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Reflections on the 43rd session of the UN Human Rights Council

A delegation of DefendDefenders and AfricanDefenders took an active part in the UN Human Rights Council’s 43rd regular session (HRC43, 24 February-20 March 2020; resumed 15-23 June 2020). On 13 March 2020, the session was suspended in light of the COVID-19 situation and public health measures adopted by the Swiss authorities and the United Nations Office at Geneva (UNOG). The Council resumed its work in June and concluded the session after adopting a number of resolutions. This makes it the longest-ever Council session. To allow for physical distancing, part of it took place in the Palais des Nations’ largest chamber, the Assembly Hall, instead of the usual “Room XX” (the Council’s plenary chamber). The 44th session was initially planned for 15 June-3 July 2020. The Council’s Bureau proposed 30 June-21 July as new dates.

While we welcome the resumption of the Council’s work, together with civil society partners, including HRCnet members, we expressed concern over restrictions on civil society participation, as external Schengen borders remain closed, side events cannot be held in-person, and oral statements via video message can only be made for a number of debates (interactive dialogues and panels, but not general debates).

However, the Council also proved to be innovative during this period. In April-May 2020, while in-person meetings were ruled out, it held a “virtual informal conversation” with the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (see the President’s remarks) and an informal conversation with special procedure mandate-holders (see video remarks). The Council also used online communications means to adopt a President’s statement (PRST) on the human rights implications of COVID-19, highlighting that human rights need to be at the front and centre of national responses to the pandemic.

This is in line with advocacy we have been conducting – see for instance:

(1) our resource page on COVID-19, human rights, and HRDs;

(2) our webinar series;

(3) our last bi-annual submission to the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR);

(4) our campaign to “free human rights defenders now”; and

(5) our content on well-being and resilience for HRDs, as part of our “Month of HRD Well-being” (June 2020). 

HRC43 witnessed the adoption of important resolutions on country situations (including South Sudan (see below), Libya, Iran, North Korea, Syria, Myanmar, the Occupied Palestinian Territory, and Nicaragua) and thematic issues, including human rights defenders (HRDs) and freedom of expression – both renewing Special Rapporteur mandates. 

In an unprecedented move, during its resumed session, on 17 June 2020, the Council held an urgent debate on racially inspired human rights violations, systemic racism, police violence against Africans and people of African descent, and violence against peaceful protests, with a focus on the USA following the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota. On 19 June, it adopted a resolution condemning racially discriminatory and violent practices perpetrated by law enforcement against Africans and people of African descent, as well as the excessive use of force against peaceful protests. The resolution also requested the High Commissioner to report to the Council. 

During the session’s initial week (24-28 February 2020), which is referred to as the “High-Level Segment” as high-level State and UN officials travel to Geneva to address the Council and launch policy initiatives, my delegation engaged State representatives, Human Rights Ambassadors, UN officials, independent experts, and NGO partners (see some of our pictures here and here). We were pleased to meet with the UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, together with HRCnet partners, as well as with the new UN Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights, Ilze Brands Kehris, to discuss issues of common interest and make the case for preventative action on situations of concern. During the High-Level Segment, the UN Secretary-General launched a global “Call to Action” for human rights – an initiative we welcome. 

Throughout the session, DefendDefenders focused on its top priorities, namely South Sudan and HRDs. Regarding South Sudan, our efforts to push the Council to renew the mandate of the Commission on Human Rights (CoHR) in the country were successful. We welcome the consensual outcome: a resolution that extends the CoHR’s mandate and international monitoring and reporting on South Sudan. 

Prior to the session, DefendDefenders led efforts to issue a call on States to take such a step. During the session, we engaged in advocacy efforts with two South Sudanese HRDs, Susan Sebit and James Bidal. We also held one of the last in-person side events of the session, with South Sudanese HRDs and Prof. Andrew Clapham, who is one of the three members of the CoHR. Lastly, in May, we published a report on the situation of HRDs and civil society in South Sudan, based on recent research findings. This report will continue to inform advocacy efforts at the UN and African levels. 

Regarding the protection of HRDs, at HRC43, DefendDefenders joined dozens of civil society organisations in calling on all States to support the adoption of a resolution extending the mandate of the top UN expert on HRDs, the Special Rapporteur (SR) on the situation of HRDs. We warmly welcome the resolution adopted on 22 June 2020 and the appointment of Mary Lawlor, founder of Front Line Defenders and a long-time friend and partner of DefendDefenders, as Special Rapporteur. We congratulate and salute the outgoing SR, Michel Forst, for his outstanding work over the last six years (2014-2020). Read our press release

We took part in plenary debates too. We delivered a number of oral statements, including on South Sudan, in line with the above. We urged Eritrea to cooperate with the Council and its mechanisms, including the SR on the country’s situation, pursuant to its membership obligations. We drew attention to Burundi’s volatile situation, using the risk factors and indicators identified by the Commission of Inquiry (CoI). We welcomed progress in Sudan, while stressing the need for continued attention, monitoring, and public debates on the country. We also seized the opportunity of the adoption of the report on the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of Egypt to call on African States to stand up to Egypt’s anti-rights agenda, following Egypt’s attacks against the mandate and integrity of the ACHPR. Pursuing work on prevention and objective criteria for Council action, we joined CIVICUS in calling for preventative engagement with Tanzania with a view to avoiding a further deterioration of the human rights and civic space situation in the country. 

Lastly, together with NGO partners, we raised the alarm about a resolution presented by China, entitled “mutually beneficial cooperation in the field of human rights,” which seeks to weaken the mandate of the Council, specifically to “address situations of violations of human rights, including gross and systematic violations,” and to undermine the indivisibility and universality of human rights, elevating national sovereignty over accountability for gross rights abuses. We delivered a joint statement referencing our 2019 report on the Council’s agenda item 10 (on technical assistance and capacity-building) and urging States to oppose China’s initiative. (More analysis by our friends at ISHR here.) 

I would like to close by mentioning a paper we made public last month. It is entitled “The UN Human Rights Council: What is it? How can it help HRDs? How to engage with it?” and provides HRDs and partners with basic information on the Council, the ways in which it can help HRDs and strengthen their work at the national level, and how to contribute to the work of the Council. 

As the public health situation continues to impact our work, we remain committed to the ongoing provision of capacity-building to HRDs, including through resources like this advocacy tool. 


Hassan Shire


1. Oral statements to the Council


2. Advocacy documents and press releases

  • Letter: The UN Human Rights Council should extend the mandate of the Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan
  • Report: Targeted but Not Deterred: Human rights defenders fighting for justice and peace in South Sudan
  • Letter: Support consensus renewal of the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders
  • Press release: South Sudan: UN rights council extends investigators’ mandate
  • Press release: UN rights council affirms unwavering support for human rights defenders


3. Side-events at the Council

South Sudan: ensuring continued HRC scrutiny and engagement (5 March 2020)


4. Outcomes: resolutions