Week One of the 21st Session of the Human Rights Council

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UN Photo/Pierre-Michel Virot
UN Photo/Pierre-Michel Virot

The 21th Session of the Human Rights Council started in Geneva on Monday, 10th of September with the opening statement of United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon followed by the presentation of the report of High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay.                             

Opening statements

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon reiterated his strong support for the Human Rights Council and for Navi Pillay as High Commissioner. He commended the Council for its action on Syria and Libya and on its prominent response to boththematic and country specific human rights concerns and took the opportunity to point out five specific challenges for the Council and its member states:

  • Ensure that the output of the Council also shapes the policy-making across the United Nations
  • Send a clear message that there should be no impunity for reprisals and intimidation against human rights activists who either work within or cooperate with the United Nations
  • Deepen the engagement to combat  all kinds of discrimination and violence based on sexual preferences and gender identity
  • Keep up the fight for the rights of women
  • Increase the budget allocations for the Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights

In her report, the High Commissioner highlighted the indivisibility and interconnectedness of all human rights, values that are reflected in the Universal Periodic Review mechanism. She turned to several country specific human rights concerns and pointed out the need for the safeguarding of the humanrights of indigenous people and minorities in order to prevent hatred and xenophobia. The High Commissioner also mentioned the close ties between economy and human rights pointing out that austerity programs in European states should not negatively impact peoples’ enjoyment of human rights. Regarding the death penalty, she commended the global trend towards abolishment and urged states that not yet are on track to follow. She was pleased to report that the Rio+20 Conference final outcome document gatheredstrong support for a green economy that goes hand in hand with human rights.

Highlights of the week

Discussions under the first week of the session focused on Item 2,Annual report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and reports for the office of the High Commissioner and the Secretary-General and Item 3, Promotion and protection of all human rights, civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights, including the right to development. Clustered interactive dialogues were held with various Special Rapporteurs, including the Special Rapporteurs on extreme poverty, water and sanitation, contemporary forms of slavery and hazardous substances and waste. For the first time in the history of UN, a panel discussion on intimidation or reprisals against individuals and groups who cooperates with the UN human rights mechanism took place. Below are more details on a selection of this week’s Council meetings:

Panel discussion on the issue of intimidation or reprisals against individuals and groups who cooperate or have cooperated with the UN, its representatives and mechanisms in the field of human rights

The High Commissioner of Human Rights, Navi Pillay, highlighted in her opening statement the importance of NGOs participation in the work of the Human Rights Council and underlined that the Council has an ethical responsibility to secure the safe participation of civil society in the UN human rights mechanism. The panelists argued that the entire UN system is at stake as long as human rights activists risks reprisals and intimidation coopering with UN. The panel stressed that perpetrators must be punished as there should be no impunity when actors from civil society are object to harassment, smear campaigns, torture, arbitrary detention and even killings.

The panel suggested several measures to combat the situation

  • Installing witness protection programs
  • Decriminalizing criticism of state institutions and their representatives
  • Learning from good practices. Several member states have adopted national legislation to protect civil society.

Interactive Dialogue with Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and Special Rapporteur on water and sanitation

During the interactive dialogue states emphasized the interconnectedness between extreme poverty andthe human right to water and sanitation. A key issue in the discussion was the need for states to address stigma and discrimination as parts of their efforts to eradicate poverty. Many states where concerned about the fact that  marginalized group were the ones most likely to suffer from lack of water and sanitation. In the thematic debate states commended the Special Rapporteurs Guiding Principles on tackling the situation.

Interactive Dialogue with Special Rapporteur on hazardous substances and waste and Special Rapporteur on contemporary slavery

The Special Rapporteur on hazardous substances raised awareness on negative effects upon environment due to the exploitation of production sites by extractive industries. With regard to mining, he was concerned about children working in mines developing mercury intoxication and urged states to respect the Convention of the Rights of the Child. In his report he also highlighted the need for the USA to take full responsibility for the impact of their nuclear testing programs on the Marshallese peoples’human rights and to give appropriate support to victims of displacement and radiation.

The Special Rapporteur`s report on contemporary slavery focused on servile marriage which deprives both adults and children of their human rights. In order to combat the situation she stressed theimportance of country visits in order to gain deeper understanding of countries specific cultural context and recommended that servile marriages should be criminalized.

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