Next week the United Nations’ big annual set piece on human rights begins; the spring session of the UN Human Rights Council. It runs for five weeks, from February 28th to April 1st, and will be inundated with the world’s top diplomats and human rights activists, who will wade their way through mountains of reports.This content was published on February 22, 2022 - 14:00
It’s too easy, sometimes, to be overwhelmed by all the paperwork and protocol of the human rights council. The 47 council members sit, day after day, in the vast council chamber, listening to those endless reports, and waiting for their two minutes to speak.
Of course, the content of the reports is utterly serious; from possible war crimes and crimes against humanity in Syria, Yemen, or Myanmar, to the plight of child soldiers, to violence against women, and racial discrimination. Our world continues, day after day, to flout the human rights standards we’ve all signed on to defend.
But the very quantity of those reports, the way multiple human rights crises are addressed in a single day, before moving on to the next litany of cruelty and misery, can be exhausting, and, somehow, desensitising. I, and my journalist colleagues at the UN in Geneva, often find it difficult to interest our editors in what the human rights council is doing. Not least because, when those editors ask “so, once they’ve passed the resolution condemning x or y country, what happens then?” our answer has to be “not much”. The council has no power to impose sanctions, it cannot prosecute, its investigators can never apprehend someone they know to be a war criminal, and drag him or her to the International Criminal Court.
A listening ear?
So what’s the point of it? That’s the question we try to answer in this week’s edition of Inside Geneva. We talk to human rights investigators, and to human rights defenders, people who bring their own testimonies of atrocities to the UN, often at great risk to themselves, and, often, because the UN is their last and only hope.
Andrew Clapham, who is currently a member of the UN team investigating violations in South Sudan, tells us that “The idea that someone has listened to your story, and you have taken your case to the United Nations is incredibly important.”
But is that enough? Is the UN’s human rights work simply a form of counselling, a way for victims of violations to talk through their trauma?
Feliciano Reyna, a human rights defender from Venezuela, explains that the UN’s regular reviews of a country’s record, from its upholding of the convention against torture, on women’s rights or the rights of the child, allow human rights defenders to participate – they come to Geneva to present their version of what’s happening in their country. This process, Feliciano tells Inside Geneva has been “absolutely key in advancing our work on human rights and putting Venezuela on the international and local agenda”.
We also talk to Collette Flanagan, whose son Clinton was shot and killed by Dallas police in 2013. Together with many other US mothers who have lost a child to police violence, Collette brought her case to the UN, because, she told us, her attempts at home to get answers for what had happened to her son, who was unarmed, were “dismissed by…the police department, we couldn’t get any answers to what happened to our child.”
Collette’s campaigning resulted, eventually in the UN’s report on the treatment of people of African descent. Presenting that report last year, UN Human Rights Commissioner Michelle Bachelet drew a direct link between slavery and the violence and discrimination inflicted on people of African descent today. She said there was “an urgent need to confront the legacies of enslavement” and called for “amends for centuries of violence and discrimination”, including “formal acknowledgment and apologies, truth-telling processes and reparations in various forms”.
For Collette, the report was a hugely important sign that even the most powerful country on earth, with its oft repeated promise of “liberty and justice for all”, is not above international scrutiny.
“The United States is a democracy,” Collette says. “And we are supposed to uphold life, liberty and freedom for every citizen. And that is not happening in the United States. And if those things are not happening in the United States then that is an egregious attack on democracy and human rights and freedom. How can the United Nations not be involved?”
But what about the war criminals?
One of the most disturbing investigations currently underway by UN human rights officers is the Fact Finding Mission on Myanmar, which is examining, among other things, the treatment of the Rohingya Muslim community by Myanmar’s ruling military regime.
In 2016 and 2017 over a million Rohingya fled appalling violence. When human rights officer Ilaria Ciarla arrived in the refugee camps in Bangladesh to take witness accounts, among them from mothers whose babies had been killed before their eyes, she tells Inside Geneva her initial reaction was “incredulity… is this possible? How can human beings do such horrible things to other human beings?”
Australian lawyer Chris Sidoti also served on the Fact Finding Mission, and highlights the inherent weakness in the human rights council’s inability to legally hold perpetrators to account. “I still know that the Myanmar butchers who are responsible for what happened may never individually be brought to justice,” he says.
But, he explains, those UN investigations are quietly growing some teeth. Names of perpetrators, and all the evidence to convict them, is available to courts, national or international, who do have the power to try and convict.
“We are seeing court cases in the top international courts now, dealing with Myanmar,” he notes. “The International Court of Justice is using our report. The International Criminal Court is using our report.”
And for Khin Ohmar, who has devoted her life to the struggle for democracy in her native Myanmar, this is a milestone. “Oh yes, that is what I have been working for, there is no other way. We have allowed this military to enjoy blanket impunity for so long, and that must stop,” she says. “These perpetrators [must be] held to account by law, and there is no domestic law available, so now we need international law to hold them to account for all the crimes they have committed against the people of Myanmar.”
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