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

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

The second week of the 23rd session turned to country specific and thematic dialogues, the Annual Day of discussion on women's human rights and adoptions of 13 UPR reports.

Some of the highlights during the week included

Commission of Inquiry on Syria

Created in August 2011 by the Human Rights Council through resolution S-17/1, the mandate of the Commission is to investigate all alleged violations of international human rights law since March 2011 in the Syrian Arab Republic. The fact that Commission members are denied access to Syria by the government has made the work difficult and, as a result, statements have been collected in neighbouring countries. On Tuesday, the Chair of the Commission, Mr. Paulo Sérgio Pinheiro, delivered a statement to the plenary based on the latest report. Stating that "Syria is in free-fall", he expressed grave concern over government forces systematically employing sieges across the country. Adding to the unprecedented plight of the Syrian civilians, less precise weaponry such as cluster munitions targeting hospitals and medical personnel is a sign of the government’s flagrant disregard for international law. Abuses, including the use of child soldiers, committed by anti-Government armed groups, amount to war crimes but do not reach the intensity and scale of those committed by Government forces, Mr. Pinheiro told the Council.

Furthermore, he voiced his dismay over the belligerent rhetoric that further inflames existing sectarian tensions. Addressing the Council, he reiterated the High Commissioner’s statement of the first week of this session, saying that the only solution to the civil war is a diplomatic and political one. In this regard, he urged States to refrain from transferring arms and ammunition to any side of the war.

Taking the floor as a concerned country, Syria spoke out against the mandate of the Commission denouncing the report as biased and unbalanced, backed up by Venezuela whose representative blamed the situation on terrorists and mercenaries sponsored by western States with a political agenda to overthrow the al-Assad regime. 

Russia, reminding the plenary of its opposition to the resolution which created the Commission, underlined the paramount importance of a Syrian led political solution. Russia rejected accusations that the regime bears the sole responsibility for the crisis, and requested greater objectivity and partiality of the Special Rapporteur. 

An absolute majority of States taking the floor expressed their extreme concern over the deteriorating situation and underscored the importance of holding all those committing human rights abuses accountable for their actions. In the same fashion, a broad call for a political solution based on the 2012 Geneva Communiqué was made during the general debate.  Denmark, France and Maldives were joined by many calling for a referral of the situation to the International Criminal Court. Botswana, Turkey and the United Kingdom demanded Syria to ensure the Commission members and humanitarian workers full access to people on the ground. Germany and Italy drew the attention to the danger of increased sectarian violence through increased numbers of foreign fighters. Other States, including the United Arab Emirates deplored that Syria continuously ignores recommendations from all UN human rights mechanisms. Saudi Arabia reminded the Council to step up its efforts to implement a comprehensive system for handling increasing waves of refugees and internally displaced persons.

Annual day of discussion on women's human rights
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Ms. Navy Pillay, opened the first panel of the Annual Discussion on Women’s Rights. In her statement, she outlined the important role played by the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) in raising awareness on violence against women on the international agenda but nevertheless, violence against women remains widespread. Ms. Pillay welcomed the establishment of specific legal frameworks, institutions and policies, but recognized that much still has to be done in terms of implementation of these policies.

Ms. Patricia Schulz, member of CEDAW Committee, highlighted that even if a large number of countries have already ratified the Convention, its implementation faces main challenges due to late and irregular reporting by the States and therefore she recommended governments to strengthen cooperation and engagement with the Committee.  Ms. Florence Butegwa, Representative to Ethiopia , outlined the positive trends and achievements in the African region in terms of legislation, implementation of national plans of action and adaptations of international standards. On the other hand, there are still challenges to be faced, mainly linked to the lack of resources, funding and investment to implement effective plans to combat violence against women.

