Towards the end of each year, the 193-member General Assembly routinely votes on a resolution entitled “report on the Human Rights Council,” covering the Geneva-based body’s work over the previous year.
This year, African nations, backed by countries like China and Cuba, introduced a measure that “takes note” of the HRC’s report, but then goes on to defer action on one particular resolution passed by the council in its most recent session last fall – “in order to allow time for further consultations.”
That landmark HRC resolution, which was co-sponsored by the U.S., mandated the U.N. secretary-general to appoint a high-level official or officials (“a senior focal-point”) to deal with the issue of intimidation and reprisals against individuals who cooperate with U.N. human rights mechanisms.
It also urged countries to “prevent and refrain from” such reprisals and intimidation, and to enact laws to protect human rights defenders.
When the resolution was before the HRC, several countries with poor human rights records, including China, Russia, Pakistan and Venezuela, tried to water it down by proposing various amendments.
After the council overwhelmingly passed the resolution on September 27 it was hailed by the State Department as a highlight of the HRC session, and one of several outcomes that “underscored the importance of robust U.S. engagement at the council.” The HRC’s president, Remigiusz Henczel of Poland, said the measure was “of utmost importance.”
Having failed to weaken the measure in Geneva, opponents turned their attention to New York, and on Wednesday the General Assembly applied the brakes. The African-sponsored resolution passed by a vote of 94-71 (with 23 abstentions), after a European-led counterproposal failed by a narrow margin, 83-80 (with 18 abstentions.)
A number of countries raised concerns about the General Assembly “reopening” decisions that had already been taken by the HRC.
The Swiss delegate said the move would undermine the U.N.’s human rights system while the U.S. representative warned of a damaging precedent being set. Australia’s delegate voiced regret at a move that would delay action on the “urgent” reprisals issue.
Others disagreed, with Zimbabwe’s representative saying that the HRC is a subsidiary of the General Assembly which is therefore permitted to “correct” its work – a position echoed by Cuba.
For decades people living under repressive regimes who have cooperated with the U.N. human rights system – for instance by submitting reports, meeting with visiting human rights investigators, or testifying at hearings – have faced the risk of payback in various ways at the hands of their governments.
Those targeted include victims of abuses or their relatives, lawyers who represent them, and employees of human rights non-governmental organizations (NGOs).
According to International Service for Human Rights (ISHR), a Geneva-based NGO that has a strong focus on supporting human rights defenders, reprisal measures can range from “state-sponsored smear campaigns, to the de-registration or closure of NGOs, to arbitrary arrest, torture and even death.”
ISHR called Wednesday’s vote in New York “an unprecedented move.”
“Attacks, intimidation and reprisals against people who work to expose and seek accountability for human rights violations at the U.N. violate international law and undermine the U.N. itself,” said ISHR legal counsel Madeleine Sinclair.
“It is deeply concerning that the international community has not stood united in the fight against reprisals. It is particularly concerning that African states, home to so many courageous human rights defenders, actively opposed vital measures to improve their protection.”
Nicole Bjerler of Amnesty International’s office at the U.N. in New York, said the General Assembly through its vote had “signaled its reluctance to protect human rights defenders from attacks.”