights Education and Training and the WG on Arbitrary Detention. The Council heard a presentation from the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on violence against children, with sessions also dedicated to presentations from HRC subsidiary bodies including the Forum on Minority Issues, the Social Forum, and the Intergovernmental Working Group on the Effective Implementation of the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action.

Aside from sessions dedicated to the debate and review of the situation of human rights in the DPRK, Myanmar and Occupied Palestinian Territories, the sixteenth session of the Council also saw the adoption of the outcomes of the UPR reports on Andorra, Bulgaria, Croatia, Honduras, Jamaica, Lebanon, Liberia, Malawi, Maldives, Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Mauritania, Mongolia, Panama and the USA. The UPR of Libya, which was originally scheduled during this HRC session, was postponed to be held during the seventeenth session, to take place from 30th May to 17th June 2011.

High Level Segment


UN Photo/Jean-Marc FerreOn the 28th February 2011, the 16th session of the Human Rights Council opened with the high level segment, this time against a backdrop of historic turbulent times. Recent turmoil and violence in Libya was the focus of many of the speeches given by member states, with consistent reference also made to revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia. Many member states highlighted the need to redouble efforts in ensuring the right to freedom of expression and the right to freedom of assembly, with emphasis also being placed on the need to strive for further equality for women in many regions of the world.

The situation of incitement to hostility and violence in the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya

The extreme violence and heavy use of force and weaponry used against demonstrators fighting for democracy and social change in Libya was strongly condemned by member states during this HRC session. It was felt that in carrying out such attacks of barbarity against his own people, Colonel Gaddafi has lost his legitimacy to govern. Delegates discussed the world’s moral obligation to improve the situation and protect Libyan population. Member states highly commended the unanimous resolutions taken by the council during the 15th special council session which took place on the 25th February, praising such firm, fast, decisive action. The question remains however, when major unrest and violence started in the country on the 15th February, was this in fact fast enough? Many delegations highlighted that action needed to have been taken by the council otherwise the name, standing and reputation of the UN and its mechanisms would have been severely questioned. It was affirmed that the resolutions taken send a strong message of intent to other tyrants and dictators who may feel that they too could incite such hostility and violence against their own civilian population under similar circumstances. During this HRC session this reasoning, although justified, seemed to somewhat overshadow the principle reason for UN intervention; to protect the rights to life, liberty and security of the population. Indeed surprisingly, the Finnish delegation was the only delegation to make the link between the responsibility to protect and intervention. Colonel Gaddhafi has undoubtedly infringed his responsibility to protect his citizens, yet how far must the infringement go before further intervention is taken by the UN? Member states stressed the need for dialogue and for joint, transnational and transregional measures to be taken. The resounding message from this session was that ALL options of how to handle the situation are very much on the table; the Security Council will review and consider these options as the situation develops. From this session it is clear that human rights violations are not tolerated in the case of Libya, however violations seem to be tolerated nonetheless to a certain extent in other countries, for example Iran.

Discussion on other topics centred on the need to establish an early warning system for human rights violations, and further rights for LGBT persons, particularly through decriminalising homosexuality. Discrimination was also highlighted in relation to stereotyping taking place in the Arab world, especially affecting Muslim minorities. Many delegations praised the UPR for being one of the most significant achievements of the council, and one of its most innovative features. Special Procedures was deemed as an indispensible mechanism to complement the UPR . Concerning the general operation of the HRC and the HRC review, some delegations felt that some states’ political will remains insufficient or in direct opposition to the council’s objectives. Brazil expressed concern that some strategic alliances among member states are keeping some human rights violations quiet. H.E Mr Joseph Deiss, President of the UN General Assembly, stressed that the HRC review process must continue in a coherent and cooperative manner.

Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food

The Special Rapporteur on the right to food focused his presentation on the benefits of agro-ecology as a means of improving access to food. Centring on the principle of integrating ecology into agricultural production by paying attention to ecosystems and sustainable cycles of production, member states viewed agro-ecology favourably as a means of increasing food productivity, particularly in rural areas. The benefits from agro-ecology can be seen not only on health in terms of increased nutrition but also the environment in terms of a sustainable alternative in the face of climate change.