Ms. Simone Cusack, Senior Policy and Research Officer at the Australian Human Rights Commission, elaborated on the impact of stereotypes on judges and legal systems. In particular, she highlighted how gender stereotyping contributes to the creation of obstacles for women who are trying to find their way out of violence through legal means. Fatma Khafagy, Egyptian Ombudperson for Gender Equality, addressed the problems of Female Gender Mutilation (FGM), honor crimes, discriminatory family laws and violence exercised by groups of harassers. 

She highlighted the importance of having national and international laws that criminalize Female Genital Mutilation and underlined the negative consequences of the use of cultural, religious and traditional values to justify violence against women. Finally, she recognized the valuable contributions of civil society in tackling the issue.

The last panellist to speak, Mr. Juan Carlos Arean, Member of Secretary General’s Network of Men Leaders, focused on the relevance of engaging men to further the human rights of women. Men are and should increasingly be part of the solution instead of part of the problem. During the following discussion Canada, Estonia, Maldives, South Africa and Switzerland highlighted women’s economic independence as a key factor for  violence.

The Special Rapporteur on Sexual Violence in Conflict, Ms. Zainam Bangura, expressed her concerns about the use of sexual violence as a means and tactic to increase fear in conflict areas and thus better control the population. She recommended all States to take effective measures to improve levels of women’s access to education, representation in politics and economic independence.

In the following discussion, Argentina, Slovenia and Switzerland agreed that combating impunity for crimes of femicide and for perpetrators of violence against women required immediate action. Moreover, violence against women in conflict areas was identified by several delegations as an urgent problem to be addressed not only by the HRC but also by the Security Council. 

UPR adoptions

Montenegro’s Minister for Human and Minority Rights, Mr. Suad Numanovic, highlighted his countries legislative measures to adopt laws on non-discrimination focusing on children, women and the LGBT community. 120 out of 124 recommendations were accepted and steps are being taken by the government to provide religious groups with legal status as well as integrating children belonging to minority groups in the school system. An action plan is in the pipeline to ensure cooperation between civil society groups and the government in the implementation of accepted UPR recommendations. To facilitate the process, trainings will be arranged for members of government.

While largely applauded by States, NGOs - including Amnesty International - raised concern over a severe lack of accountability for acts of discrimination targeting minority groups. A culture of impunity is allowed to reign as court decisions often do not align with international and national standards. Child rights groups underscored the urgent need for a comprehensive child protection system to eliminate the widespread use of violence against children.

H.E. Dr. Anwar Mohammad Gargash, United Arab Emirates’ Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, presented the focus areas for the implementation of UPR recommendations. The State accepting 100 out of 180 recommendations, he ensured that women’s representation and gender equality in senior decision making positions will be guaranteed through legislative measures. Additionally, the prevention of sexual violence and trafficking in human beings will remain high on the State’s agenda together with girls’ education. Finally, the situation of foreign and domestic workers will be improved by reforming labor laws. Dr. Gargash named the establishment of a National Human Rights Institution along with domestic capacity building programs as the main tools to ensure successful implementation.

States emphasized the cooperative character of the United Arab Emirates UPR report. NGOs stressed the paramount importance of fair trials and called the State under review to increase its efforts to combat torture. Referring to the detention of 15 Egyptians in late 2012 who have not yet had a trial, the Amman Center for Human Rights studies, Amnesty International and the Indian Council of South America called on the State to guarantee all citizens’ right to freedom of expression and assembly.

Serbia accepted 132 of its received 144 recommendations. COC Netherland expressed concerns about discrimination faced by LGBT persons in terms of freedom of expression and assembly. Save the Children commended the Serbian Government for accepting all recommendations related to rights of the children but emphasized the need to enforce national laws on the issue. They also called upon the Serbian Government to ensure that all barriers to effective accessibility of children with disabilities to education are removed. Amnesty International highlighted that although progress has been made in the field of cooperation with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, it is important that Serbia brings to justice all persons, including senior police, military and political officials, suspected of committing crimes under international law. Moreover, they expressed concern for the relocation of Roma families in segregated settlements lacking basic services.

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