Children's rights at the United Nations CRINmail 150 - Human Rights Council session 31
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This week CRIN is at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, reporting live from its 31st session with daily round-ups of each day’s discussions on children’s rights. We will be monitoring where children’s rights are discussed - or left out of debates - throughout the week.
Thursday saw the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, present his annual report on human rights around the world, followed by comments from States. The day also featured a high-level panel discussing the next steps for creating a Global Study on Children Deprived of Liberty, as well as a number of side events.
Report by the High Commissioner for Human Rights
Summary of the High Commissioner's annual report
The annual report of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein, was met with approval and dismay by the States assembled at the Human Rights Council. He slammed States which resorted to “human rights window dressing” in his opening, insisting that ratifying treaties meant nothing if they were not implemented and respected.
Al Hussein moved on to address the ongoing refugee crisis, noting the welcoming stance adopted by Germany in particular, but also pointing out the problems being caused by closed borders in the countries neighbouring Greece. The High Commissioner also noted that more than 400 people had died in the first two months of 2016 attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea to reach safety in Europe despite a growing culture of xenophobia across the continent.
Describing the situation in Syria, he mentioned the immense suffering of the majority of people, triggering an unprecedented migration movement, complicated further by other conflicts, including a worsening situation in Yemen. Al Hussein noted that war had devastated Yemen’s infrastructure and given increasing space for extremists to recruit while airstrikes also added to streams of refugees leaving the region.
Decrying ongoing violence in Libya, the High Commissioner also observed that violations of human rights were now being committed with impunity with courts no longer functioning in a meaningful way. Egypt was also singled out for its broad definition of terrorist offences, crackdowns on freedom of expression, and lack of investigation into torture by police and security forces, of which children have also been victims.
Turning to the Americas the High Commissioner noted that due to the rapid spread of the Zika virus, States would have to take serious action on respecting women and girls' reproductive rights. He reiterated that all people have a right to sexual and reproductive health and noted that advice to avoid pregnancy was not helpful in States where sexual violence against women and girls is still prevalent. Touching on racism in the United States, Al Hussein noted that hundreds of African-Americans had been killed by police forces, also adding that the US has still failed to close the now-notorious Guantanamo Bay.
On Asia the High Commissioner noted that there had been little progress ten years after the end of armed conflict in Nepal and noted that the next few months would be vital for the government of Sri Lanka as it works on a transitional justice process. He also said that in Malaysia democratic space continues to be undermined, especially among journalists, while in Thailand a new draft constitution offers the hope that the country will return to democracy and respect for human rights.
Notably, the High Commissioner said that the ongoing accusations against UN peacekeepers in the Central African Republic relating to the sexual abuse of children were profoundly disturbing, and referred to recommendations released today by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon. The High Commissioner reminded States that the UN did not have the power to prosecute criminals and insisted that States should adopt a draft convention laid out a decade ago to guide States in prosecuting their citizens who are acting on behalf of the UN overseas. As an additional measure Al Hussein recommended that whenever new allegations are brought to the UN, the ambassador of the accused country should also join press conferences where the announcements are made.
States responses to the High Commissioner's report
The United States was the first to speak, alerting to disappearances in China, which it alleged were "out of step with the international community". The representative of the US claimed that confessions made ahead of charges run counter to law and international human rights standards and demonstrated that lawyers and human rights activists were being harassed by the Chinese authorities.
China quickly returned fire, listing grave human rights abuses carried out by the US, including continued imprisonment of suspects without trial in Guantanamo Bay, mass surveillance and data collection overseas, and the use of drones in warfare resulting in many civilian casualties, among others. China called for the US to focus on its own problems before pointing the finger at another State.
Saudi Arabia, on behalf of the Gulf Cooperation Council, alleged that the work of the Human Rights Council continued to be a politicised affair, with an ever-increasing focus on social and political rights to the detriment of economic and cultural rights. Saudi Arabia also noted that, 70 years since the start of the Israeli occupation of Palestine, the international community had still not come up with a solution.
The European Union noted the challenges posed by the Syrian conflict and vowed to continue working together to end the unprecedented human suffering unfolding on its doorstep. Japan pointed out that the grave human rights situation in North Korea went unmentioned in the High Commissioner's report, while Pakistan helpfully added that Islam had perfected the idea of human rights 14 centuries ago and insisted that the Human Rights Council should not work on rights which are not universally accepted already.
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Global Study on Children Deprived of Liberty
Children who are deprived of liberty fall into a statistical vacuum, with numbers of these children potentially ranging anywhere from the tens of thousands to the millions, said UN Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson at a side event on the Global Study on Children Deprived of Liberty. The event discussed the next steps for carrying out the Study, with Eliasson insisting that an urgent increase of funding would be necessary to complete the Study. Others on the panel stressed that support expressed by States in principle would now have to be translated into tangible resources.
The need for an independent expert was agreed by the panel, which also noted that it has now been a year since the Study was called for by the UN General Assembly. Marta Santos Pais, Special Representative of the Secretary-General (SRSG) on Violence against Children said the study was now a moral, ethical and legal imperative, as the Sustainable Development Goals agenda calls on all States to have clear strategies on this issue. Peggy Hicks, director of the Research and Right to Development Division for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights indicated that her office would be willing to act as the secretariat to the study should funding be made available.
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Side event: Combating violent extremism
While presenting his report on preventing and countering violent extremism, SR Ben Emmerson noted that there is no generally accepted definition of violent extremism, which remains an "elusive concept". Emmerson criticised the practice among a number of States imposing a legal duty for public-sector bodies to identify individuals who may be vulnerable or at risk of being drawn into terrorism. According to the SR, this is incompatible with some public bodies’ functions, particularly those involved in healthcare, where duties of confidentiality might be compromised, and education where the free flow of ideas is crucial.
A side event organised by ARTICLE 19 also addressed this issue, discussing the lack of international consensus around what is meant by extremism. Faiza Patel from the Brennan Center for Justice highlighted problems with the US response to preventing violent extremism online, from issues of private companies removing online content to the potentially harmful role of governments in producing counter extremist content.
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International LGBT rights
Organised by Allied Rainbow Communities
Human rights in Syria: Women
Organised by Women's International League for Peace and Freedom
Human rights in Middle East
Organised by the Women's Human Rights International Association
Adverse effects of terrorism
Organised by the Association for Defending Victims of Terrorism
Organised by Rencontre Africaine pour la defense des droits de l'homme
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Irony of the week
Irony and hypocrisy abound when a State criticises another yet congratulates itself, and today was no exception at the Human Rights Council.
In its intervention during the debate with the Special Rapporteur on terrorism and the Special Rapporteur on cultural rights, the Israeli delegation said: "Let us begin educating for moderation and peace, by first showing zero tolerance towards those who educate for the opposite."
Yet there seemed to be a footnote missing from the delegation's speech, because when mentioning education and tolerance they missed the bit about how Israel promotes tolerance in schoolchildren by using textbooks that depict Palestinians as deviants, terrorists, refugees and primitive farmers.
And speaking of moderation, the delegation also forgot to mention Israel's practice of arresting children in their homes during the night for alleged stone-throwing, targeting civilians with excessive force, and holding children in administrative detention because, you know, just in case.
But hey, perhaps we're just biased, like the Human Rights Council.
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