Member states felt that in order for agro-ecology to be successfully implemented, frameworks need to be set up to promote international cooperation. The need for dialogue between the public and private sectors was highlighted, with member states questioning how private and public investments could complement each other to improve access to the right to food.

It was stressed that there is a great need to empower women to benefit from agro-ecology, a need to involve them in the dissemination of knowledge and increase their access to and control over agricultural production. Alongside this there is a need to improve market access for farmers practising sustainable agriculture, making sure that market access is granted through international trade conditions so that it is fair and adequate subsidies are accorded. Member states considered capacity building among small scale agriculture as important for future development and maintained that real political will needs to be found to improve access to food. All parties need to be aware of the scale and urgency of the problem so that adequate funds are allocated.


Special Rapporteur on the Right to Adequate Housing as a Component of the Right to an Adequate Standard of Living


During this interactive dialogue the Special Rapporteur maintained that the right to adequate housing must be viewed as part and parcel of the right to an adequate standard of living. In the aftermath of a natural disaster or in post conflict situations, an adequate and timely response needs to be drawn up to provide citizens with adequate housing as soon as possible, however it was stressed that this should not be to the detriment of finding a long term sustainable housing solution. Rehabilitation plans need to be drawn up in anticipation of natural disasters and conflicts, with their scope reaching beyond the immediate preoccupations of disaster management.

Member states emphasised the need to consult those that have been affected and displaced by conflict and natural disasters when drawing up rehabilitation plans. Survivors are the best placed to advise what is needed and their involvement generates a strong sense of purpose and accomplishment.

It was highlighted that one of the main problems to ensuring the right to adequate housing in post conflict or post natural disaster situations is the lack of written land tenure records in developing countries. Efforts need to be made to document existing tenure and property rights, and assess them in the event of these situations to make sure that tenure rights are guaranteed to those affected.
The EU maintained that the right to adequate housing can be addressed in peace agreements, and asked for this to be explored further. How exactly have peace agreements addressed the right to adequate housing in the past?




Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights while Countering Terrorism


Today countering terrorism is one of the most pressing needs of the international community. During the interactive dialogue it was concluded that the Special Rapporteur’s inclusion of 10 areas of best practises on countering terrorism were well founded and merit serious attention and study. It was widely agreed that human rights promotion and counter terrorism are mutually reinforcing goals; counter terrorism must be consistent with human rights obligations. Some of the most serious human rights violations are currently taking place under the name of the war on terror, specifically the use of torture to illicit information from terrorist suspects. 
To make progress in this field it is imperative that an all-encompassing definition of terrorism is drawn up. Member states agreed that it is important that a variety of approaches be adopted, approaches which are creative in nature and which protect the rights of not only victims but also those who are falsely accused of terrorism. Member states stressed the need for these approaches to be non-discriminatory, especially towards Muslims. It was suggested that the use of internet in terrorism should be explored further and many member states maintained that people held on suspicion of terrorism should be given access to legal assistance of their choice. A number of member states questioned the reason why many detention centres do not meet international standards – is this a result of economic, social and political difficulties in countries concerned or a lack of political will? Are UN standards on this which date 50 years still adequate or is there a protection gap?

Special Rapporteur on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment


Torture is commonly appreciated as one of the worst violations of human rights to exist today. During this interactive dialogue it was affirmed that the worst torture today often occurs during pre-trial confinement and is most prevalent in anti-terrorism and immigration areas. 

Member states appreciated the Special Rapporteur’s advocacy of a victim orientated approach towards this issue, focussing on rehabilitation and indemnity. It was felt that national rehabilitation institutions are essential, and they should target adults, children and adolescents separately. Many member states were interested in the Special Rapporteur’s explanation that forensic expertise and other sciences can be used to provide evidence of torture and they requested more information on how this can work. To progress in combatting torture it was felt by many states that a clearer description of torture in legislation is needed. Capacity building is needed and other sciences should be explored in the fight to eradicate torture, along with the widespread establishment of support hotlines for victims. Resource sharing and engagement between countries is essential. Many member states condemned the existence of secret detention centres, maintaining that they should be resolutely shut down. Finally member states expressed their appreciation that the new Special Rapporteur is working closely with regional organisations and is continuing follow up work and dialogue with his predecessor. 

