International Human Rights Weekly News Roundup

by Pauline Canham

In focus

Saudi Arabia’s bid to join Human Rights Council fails

China, Russia and Pakistan have been elected to the Human Rights Council for the next three years, while Saudi Arabia failed to win a seat in the 13th October vote, despite being the current chair of the G20.  A secret ballot in geographical areas decides the seats, with Asia Pacific the only contested region this time.  The UK and France were unopposed in their election to the council, representing Western Europe, and Russia and Ukraine were similarly unopposed for Eastern Europe.  Saudi Arabia lost out to Pakistan (who won the most votes for Asia), Uzbekistan, Nepal and China, though China’s share of the vote dropped by 20% compared to the last election in 2016.  China has come under widespread criticism for human rights abuses, most notably its treatment of the Uighur Muslim population in Xinjiang province, and brutality towards protestors in Hong Kong.

Saudi Arabia was the only country that competed unsuccessfully for the Asia Pacific seat that it last held in 2019.  The killing of Jamal Khashoggi, the imprisoning of women’s rights advocates and the catastrophic war in Yemen, all policies of Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, have been cited as reasons for the lack of support for the Kingdom this time.

There were 15 seats available, with the remaining seats going to Ivory Coast, Gabon, Malawi and Senegal for Africa, and Bolivia, Cuba and Mexico representing the Latin American region.  President Trump pulled the United States out of the Human Rights Council in 2018, accusing the UNHCR of giving seats to human rights abusers.  US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, said that the US has pressed for reform of the council, but “those calls went unheeded”, adding that the elections on 13th October only validated their decision to withdraw.

Rights groups have expressed their concern about allowing the worst of human rights violators to join the council.  UN director at Human Rights Watch, Louis Charbonneau, said “Serial rights abuses should not be rewarded with seats on the Human Rights Council”.   The executive director of independent Geneva based human rights group, UN Watch, said “Electing these dictatorships as UN judges on human rights is like making a gang of arsonists into the fire brigade”.  


Other stories making the headlines around the world






Middle East

The United States: a world leader in human rights?

By Dr Andrew Fagan

On Thursday 20 June 2018, the US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, and the US Ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, announced that the US was taking the unprecedented move of formally withdrawing from the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC).  America’s two most senior diplomats sought to justify the not-unexpected decision by graphically depicting the UN’s foremost human rights body as entirely unfit for purpose. They explained that despite the US’s concerted attempts to reform the body, the work of the UNHRC was irreparably compromised by the presence of several human rights-violating Member States on the Council. Haley denounced the Council as “a protector of human rights abusers and a cesspool of political bias.” She then proceeded to argue that the US was compelled to withdraw from the foremost UN human rights body precisely because of what she presented as the US’s unequivocal support for human rights. In another communication, Haley declared that the US would remain a “world leader” in the continuing fight for human rights. She stopped short of evoking the Scriptural “city on the hill” symbolism which often accompanies the US’s self-identification as the global moral super-power, but her message was clear enough: true defenders of human rights must not continue to support the UNHRC and should join the US in taking such a politically “courageous” move.

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 UK faces difficult questions over its Human Rights record during its third Universal Periodic Review

By Andrew Fagan and Munira Ali

Human rights have become deeply political in the UK, and have been persistently condemned by many opinion-formers (for examples, see here and here). Where once many considered human rights to be entirely secure, in the UK human rights are increasingly misrepresented as embodying the out-of-touch prejudices of that increasingly reviled class: the liberal elite. Human rightsphobia has become a powerful, if irresponsible, political weapon and we can expect more of the same during the UK’s general election campaign in which some politicians will seek political advantage by drawing upon fears and hostility which no healthy democracy should encourage.

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SOGI Mandate Passes Third Committee Hurdle

Co-authored by the following members of the Human Rights Centre, University of Essex: Munira Ali, Acting Project Officer; Lorna McGregor, Director; Daragh Murray, Blog Editor; Patricia Palacios Zuloaga, Director, Human Rights Centre Clinic; Sir Nigel Rodley, Chair; Clara Sandoval, Acting Director (2017); Ahmed Shaheed, Deputy Director.

Editors Note: This blog originally appeared on EJIL:Talk! This post also follows on from a previous post: ‘What is the Future of the SOGI Mandate and What Does it Mean for the UN Human Rights Council?’

