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29 February 2012

19th session of the Human Rights Council opens in Geneva

On 27 February, the Human Rights Council (HRC) opened its 19th session in Geneva. In her opening speech during the high-level segment, Navy Pilly, UN High-Commissioner for Human Rights, reflected on the achievements of her office (OHCHR) in terms of fact-finding missions and needs-assessments; human rights advocacy; good offices activities and technical projects; as well as on the achievements of the Council. She emphasized the positive legislative and policy change at national level brought about by the Universal Period Review (UPR); and the Council’s responsiveness to human rights violations on the ground. However, she underlined that the Council still has progress to make in ensuring that all people in all nations can fully enjoy their human rights, noting that “the Council must improve in following up its recommendations and other actions. Importantly, it has not developed ways to tackle States, including among its members, which fail to cooperate with the Council, its subsidiary mechanisms, other United Nations bodies and my office.”

The first day of the meeting was also marked by a high-level panel discussion on “Human rights through Sports and the Olympic Ideal.” Moderated by Jeremy Browne, UK Minister of State for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the event featured three panellists from the world of sport, including Keith Mills, Deputy Chair of the London 2012 Organizing Committee; Carlos Nuzman, President of Rio 2016; and Vladimir Lukin, Human Rights Ombudsman and President of the Russian Paralympic Committee. Recognizing that sport and major sporting events, such as the Olympic and Paralympic Games, are capable of attracting a large (television) audience, the event aimed to examine ways in which sport and major sporting events can be used to increase people’s awareness and understanding of their universal human rights. The discussion also aimed to explore ways to strengthen the synergies between the Olympic Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), especially in terms of universality, non-discrimination and equality.

In her opening address to this panel, Navy Pillay emphasized that sport is widely recognized as a vehicle for peace and human development. It can build self-confidence as well as solidarity; develop social, educational and physical skills; enhance respect for human rights principles; improve public health; and empower marginalized groups. She also drew attention to the shared values and objectives of the Olympic Charter, the UDHR and other human rights treaties. Despite these similarities, there seems to be little interaction between the human rights movement and the world of sport, she said. Keith Mills reflected on the history of the Olympic and Paralympic Games and noted that the Games had helped to reunite countries after the Second World War. Although sport can bring many opportunities, he emphasized that it is no panacea for all the ills in the world. He elaborated on the organization of the Olympic and Paralympic Games in London this year in order to explain what kind of opportunities such events could bring to society. For example, in collaboration with trade unions, new labour and protection standards were developed for the construction of the Olympic Park. Carlos Nuzman highlighted Brazil’s efforts in preparing for Rio 2016 and in meeting the Millennium Development Goals. He referred to large investments in infrastructure and mass transportation, as well as slum upgrading and social rent programmes to improve people’s living conditions and security. Finally, Mr. Lukin also elaborated on the linkages between the Olympic Charter and the UDHR, noting that sports for everyone should become a goal. He further reflected on human rights violations that needed to be addressed, such as in cruel types of sports, sports aggression, and in relation to the use and control of doping.

19th session continued

During the 19th session, Member States will discuss more than 80 reports, including those prepared by independent human rights experts appointed by the Council. These reports address an exhaustive list of human rights issues, including the right to development, adequate housing, and food, as well as social and cultural rights, children’s rights, the situation of human rights defenders, and the issue juvenile justice. The human rights situation in several countries, such as Iran, Myanmar, Côte d’Ivoire, Libya and Syria, will also figure high on the Council’s agenda.

Moreover, the Council will feature eight additional high-level panel discussions that will look at issues such as human rights mainstreaming within international cooperation and in UN activities; the freedom of expression on the Internet; discriminatory practices in connection with sexual orientation and gender identity; and the rights of various groups in society, such as children; persons with disabilities; minorities, and people living with HIV/AIDS.

The session will conclude with the adoption of resolutions and decisions that consequently will need to be implemented. To see the full programme of the 19th session, click here.

In parallel to the 19th session, many NGOs are organizing side-events. For an overview of events organized, click here.