Special Rapporteur on Internally Displaced Persons


Internally displaced persons (IDPs) present one of the greatest humanitarian challenges facing the world today. During this interactive dialogue it was highlighted that climate change and a subsequent increase in scale, power and frequency of natural disasters threatens to exacerbate this problem significantly over the coming decades. Member states stressed the need to examine the links between climate change and displacement further, developing links between human rights and climate change mechanisms and establishing closer dialogue between climate change scientists and humanitarian actors. Guidelines and response mechanisms need to be set up in anticipation of natural disasters and armed conflicts, working on the basis of regional, national but also international cooperation. 

It was felt that capacity building, financial support and monitoring are essential to deal with this problem and should be on an international scale. Social and economic conditions in affected regions need to be improved to lessen the suffering of those affected. Within the social dimension, efforts need to be made to reconcile differences between groups and tribes who are displaced to eradicate instances of violence and disputes. It was felt that special attention needs to be paid to the situation of ID women and children as they often experience violence and there remains a need to mainstream their rights, safety and security. Assistance needs to be targeted to their specific needs to improve their situation. The Special Rapporteur aims to focus on the situation of ID women in his new mandate, for the gender dimension remains yet unexplored. It was felt that action should take into account displaced persons outside of camps and settlements along with host families, and good practises need to be shared. 

Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances


From the interactive dialogue on this Working Group it was concluded that the right to truth is one of the most fundamental rights applicable to the issue of enforced disappearances. Victims of violations along with their families have the right to know the truth of what occurred including the identification of perpetrators, causes and events. The right to truth complements the right to justice and it is important that organisations continue to battle to find out the truth long after the event if the case remains unsolved. The right to truth can be considered as one of the most effective tools to ensure horrors are not repeated. Best practises need to be identified and shared in this regard. 

Working Group on Arbitrary Detention


During this interactive dialogue the Working Group’s desire to extend the scope of its mandate to include the examination of detention centres and their conditions was widely supported. It was felt that conditions in detention centres need to be improved in many areas including personnel training, access to legal systems for penal procedures and numbers of detainees. Access to fair trials needs to be increased and associations should be set up to provide legal services to detainees who cannot afford to pay for them. It is essential that the independence of judges is guaranteed. It was widely agreed that secret detention centres need to be addressed in international law. The numerous urgent appeals to draft studies on secret detention centres need to be answered.

Special Representative of the Secretary General on Violence Against Children


During her presentation, the Special Rapporteur of the secretary general on violence against children, Ms Marta Santos Pais, emphasised how violence against children is particularly problematical as violence is a taboo within society and is not talked about. Mechanisms such as hotlines and counselling services exist however they are not accessible to the most vulnerable children, are under-resourced and under-publicized. Children lack trust in services available to them, believing that they will be judged or stigmatized if they report the violence. 

The member states agreed that it is important that children feel that they are taken seriously, that they are empowered and supported. In order for this to happen it was agreed that there is a need for more credible and accessible counselling available at national, regional and international levels. Counselling needs to be sensitive to the child’s age, maturity and circumstances, along with being gender and culturally sensitive. It is crucial that the mechanisms available are publicised worldwide. Such mechanisms should be available to all children without discrimination. UNICEF maintained that there are three priority areas which need to be considered in this field. Firstly all states need to develop a national comprehensive strategy to deal with violence against children. Secondly a legal ban on all forms of violence against children needs to be imposed. Thirdly there needs to be a comprehensive data collection system developed to document all cases of violence against children. Many member states maintained that it is important to consult the child’s opinion when evaluating and shaping policies and mechanisms. UNICEF appealed to member states to keep this issue high on the international agenda.


Hilary Clinton: - UN Photo/Jean-Marc Ferre

SR on the Right to Food : UN Photo/Jean-Marc Ferre

SR on the Right to Adequate Housing :- UN Photo/Jean-Marc Ferre

SR on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment :- UN Photo/Jean-Marc Ferre

SR on Internally Displaced Persons : - UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe

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