On 21 November 2016, the Third Committee of the General Assembly (GA) voted to uphold the United Nations mandate of the Independent Expert on sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI) in a very closely fought vote. The decision represents a major stepping stone for the promotion of LGBTI rights, and provides much-needed reassurance regarding the ability of the Human Rights Council (HRC) – and the broader UN machinery – to adequately combat international human rights challenges.

Two main points of contention emerged during discussions leading up to, and during the day of the vote: 1) whether there is a legal basis for the mandate (the substantive argument); and 2) whether the GA has the power to override decisions made by the HRC (the procedural argument). It was the latter argument that generated the most discussion, and will therefore be the main focus of this post.

This post will begin with an analysis of what exactly happened on the day of the vote, and will be followed by an exploration of the two main arguments. The post will end with a discussion on what this vote could mean both in the short-term and long-term. Continue reading

Prevention, Protection and Solutions in relation to Displaced Persons: Three Dichotomies

By GS Gilbert

Given that there are approximately 65 million forcibly displaced individuals of concern to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), respect for international refugee law, international human rights law, the international law of armed conflict, international criminal law and the rule of law generally has never been greater if the need for flight is to be prevented or at least lessened. As for protection and solutions, though, they are often considered to be separate elements of UNHCR’s response to displaced persons and stateless persons, yet that is a false dichotomy. Traditionally, protection consists of documentation, registration, non-refoulement and status determination; solutions used to be three durable solutions of voluntary repatriation/ return, resettlement/ relocation, and local integration. However, when the modal average time spent as a displaced person is twenty years, the concepts of protection and solutions have to be reconfigured so that they are recognised as coterminous, that solutions begin at the point of protection and that ongoing solutions promote protection. To explain, the documentation and registration of new arrivals and of stateless persons is often seen as the start of international protection and, to be sure, it is, but they are also the gateway to solutions. They provide access to the ongoing solutions of employment, education, health care and legal services, all rights provided for in the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, 1951, and its 1967 Protocol, they empower the displaced and stateless person and make them readier to enter durable and sustainable solutions such as voluntary repatriation/ return, resettlement/ relocation or local integration. “Warehousing” refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) in camps miles away from all other population centres leaves them at risk, particularly women and children of sexual and gender based violence (SGBV), and denies them chances to promote their own solutions. Where refugees and IDPs are integrated with the local population, the UN agencies can provide an integrated and comprehensive response that benefits the displaced and the local population as well as the government, central and regional.

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The human rights ‘win’ at the UNGASS on drugs that no one is talking about, and how we can use it

By Rick Lines and Damon Barret

The April 2016 UN General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on the world drug problem offered a unique opportunity to re-examine the approach of punitive suppression that underpins global drug control.  As the first such meeting to be held since 1998, it was a chance to set a new course, leaving behind what the UN Office on Drugs and Crime has called the negative ‘unintended consequences’ of the ‘war on drugs’.

Part of setting a new course must mean bringing human rights into the heart of drug control.  For too long, States have approached international drug control law in isolation, as if these obligations exist separate and apart from the broader framework of international law, and may be interpreted and applied as if no overlapping treaty obligations come into play.  This approach has contributed to the growth of human rights violations linked to drug control in all regions of the world – the death penalty; torture and inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment; arbitrary detention; denial of due process rights; violations of the right to health; mass incarceration; and many more. Continue reading

Why Europe does not have a refugee crisis

Putting to one side the question of just how many people arriving in Europe would constitute a crisis given the resources that are available in this region, especially after having regard to the numbers that cross into and remain in states in Africa and south-east Asia, this article is focusing on ‘Europe’, ‘refugees’ and the search for solutions.

By Geoff Gilbert, Professor of Law, School of Law & Human Rights Centre, University of Essex.

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Thoughts on the Operationalization of Human Rights

When asked by the Essex Human Rights Centre to comment for the blog series on what the meaning of “operationalization” of human rights, I hesitated.  The term itself, nowhere to be heard when I was at Essex in the human rights Stone Age, seems ubiquitous now in these circles. I first really became aware of its emergence when participating in informal negotiations on the Human Rights Council resolution on Business and Human Rights in 2008.  Resolution 8/7 “recognize[d] the need to operationalize” the UN framework on business and human rights and mandated stake holder consultations on “ways and means to operationalize the framework.”   I distinctly remember during the course of discussions a number of State delegations expressing puzzlement at the use of the term, with one querying whether the word “operationalization” even existed in the English language. (In fact, certain etymological sources indicate no known usages of term until the 1950s.)

By Ian Seiderman.

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