Below follows information on various human rights issues that will be addressed at the 19th session of the Council. These include:
The Right to Development
Human Rights and Children
Human Rights and HIV/AIDS
Human Rights and Minorities
Human Rights and Internally Displaced People
Human Rights and the Right to Food
Human Rights and the Right to Adequate Housing
Torture and Arbitrary Retention
The Freedom of Religion or Belief

The Right to Development

On 7 March, the Report of the Secretary-General and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, as well as the Report of the open-ended Working Group on the Right to Development will be presented to the Council. These reports underline the relation between development and human rights and confirm that development and human rights go hand in hand, and should not be treated separately. Increasing poverty and inequality, malnutrition, and unemployment are the result of development policies that are centred on economic growth, rather than human rights. These policies have marginalized a large part of the global population and made them even more vulnerable.

Considering the interrelation between human rights and development, the first report (of the Secretary-General and the High Commissioner), highlights the need for concerted, determined and coherent action in order to make the right to development a reality for all. The precondition for such coordinated action is the existence of political consensus, which however, has been lacking since the Declaration on the Right to Development was adopted in 1986. As such, the report recommends that “twenty five years after the adoption of the Declaration, the politicization, polarization and stubborn impasse in the intergovernmental debate on the right to development must end.” According to the high-level task force on the implementation of the right to development, the main difficulty with this right is to “reconcile a holistic vision of human rights, implying indivisible and interdependent norms aimed at maximizing the well-being of all individuals and peoples, with development, which requires sound economic policies that foster growth with equity.” The task force explains that countries in theory agree and support the mutually reinforcing nature of development and human rights, but that in practice, they find it difficult to apply the right to development to decisions of policy and resource allocation. Moreover, the right to development is contentious as countries do not seem to agree on the fine line between the national and international dimensions of this right and the responsibilities that come with it.

The second document (of the open-ended Working Group on the Right to Development) to be presented at the Council, features the outcomes of the Working Group’s twelfth session and brings a more technical focus to the discussion. It considers among other issues, the criteria that were developed to periodically evaluate the state of implementation of the right to development. These criteria were created with the aim to improve the effectiveness of global partnerships that are built around the right to development and to contribute to a better integration of this right in the policies and operational activities of all stakeholders. However, similar to the controversies around the right to development, there is no political consensus yet with regard to the criteria, and the Working Group will continue revising and improving them.

Human Rights and Children

The discussions that will take place on 7 and 8 March aim to find ways to make humanitarian aid measures as well as legal provisions at the national level better suited for the protection of children. Both the Report of the Special Rapporteur on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography; and the Annual report of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Violence against Children will be presented to the Council. The report of the Special Rapporteur focuses on the sale and sexual exploitation of children in situations of humanitarian crisis, caused by natural catastrophes. It finds that the current humanitarian response in emergencies lacks the necessary means and knowledge to adequately respond to the protection needs of children, especially in terms of exploitation or other forms of ill-treatment to which children can be imposed.

The discussions will thus focus on improving the humanitarian response to address the specific vulnerability of children. Adapted support for children during each phase of a catastrophe is required and this needs to be reflected in the financing, planning, implementation and coordination of protection programmes. The establishment of a national coordination mechanism that can help identify priorities assign roles and responsibilities, and direct resources in order to support a more effective response to the specific needs of children is recommended in the report.

With regard to the issue of violence against children, the debate will centre on the strengthening of the legal framework for the protection of children, such as the universal ratification of the optional protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child. To further prevent, prohibit and eliminate all kinds of violence against children, the Council is expected to discuss the establishment of legal frameworks at national level, as well as ways to improve and consolidate partnerships between governments, civil society organizations and youth groups.

Special attention should be given to the signing ceremony of the third Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which was held on 28 February. This new Protocol, adopted on 19 December 2011 by the UN General Assembly, will give children or their representatives the opportunity to submit complaints to the Commitee on the Rights of the Child regarding all forms of violation of their rights.

Human Rights and HIV/AIDS

On 20 March, a panel discussion on human rights and HIV/AIDS will examine the situation and experiences of people living with or affected by HIV/AIDS, in particular, young people, women and orphaned children, with a view to reinforcing the centrality of human rights in the response to HIV/AIDS. This panel will also discuss concrete proposals to transform the future global HIV response and address deep seated forms of stigma and discrimination, as well as other challenges in HIV prevention, treatment, care and support.

