High Commissioner’s update to the 17th session of the Council: continued attention on MENA
Wednesday, 01 June 2011 16:59


On 30 May, the Human Rights Council (the Council) opened its 17th session with a comprehensive update by the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Ms Navanethem Pillay, on the work carried out by her and her Office (OHCHR) in recent months. Key issues of Ms Pillay’s opening statement, that were also mentioned during the general debate, were the situations in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) and related issues of discrimination against migrants, the Secretary General's Panel of Experts report on Sri Lanka, and treaty body reform. 



Many countries (Hungary (on behalf of the EU), the UK, Palestine, Nigeria, the US, Spain, Qatar, Maldives, Germany, Austria, Belgium) welcomed the prompt attention the High Commissioner brought to developments in the MENA region. The Maldives stated that it would co-sponsor a further resolution on the human rights situation in Libya, in an expression of solidarity with the people of Libya. There was criticism of Syria for its attitude of non-cooperation with OHCHR's fact-finding mission (UK, US, Austria, France). The UK asked about contingency plans in place should Syria refuse to allow the mission access. However, some States, such as Pakistan (on behalf of the OIC), Nigeria (on behalf of the African Group), Cuba, Thailand, the Russian Federation, Bangladesh, and Turkey raised concerns that rather than promoting a dialogue with these countries, the international community is interfering in the countries’ internal situations. In this context, Pakistan (on behalf of the OIC) stressed that it was important to ‘seek the truth from all sides’ and not make judgments based on information from ‘unsubstantiated sources’.


Following on from promises to play a more positive role in the Council, Egypt made a statement asserting that human rights will be placed at the centre of the ongoing transformation in the country, and that the Government was considering ratifying the Rome Statute, and signing the Convention Against Enforced Disappearances and the Optional Protocol of the Convention Against Torture. It remains to be seen if that rhetoric will translate into concrete improvements at the national level, and a more constructive role in international human rights fora.


In relation to the situation in the MENA region, the EU faced criticism for its response to the flow of migrants from the region (Nigeria (on behalf of the African Group), Pakistan (on behalf of the OIC), Brazil, Bangladesh, Algeria, Botswana, Iran). Brazil and Nigeria (on behalf of the African Group) echoed the High Commissioner's support for the Council of Europe's call for an in-depth investigation into the incident of migrants from North Africa being allegedly left to drown in the Mediterranean Sea. Algeria noted that it had opened its own borders, in contrast to the closing of the borders in the EU, and criticised EU States for their general failure to ratify the Convention on the Rights of Migrant Workers and their Families. France claimed that all migrants from North Africa would enjoy the full rights relating to asylum under international law, in particular the right of non-refoulement.


The report of the Secretary-General's Panel of Experts on accountability in Sri Lanka was another recurring issue mentioned by many States. Some States, such as China and Nigeria, expressed their confidence in the Sri Lankan Government to deal with their domestic affairs but added that the international community should continue to support the Government as it continued the process of reconciliation. Malaysia, however, expressed its concerns that the international community is undermining this process.


The Sri Lankan Government was ‘perplexed’ about the status of the report, as it understood that it was an advisory report to the Secretary-General, not a public report. It considered it ‘unfortunate’ that Ms Pillay referred to the document, thereby ‘jeopardising her objectivity’. China echoed the position that the panel report was to provide information to the Secretary-General only, and added that the sourcse of information were questionable and that the report contained unsubstantiated facts. In a statement made to the Council, the Sri Lankan Minister of Plantation Industries and Special Envoy for Human Rights, felt that the domestic enquiry mechanism had been prejudged as non-objective by OHCHR and others, and regretted the unwillingness to recognise the ‘enormous attempts made by Sri Lanka to reconcile the country’. The Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Christof Heyns, later also addressed Sri Lanka in his statement, saying that he considered as ‘authentic’ the video submitted to him showing the execution of prisoners.


The High Commissioner also faced criticism from several States who felt that the update presented had some unfortunate omissions. Pakistan (on behalf of the OIC) expressed disappointment that Ms Pillay did not acknowledge some other countries and their issues and violations, including the incident of the burning of the Koran in Florida in March 2011. Cuba regretted that violations and issues in other regions, such as Guantanamo Bay and the ‘Wikileaks incident’ were not addressed. It called for the eradication of double standards within the Council.


The reform of treaty bodies was a recurring issue during the general debate. The High Commissioner emphasised that the treaty body system is facing dilemmas, particularly with regards to the financial efficiency of its work versus impact and implementation. In general, States agreed to this and showed commitment to support the reform of treaty bodies; many of them mentioning that the system needed to be strengthened and revised. Pakistan (on behalf of the OIC) expected that all proposals resulting from the process of strengthening of the treaty body system would be discussed in an intergovernmental setting.


Although the High Commissioner herself did not this time make reference to the issue of sexual orientation and gender identity, Spain made a statement referring to the joint statement made on behalf of 85 States, which was delivered at the 16th session of the Council. It noted that the statement calls for OHCHR to explore ways of promoting a constructive dialogue, such as through a report, or by organising a seminar. The delegation added that the Secretary-General, treaty bodies, and special procedures had all affirmed the principle that no one should be deprived of their rights on the basis of their sexual orientation.


Finally, many States made reference to the universal periodic review (UPR), noting that as the second cycle will commence next year, an effective process of follow-up needs to be established (Moldova, Switzerland, Japan, Paraguay, Turkey, Ethiopia, Austria, Indonesia, Morocco, and Uzbekistan). The Czech Republic and Botswana also picked up on the High Commissioner's point in relation to the disparity in some cases between UPR recommendations and the situation on the ground, in particular in Libya.

Last Updated on Friday, 03 June 2011 09:41
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