Freedom of Expression and Universal Human Rights at the Human Rights Council

  • blog Type / Advocacy blog
  • Date / 29 September 2014
  • By / Elizabeth O'Casey

IHEU’s Head of Delegation to the United Nations in Geneva, Elizabeth O’Casey, blogs on the threat to vital values at the United Nations.

Plenary of the Human Rights Council

A number of the reports to have come out of the most recent session (in September) of the Human Rights Council praised the Council’s ability to resist attempts to stifle debate, defend the right to freedom of expression in the face of oppression and promote universal human rights. It is true that there were indeed some successes to be celebrated. For example, building on previous initiatives, the Council passed a resolution on protecting “civil society space” despite pressure from countries such as China, Cuba, Egypt, Russia and Venezuela who were against it. The Council also passed a resolution on protecting persons from violence and discrimination on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity (SOGI). This was a controversial resolution, and constituted only the second on the issue.

Despite it being grounded in accepted language, its drafting prompted some pernicious attempts to reverse the recognition that people are equal regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity. There was significant lobbying from a group of states, led by the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), seeking to dispute the universality of human rights when it comes to sexual orientation. There was also a surrealistic moment when the Egyptian delegation said it would be happy with the resolution just so long as it achieved its small amendment: to delete the “sexual orientation and gender identity” part of it.  Mmm, that’s kind of like having tomato soup without the tomatoes, but anyway no matter, in the end the resolution passed.

Along with seeking to dilute the language of resolutions, this attempt to undermine the universality of human rights has been increasingly framed through notions of “traditional values” (an idea invented and nurtured by the Russians) and the “protection of the family”. After the June session of Human Rights Council I wrote a brief piece which looked at this “protection of the family” phenomenon and noted how a resolution passed at the June session had ensured a panel was to be organised on the issue. The promised panel was held during the September session of the Council. It was, it turned out, deliciously watered down and didn’t, I suspect, quite live up to the expectations of the original resolution’s sponsor, Egypt, and its supporter, Russia. (Incidentally Russia is the OIC’s new best friend at the Council. You wouldn’t have thought them the most obvious of allies given the treatment by Russia of its Muslim minorities, but they seem to have hit it off over their shared dislike of all things human rights-related). The Office of the High Commission did a commendable job in using the panel to steer the discourse back to the rights of the child and de-emphasise the implicit intentions of the authors regarding the denouncing of LGBT families.

Despite these achievements however, direction of travel at the Council – particularly in terms of free expression and human rights defenders – is worrying. There was a notable silence on the fundamental rights of many human rights activists currently being prevented from speaking freely and highlighting human rights abuses occurring across the world. For example, the Council failed to adopt a resolution condemning the Egyptian Government for its systematic attacks on human rights defenders, NGOs and free expression. It also failed to hold Bahrain to account for its reprisals against peaceful activists, and for not having implemented the recommendations made by the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry and the UN’s Universal Periodic Review mechanism.

Moreover, echoing the persecution of national civil society by states such as Egypt and Bahrain, and many others, there was also a notable increase in attempts to silence civil society within the Council itself. “Points of order” being used by states to interrupt NGOs is a trend that has been gradually gaining popularity amongst a number of delegations at the Council. During the September session their use was so prevalent it created a climate of open hostility by a significant number of states toward civil society. China, Cuba, Egypt, Iran and Saudi Arabia all used “points of order” erroneously and aggressively to intimidate and attempt to stop NGOs highlighting human rights abuses in their countries (notably, states such as Canada, France, Ireland, and the USA have been consistently strong in defending the rights of NGOs to speak at the Council).

These trends – i.e. attempts by delegations to silence NGOs within the Council, the Council failing to deal with its member and observer states undermining the right to free expression of human rights activists at home, and the deleting or diluting of modest and previously agreed language on human rights – all contribute to an increasingly destructive atmosphere in the Council. The Council increasingly looks like it is succumbing to the inevitable dangers of relying on a democratical institutional system in which many of the participants/voters are non-democratic states that do not respect the human rights of all. Notably, elections for membership of the Council uses a “clean slate” system meaning that authoritarian states can become Council members  – membership which they seek in order to try to obstruct the Council’s work and deflect from their own human rights’ record.

Despite Kofi Annan’s admirable desire in 2005 to create a Human Rights mechanism that didn’t represent the selectivity and bias of the Human Rights Commission, the Human Rights Council risks going the way of the Commission if it continues to be sabotaged by the significant number of members deeply hostile to its aims. This is not just deeply unfair on the Office of the High Commission on Human Rights, which does difficult work extremely well, but it would mean we would lose the world’s only global international institution charged with surveying human rights. Significantly, freedom of expression is not just a right to be emphasised for individuals across the world in different states, but also for NGOs, such as the IHEU, at the institutional level. Without it, we lose our capacity to stand up for the rights of others and our only current hope of bringing all states to account for their human rights abuses across the world.


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