The 30th Session of the United Nations Human Rights Council was held in Geneva from September 14 through October 2, 2015. The High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein opened the session with impassioned remarks about the ongoing challenges to the advancement of International Human Rights:
“I, together with many of my colleagues at the office, feel exhausted and angry. Exhausted, because the system is barely able to cope, given the resources available to it, while human misery accelerates…And angry, because it seems that little that we say will change this. Unless we change dramatically in how we think and behave as international actors…The human rights community will be inconsequential in the face of such mounting violations.”
He reminded the room full of diplomats that criticism is not the enemy of sovereignty but rather an important part of healthy governance:
“Sovereignty cannot be damaged by carefully evaluated commentary. The search for truth can do many things, but it does not weaken, violate or assault. Upholding human rights is intrinsic to the obligations of sovereignty…The voice of human rights is raised in support of your governance—to assist in building societies that are resilient, peaceful and prosperous.”
During the Session, IFOR hosted a group of ten human rights activists from Mexico, Colombia, South Sudan, and Western Sahara, brought to Geneva through their partnership with the SweFOR, IFOR's Swedish branch.
Representing a variety of different organizations in countries facing similar yet distinct challenges to human rights, the activists experienced a week of training on the various ways in which the work of the United Nations in Geneva can help to protect human rights on the ground. They attended debates in the Human Rights Council and watched it adopt the Report on the review of a member state under the Universal Periodic Review; they met with staff of the High Commissioner's Office working with some of the Council's special procedures, and heard how these take up complaints about human rights violations sent to them by activists in country; they saw two of the ten “treaty bodies” - the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the Committee on the Rights of the Child – questioning delegations from a “state party”. Some met with the World Council Churches – also based in Geneva – and the Lutheran World Federation; meanwhile the rest of the party met with other leading ngos – Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, and also with UPR-Info and the CCPR Centre - ngos with the specific purpose of facilitating the access of in-country activists to specific UN procedures (the Universal Periodic Review and the Human Rights Committee, which oversees the implementation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, respectively).
Our partner organizations were able, through IFOR, to make a number of statements to the Human Rights Council. Djimi El Ghalia, from Western Sahara (herself a person who had been “disappeared” for two decades) took part in the “interactive dialogue” with the Working Group on Enforced Disappearances (her remarks can be accessed here). Luis Emil Sanabria Duran, of REDEPAZ, spoke about the Colombian peace process in the debate on “Human rights situations which deserve the Council's attention”. Pablo Romo Cedano, of SERAPAZ Mexico intervened in the “Annual Half-day Discussion on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples” and his colleague Alberto Solis Castro delivered a statement in the joint interactive dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on Indigenous Peoples and EMRIP (the Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples).
IFOR also hosted two side events during the Council session.
On 24th of September, the side event on Military Service and Human Rights featured three speakers: the refugee lawyer Cecilia Bailliet, from the University of Oslo, who provided a critique of the latest guidelines from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees on refugee claims related to military service issues; Rudi Friedrich, from the German organization Connection-e.V. , who provided an update on refugees fleeing Ukraine to avoid being obliged to participate in the armed conflict – on whichever side; and Maruja Léon of JUSTAPAZ (one of the participants in the training), who spoke about recent developments regarding conscientious objection to military service in Colombia.
The following day, an event organized in collaboration with SweFOR and AFAPREDESA (the association of families of disappeared persons in Western Sahara – itself an IFOR affiliate - focused on the issue of disappearances. Two of the speakers had been participants in the training.
Djimi El Ghalia told the story of her experiences while “disappeared”. You might imagine that people working on human rights in Geneva hear so much , but a seasoned NGO person subsequently confessed to feeling humbled to hear just what the person she had spoken with two days previously had gone through in the past, and was filled with admiration for not only how well she had recovered from these experiences, but had had the mental courage not to bury them but to return to them for campaigning purposes. situation facing the people of Western Sahara and was organized in collaboration with. It highlighted the plight of the disappeared persons and the difficulty that the victims have had with seeking accountability for their loss.
Kheira Youcef, who has lived her entire life in a Sahrawi refugee camp in Algeria, spoke, equally from the heart, as a person one of whose parents is currently “disappeared.”
The third speaker was Christiane Perregaux, a member of BIRDHSO (the International Office for the Respect of Human Rights in Western Sahara, the acronym is from its French title).
IFOR is grateful to the Quaker Office at the United Nations in Geneva for allowing us to use their space for the trainings. To Rachel Brett, Peggy Brett, and Laia Evia for their expertise and support for the program. And of course to SweFOR, who provided the resources, and more specifically to their team of accompaniers, Teresia Carlgren, Sanna Svensson, Maria Guerra and Ester Harrius.
The last formal statement of the Council session was delivered on the afternoon of 2nd October by Philippe Dam of Human Rights Watch – one of the people who had given up time to talk with our group. Speaking on behalf of nine highly-respected ngos, he returned to the themes in the High Commissioner's opening address.
“As we close this session, civil society shares a sense of disappointment about the Council's overall failure to effectively fulfill its mandate to address situations of human rights violations, and hold States to account for these violations. (…) we are disappointed by the lack of transparency in the negotiations on the resolution on Sudan, which affects the capacity of human rights defenders to fully participate and contribute to the debate.”
One of the people invited to our training was Mamoun Abdallah, the Executive Director of the Sudanese Organization for Nonviolence and Development (SONAD). Sadly, the Swiss authorities refused his visa application, and an appeal. IFOR's UN Representative Derek Brett responded to this frustrating situation saying
“When the current refugee paranoia in Europe spills over to refusing temporary access to the United Nations for a leading human rights defender from one of the most abusive states, what is the result? Answer: Europe gives firm material support to repressive regimes”
Philippe's statement ended: “we welcome the explicit affirmation by more than 60 States of the Council's legal duty to address intimidation and reprisals, and protect those co-operating with the Council…”