In her report on the protection of human rights in the context of HIV/AIDS, the High Commissioner for Human Rights analyzes the context and objectives of the 2011 Political Declaration on HIV and AIDS from a human rights perspective. The report notes that people living with or affected by the disease continue to face stigma and discrimination with insufficient measures in place to protect them against such discrimination. In fact, the report refers to earlier studies that found that anti-discrimination provisions, as well as legal protections, and specific human rights related programmes in the HIV/AIDS response are lacking or insufficiently implemented in many countries around the world. The report thus recommends Member States to show political leadership; revolutionize HIV prevention; ensure affordable, acceptable, accessible and good quality treatment; and guarantee sustainability of and investments in the AIDS response. Moreover, it underlines that Member States will need to “ensure that the goals and aspirations of the Political Declaration are translated into actions and results that respect and protect human rights and fundamental freedoms.” To make the HIV/AIDS response more effective, people that are living with or affected by the disease will need to participate in the design of future solutions.

Human Rights and Minorities

A panel discussion to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities is scheduled for 13 March. The panel will examine how minorities are being treated in society, and especially consider their ongoing experiences with discrimination, exclusion and marginalization, which constitute a lack of respect for their human rights. It will also examine how the Declaration has served the purpose of advancing the rights of persons belonging to national or ethnic, religious and linguistic minorities, and identify the remaining challenges.

The report of the High Commissioner on Human Rights that will be presented to the Council, entitled “Rights of persons belonging to national or ethnic, religious and linguistic minorities,” urges the international community to recognize that “the protection of minority rights is not only a human rights imperative but constitutes a key element in conflict prevention.” States are therefore recommended to remove obstacles that can withhold minorities from expressing and promoting their identities, and to provide enabling conditions that are in line with the above-mentioned Declaration and other key international standards. It also makes reference to the OHCHR publication “Minority Rights: International Standards and Guidance for Implementation” (2010) which provides relevant information on the mechanisms and standards in place to protect the rights of minorities, such as their right to participation in all aspects of the political, economic, social and cultural life. It supports, for example, the creation of free, independent and diversified media or the active participation of minorities within the institutions of justice and law enforcement.

Human Rights and Internally Displaced People

The situation of people that are displaced within their own countries and that do not live in camps or compact settlements for internally displaced persons (IDPs) will be addressed by the Council on 6 March, when the report of the Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Internally Displaced Persons will be presented. According to the report about “27.5 million people in the world today remain displaced within their own countries due to armed conflict, generalized violence and human rights violations,” and only a minority of these live in camp-like settings. Although it was generally thought that IDPs that do not live in camps are less in need of protection and assistance, the report explains that this was a false assumption, underlining that IDPs living outside camps have specific needs. It is thus necessary to provide special attention to this group and to provide a support framework that is adapted to their specific situation. Based on the report, the Council is expected to consider the following three priority areas:

• Internally displaced people within urban areas that have become “invisible” or difficult to identify and are therefore not counted as IDPs and do not receive support.
• The relation between IDPs and the host communities that are often the first to intervene and to provide assistance to displaced persons. These host communities will need to be supported in order to maintain such efforts.
• An expanded role for local authorities. In principle, it is the State that is responsible for guaranteeing the protection of IDPs. Provincial and municipal authorities, however, are the ones that are directly confronted with displaced persons, but are often constrained in helping them due to a lack of resources.

Human Rights and the Right to Food

On 6 March, the conclusions of the Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food will feature on the agenda of the Council. Recognizing that hunger is still prevalent, but that also more and more people are suffering from obesity, the Special Rapporteur, in his report, analyzes the relation between health and the different elements of malnutrition (ranging from under-nutrition to over-nutrition). He especially looks at ways to make healthy “sustainable” diets more accessible to everyone on the planet, and to support farming systems in producing food that is adequate for such diets. Sustainable diets are “diets with low environmental impacts which contribute to food and nutrition security and to healthy life for present and future generations. Sustainable diets are protective and respectful of biodiversity and ecosystems, culturally acceptable, accessible, economically fair and affordable; nutritionally adequate, safe and healthy; while optimizing natural and human resources.” More healthy food will thus not only benefit society at large, but can also help small-scale farmers in becoming more ecologically sustainable.

