Human Rights Council vs My Human Rights

By Khalea Callender, Programme Associate World YWCA

Based on my historical research, it was as a result of the Second World War, that international leaders vowed never again to allow atrocities like those of that conflict to ever happen again. World leaders decided to complement the UN Charter with a road map to guarantee the rights of every individual everywhere and hence the development of the UN Declaration for Human Rights. The saying is “Before a child is a child, a child is a human being”, so according to my interpretation, since we were all once children, then that makes us all HUMAN BEINGS, and every human being is entitled to have rights, according to this declaration; a right to life, a right to be free, a right to an education, a right to freedom of religion and a right to health care to name a few.jj
Over the last three weeks I had the privilege to attend the sitting of the 26th session of the Human Rights Council (HRC), which began on the 10th June, 2014, at the office of the United Nations in Geneva. It was truly an exciting time for me. I was elated for more than one reason. I was excited at the prospects of witnessing government representatives from all over the world discuss issues that would address human rights violations, promote human rights assistance and education, review States’ human rights records, work to prevent human rights abuses, respond to emergencies, and serve as an international forum for human rights dialogue. This in what I believed showed the commitment by governments to stand up for individuals and not just show boat what they saw as progress. To me it represented a step towards progress and development as not only individuals, but as communities, societies and nations at large.
During this sitting of the HRC, I felt waves of many varying emotions, from being excited, to disappointed, mostly anger and then at some points just sheer peace. Some of these emotions though came at the same time. Well to say the least, my frustration started from day one. I was disappointed to see that some governments did not find an event of this nature important enough to send a representative. Although the room seemed quite full, the fact that from where I sat, there were so many empty seats were alarming to me. One of these empty seats included that of my own country, Trinidad and Tobago. The question that continues to haunt me is that, in a world, where we read and hear of so many violent crimes and human rights violations taking place daily, why won’t governments find an event of this nature important for them to attend, even if it’s for them to listen and or share best practices? But I must say hats off to the governments and their delegations that did show an interest and made the effort to attend.
The process by which the Council ran was very intriguing especially the process of adoptions of resolutions. During the council a total of 30 plus resolutions were brought forward to the council to be adopted, which according to the President of the HRC , it was the first time in his tenure that so many resolutions were brought forward in one session. While states generally seek consensus to adopt resolutions, they can also call for a vote on specific resolutions. While the adoption of resolutions represents a crucial step in creating international and national accountability mechanisms, without adequate, binding measures to ensure implementation of resolutions, we must question whether Council resolutions serve as an adequate deterrent for perpetrators, as daily if you read any newspapers from anywhere in the world, human rights violations still occur.
The most controversial resolution brought to the council for me was called the “Protection of the Family”. This resolution forced me to ask myself many questions on what does development really mean to some people and some countries. How can we really be developing if as a country and as individuals we can’t accept freedom of choice? Each and every one of us has a right to choose the life we want to live. The choice of what religion suits me or the choice of who I marry. Making this choice should not exclude me from being able to be part of a family. In this resolution put forward by Egypt, there is no recognition of the fact that various forms of the family exist; including single-parent families, same-sex families, and child headed families, families without children and I could continue naming. One government representative even went as far as trying to define what a family is stating “A family is only man, woman and children, living under the same roof”. Are we really in the year 2014? Because after that statement, I really felt like I was in a time capsule that went back hundreds of years.
To my knowledge, the HRC was created to protect individual human rights; the family in its essence is made up of 2 to 3 individual and can be described as a unit. Therefore in my view, it should not be entitled to protection as a unit, but the individuals instead should be protected. Also the resolution adopted does not state what the family needs protection from. The lens of “protection of the family” legitimates violence and abuse that members of families often experience. It is well know that families are often a site of violence, especially towards women and children. According to the Special Rapporteur on violence against women, domestic violence is the most pervasive form of violence against women. ‘Protection of the family” may very much imply a need to protect the family as a unit regardless of the experiences of individuals in the family unit who need to leave those family units for their own safety, well-being and health. The risk is exacerbated by the failure to state what the family requires protection from.
Although there was many discussions surrounding this resolution, and debate by government representative of its content, the resolution was adopted by vote and not consensus. At least it was somewhat comforting to note that there were some right thinking, developing minds at the Council. The resolution was passed by a vote of 26 to 14 with 6 absentee. Diversity language sponsored by Chile, Uruguay, Ireland and France were introduced but unfortunately defeated by what I could only describe as closed minded countries.
In the end when there were feelings that all hope was lost for this world, the resolution on violence against women was passed by consensus. During the informal meetings on this particular resolution, there were discussions surrounding what language should be used around this topic. The questions in my mind though will continue to remain, as to why in this day and age, there would be still debate as to violence perpetrated against women or violence perpetrated against any human being. Fortunately, it was pleasing to note that most governments saw this as a no nonsense topic that required strong language.
All hope was not lost for me in being in attendance at this 26th sitting of the human rights council. I say that the council values the voices of those sitting as civil society as they give key entry points for engagement and advocacy. Principally, Council sessions provide civil society with strategic opportunities to make interventions which may otherwise fall on deaf ears domestically. Furthermore, international, regional and national civil society, using a variety of platforms including side events, oral and written interventions and meetings with diplomats, can expose and raise awareness about human rights violations which may be censored or misconstrued in countries without independent media. However, public expressions of empathy made by foreign delegates and members of the Council are rare among governments with questionable human rights records. By the end of the three-week session, I could almost always predict states’ responses to certain issues.
In reflecting I have to ask, what is the real value of the Human Rights Council? Yes all these resolutions are in place and adopted by all or most countries but are they a real value to the women and girls that suffer at the hands of human rights violators? Every day we read in the newspapers and listen to the news from all over the world of the human rights violations taking place in each and every country, so what is this Human Rights Council legally doing to discipline these countries that are actually acting like human rights violators and have signed onto the declaration? There is no legal sanctioning body in place at the UN to deal with these human rights violators. The question then remains, what is the real value to the Human Rights Council to the thousands of persons that daily have their rights violated?