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Reflections on the 44th session of the UN Human Rights Council

Despite the challenges associated with the COVID-19 pandemic and strict health measures in place, since March 2020, DefendDefenders has pursued its engagement with the UN human rights system, including the Human Rights Council. The latter concluded its 43rd session (HRC43) on 23 June and opened its 44th session (HRC44) after a one-week break, on 30 June 2020. In these difficult times, as many human rights defenders (HRDs) are prevented from traveling to Geneva to conduct advocacy, DefendDefenders’ Geneva office is an invaluable asset. A permanent presence in International Geneva means that continuity is ensured for DefendDefenders’ and AfricanDefenders’ advocacy efforts. This is critical to ensure that the voice of African HRDs is heard as the UN and States formulate strategies to combat the pandemic. Decision-makers should follow a human rights-based approach at all levels, both to combat the SARS-CoV-2 virus and to tackle ongoing and emerging human rights issues.

Despite logistical challenges, HRC44 was a rich session. Important resolutions were adopted on country situations (including Eritrea (see below), Syria and Belarus) and thematic issues. These include freedom of expression, peaceful protests, extreme poverty and human rights, the responsibility to protect (R2P), and the contribution of human rights to the purposes and principles of the UN Charter. See NGOs’ comprehensive analysis. Concerns over human rights violations committed in China, in particular in Xinjiang and Hong Kong following the adoption of a national security law, caught international media attention. Unfortunately, big power politics was also blatant and a number of African States were pushed to openly support China’s position, as well as its broader attacks against the international human rights system. China’s strategy revolves around using a flawed interpretation of “sovereignty” and “non-interference in internal affairs” to combat human rights scrutiny (on this topic, read our statement at HRC43, as well as ISHR’s analysis).

In her annual report to the Council, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, focused on the human rights implications of COVID-19. She saluted good practices and raised concern over violations perpetrated in relation to the fight against the pandemic. We welcome her take on freedom of expression and the role of journalists, HRDs and civil society. In an oral statement, we echoed her concerns regarding human rights issues in a number of East and Horn of Africa countries – some of which, like Uganda and Rwanda, have nonetheless taken sound measures to prevent the spread of the virus.

In other debates, in particular on women’s rights, human rights experts, States and civil society organisations highlighted the negative impact the pandemic has had on specific groups. As a result of lockdown measures, women and girls have been subjected to additional, systemic violence and discrimination, and they continue to bear the brunt of the crisis, including at the economic level.

We welcome the steadfast leadership of the African Group in the fight against female genital mutilation (FGM), as the Council adopted a resolution on the topic. For the first time ever, in a strong resolution on discrimination against women and girls (DAWG), the Council also recognised ‘sexual and reproductive health’ (SRH) and ‘reproductive rights’ (RR), as well as ‘the right to SRH,’ without qualifying them by mentioning the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) and Beijing outcome documents (ICPD Programme of Action and Beijing Platform for Action). This was despite the opposition of a minority of countries, led by Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Russia. DefendDefenders welcomes this step and encourages all States to do more to promote and protect women’s and girls’ rights, including their sexual and reproductive rights. A few days prior to HRC44, we launched “Making a Difference for Women and Girls?,” a report that analyses how, and to what extent, East and Horn of Africa countries contribute to the advancement of women’s and girls’ rights at the UN. We note the fact that Somalia abstained on two hostile amendments to the resolution adopted at HRC44. Unfortunately, Sudan supported four out of five, and Eritrea supported all five amendments. These amendments were all rejected by the Council. In the future, we hope that States of the sub-region will fully prioritise women’s and girls’ rights over political considerations and alliances.

Our priorities for HRC44 included Eritrea. Last May, together with Eritrean, African, and international partners, we called on the Council to extend the mandate of the UN Special Rapporteur on the country. In a resolution adopted with a broader margin than in 2019, the Council took precisely this step, heeding our message that it should “urge Eritrea to make progress towards meeting its membership obligations” and “not reward non-cooperation by, but rather maintain scrutiny of, one of its members.” Read our press release.

The resolution mentions the “benchmarks for progress” the Special Rapporteur identified in her 2019 report. The benchmarks form a road map for human rights reforms in the country, and we urge Eritrea to change course and cooperate with the Special Rapporteur. We are encouraged by the fact that through their statements and interventions, a number of African States actually pushed Eritrea to engage with the UN human rights system more fully. In June 2020, One Day Seyoum’s founder, Vanessa Tsehaye, was our HRD of the Month.

Due to logistical constraints, the core group of States on civil society space (Chile, Ireland, Japan, Sierra Leone, Tunisia) was unable to present a resolution this year. Instead, Ireland delivered a statement on behalf of a large number of States and NGOs, addressing the need to protect civil society space in these difficult times. We were happy to sign on to this statement. The core group will aim to present a strong resolution in 2021. Read our joint paper on the role civic space should play at the Council.

During the debate with the UN Special Rapporteur on freedoms of peaceful assembly and association (FoAA), we co-signed a statement delivered by CIVICUS. We highlighted the vital importance of FoAA, which underpin the very existence of civil society. They are the rights to organise and mobilise for a fairer, more just world.

As Burundi has witnessed significant changes with the sudden passing of President Nkurunziza and the swearing in of a new President, General Évariste Ndayishimiye, we delivered a statement building on a recent joint letter. We encouraged the newly elected President to commit to a reconciliation agenda and grant pardon to all unjustly detained HRDs.

Ahead of HRC44, we pursued consultations on the situation in Sudan and actions the Council could take to promote and protect human rights in the country and support a democratic transition. We value the fact that the Sudanese government, including its Permanent Mission in Geneva, are now open to regular meetings with civil society. This is a significant change from the pre-Revolution situation. While a resolution at HRC44 would have made sense in terms of timing, we stand ready to provide input and help stakeholders reach the best possible outcome on Sudan at the next session (HRC45). The Council’s approach should be based on support (through the provision of technical assistance and capacity-building) and scrutiny, as monitoring of and public debates on Sudan’s human rights situation continue to be needed.

At HRC44, we were glad to co-organise an online event with Sudanese HRDs and the Vice-President of FIDH, our friend Sheila Muwanga. We also delivered a comprehensive statement during the session’s “enhanced interactive dialogue” on Sudan.

Lastly, the session witnessed the adoption of meaningful resolutions, some of which were mentioned above. All are available below. Of particular interest is the resolution presented by Costa Rica and Switzerland on “peaceful protests.” This topic, which is at the centre of civic space, is incredibly important – all the more so as countries are “reopening” while at the same time facing an economic crisis that risks exacerbating inequality and injustice. The resolution’s sponsors and its supporters resisted attempts by Russia, Egypt and others to dilute its focus. With this resolution, the Council sends the right message to all those fighting for a better world.

The 45th session of the Council (HRC45) is scheduled to take place from 14 September to 2 October 2020. Stay tuned and have a nice summer!

Hassan Shire

2. Advocacy documents and press releases

  • Letter: Eritrea – Maintain Human Rights Council scrutiny and engagement
  • Press release: Eritrea – UN extends scrutiny as no human rights progress can be reported
  • Paper: Mainstreaming civic space in state interventions at the UN Human Rights Council
  • Report: Making a difference for women and girls?

3. Side-events at the Council

Sudan at a crossroads: what role for the HRC? (13 July 2020)

4. Outcomes: resolutions