The debate will especially focus on moving away from the globalization of food chains and agricultural policies that favour the use of mass grain production, crop breeding, intensive fertilizer use, the mechanization of production, and that lead to heavily processed foods. Instead, agrifood systems need to be reshaped; subsidies need to be revisited, and the marketing of food and beverages needs to be regulated. The latter is especially relevant for the health of children as they are often influenced by advertisements that promote foods high in saturated fats, trans-fatty acids, sodium and sugar (HFSS foods). The Rapporteur also recommends that Member States “transpose into domestic legislation the International Code of Marketing of Breast-milk Substitutes and the WHO recommendations on the marketing of breast-milk substitutes and of foods and non-alcoholic beverages to children.”

Human Rights and the Right to Adequate Housing

The right to adequate housing and especially women’s access to this right is also expected to be discussed by the Council on 6 March. The report of the the Special Rapporteur on adequate housing as a component of the right to an adequate standard of living, and on the right to non-discrimination in this context underlines that practices of gender inequality, discrimination, and even domestic violence make women disproportionally face violations of their right to adequate housing. This is especially true for women belonging to minority groups. There are numerous judicial, political and practical obstacles that need to be addressed, including:
Security of tenure: women are often forced to leave their homes in case of a divorce or the death of their husband. To avoid such practices, housing law, policy and programming should explicitly recognize the independent right of women to security of tenure, irrespective of their family or relationship status. Moreover, States should protect women form forced evictions by private actors and third parties.
Access to sanitation and water: Difficult access to water and sanitation facilities disproportionately affects women as it means they need to travel longer to search for water for their families. Moreover, there is plenty of evidence that, in the absence adequate sanitation facilities, women face a greater risk of experiencing sexual violence. States are therefore recommended to ensure that housing includes water points and sanitation facilities available for and accessible to women. This will not only ensure women’s rights to water and sanitation, but also to health.
Housing should be strategically located: States are also recommended to ensure that housing is adequately and strategically located in order to provide women with access to employment options, health-care services, schools, childcare centres and other social facilities. As women generally earn less than men, the costs and the duration of their displacement to go to work or access other services will need to be taken into consideration.

Customary law remains one of the largest obstacles in guaranteeing women their right to adequate housing. It is thus recommended that people, and women in particular, are informed about their human rights. Moreover, guaranteeing women access to the judicial system will support them to claim their rights and enhance law effectiveness.

Torture and Arbitrary Retention

On 5 and 6 March respectively, the Council will address the human rights violations of torture and arbitrary detention. The report of the Special Representative on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment that will be presented to the Council aims to underline the importance of creating commissions of inquiry at national level in order to better understand the contexts in which acts of torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatments take place and to end such practices. It notes that the creation of such national commissions would allow collecting information on government practices and policies. This will not only help the work of independent human rights experts, but also support States to better respect their international legal obligations towards torture and ill-treatment. It needs to be stressed that these commissions will only have a complementary role and will not relieve States of their obligations.

Another report that will be presented to the Council and that is related to the issue of torture is the report on the United Nations Voluntary Fund for Victims of Torture. This report highlights the need for regular contributions, so that victims of torture and their families can be better protected around the world.

The his report on 5 March, which will draw attention to the different meanings of “State recognition” in relation to the freedom of religion or belief. Similar to the freedom of thought or conscious, the freedom of religion or belief is a fundamental right that does not necessarily need to be approved by States to be exercised. The report highlights the importance to consider the different interpretations of the term “recognition” as it can easily lead to misunderstandings. The Special Rapporteur identifies a total of three interpretations, including:
• “recognition” in the sense of the due respect for the status of all human beings as right holders by virtue of their inherent dignity;
• “recognition” in terms of States providing for the possibility of obtaining the status of legal personality, which religious or belief groups may need for the exercise of important communitarian aspects of their freedom of religion or belief; and
• “recognition” in the sense of States according a specific privileged status position to some religious or belief communities.

The existence of a “State religion” will also be addressed as it can lead to the discrimination of religious minorities and the violation of their right to freedom of religion or belief.

Background information on the Human Rights Council

The Human Rights Council, created in 2006 in order to replace the UN Commission on Human Rights, is an inter-governmental UN body responsible for strengthening the promotion and protection of human rights around the globe and for addressing situations of human rights violations and make recommendations on them. It meets three times a year during its regular sessions and provides a space for government representatives to address and discuss human rights issues and concerns.

For more information on the Council, click here.

Photo credits:
© Antoine Tardy/UNOSDP

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