HRC 54: General Debate on Human Rights Situations that Require the Council’s Attention
Team UN Geneva Researcher
Global Human Rights Defence.
On September 26th and 27th, the UN Human Rights Council held its general debate on human rights situations around the world that require the Council's attention. The list of speakers was extensive, and State Parties, Observers, and NGOs took to the floor to deliver statements. A vast majority of speakers condemned human rights violations in China, Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, Afghanistan, Iran, South-Sudan, Nicaragua, and Azerbaijan. Some States representatives formulated criticisms on the functioning of the Council by criticising its double-standard, partiality, selectivity, the politicisation of dialogues, and its interference into sovereign affairs. This article provides a more detailed description of the main themes of the debate as well as the standpoint of numerous States and NGOs.
The serious human rights violations committed by Russia on both Ukrainian and its own national soil were condemned by Spain on behalf of the EU, Czechia, Luxembourg, Finland, France, Ukraine, the United States, Belgium, Germany, the United Kingdom, Switzerland, Norway, Australia, Estonia, Cyprus, Denmark, Sweden and Iceland. They unanimously condemned Russia’s unjustified and unprovoked full scale invasion in Ukraine, the weaponisation of the food crisis, the deportation of Ukranian children, the war crimes and crimes against humanity committed, the systematic crackdown on civil society by the Russian authorities, and the unlawful detention of political prisoners both in Russia and Belarus, as well as the latter’s complicity in Russia’s war against Ukraine. The representative of Ukraine called upon the Council to take all necessary measures to support all international efforts to restore the respect of international law and human rights in Russia and Belarus, and to ensure that there will be no impunity of the perpetrators as they would be brought to trial under international law. Ukraine stressed that the Council needs to use all the resources at its disposal to ensure that the UN Human Rights Council is not a “safe haven” for those involved in human rights atrocities.
Serious human rights violations in China and Hong Kong as well as the oppression of minorities by China such as the Uyghurs and Tibetans was condemned by numerous states as well. The representative of the United States stated that they “condemn the ongoing genocide and crimes against humanity in Xinjiang, the repression of Tibetan’s religious, linguistic and cultural heritage and the crackdown on Hong Kong promised autonomy and democratic freedom”.
The dire human rights situation of women in Afghanistan and Iran was at the centre of many statements, including Spain on behalf of the EU, Luxembourg, Finland, France, the United States, Israel, Austria, Belgium, the United Kingdom, and Germany. They condemned the systematic repression and discrimination by Iranian authorities of women, minorities, and critical voices. Both Israel and Finland expressed concerns over the usage of death penalty by the Iranian authorities and the new hijab law that further marginalises women in Iranian society. Furthermore, France ensured its strong support for the work of the Special Rapporteur on women’s rights in Afghanistan and condemned the Taliban regime in the country for their policies on segregation and persecution based on gender; “we demand the immediate lifting of restrictions on women and girls, including the ban on attending schools and universities and working in the humanitarian sector”.
Concerns over war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in Sudan, Azerbaijan, and Nicaragua were also raised during the general debate. Czechia called the situation in Sudan the “epicentre of a new humanitarian crisis” and called upon all warring parties to cease fire and respect international humanitarian law. On behalf of the EU, Spain raised concerns about the serious war crimes committed particularly in Darfur, while Germany stressed the sexual and gender-based violence committed on ethnic grounds and condemned arbitrary detentions and extrajudicial killings in South Sudan. Luxembourg described the situation in Sudan not just as a humanitarian crisis, but as “the crisis of humanity”.
Many states raised the attention of the Council to the grave human rights violations in Nagorno-Karabakh committed by the military offensive of Azerbaijan and in Nicaragua by the State authorities. France expressed its concerns about the large-scale departures of Armenian people from Azerbaijan, and called on Azerbaijan for the immediate termination of the offensive which constitutes a threat against Armenia’s territorial integrity. Armenia stated that
Azerbaijan aims at finalising the ethnic cleansing of Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh. Several thousands of people have already been forcefully displaced due to the unjustified and unprovoked aggression by Azerbaijan. [...] the recent military escalation planned by Azerbaijan can put civilian population at the risk of violence including the risk of genocide.
In their statements, NGOs raised the Council’s attention to other concerning human rights situations. For example, the International Service for Human Rights called upon the Council to take immediate action to release political prisoners in Bahrain. The Organisation of Poverty Alleviation and Development drew attention to the dire living situation of Kashmir people who needed to take dangerous roots for their survival, as well as Pakistan’s struggle with the economic crisis. Furthermore, Human Rights Watch emphasised the concerning situation of systematic killings of migrants in Saudi-Arabia and of unlawfully detained political prisoners in Egypt and Bahrain. Amnesty International expressed its concern about the ongoing crack down on human rights activists in India and the discrimination and violence against minorities.
Lastly, harsh criticisms with regards to the work of the Council were raised by many States, including the Ivory Coast on behalf of African Group, Pakistan on behalf of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), Azerbaijan, Libya on behalf of Arab Group, Venezuela, China, Iran, Russia, Belarus, Syria, South Sudan, and Nicaragua. These critics were unanimous in stressing the importance of multilateral dialogue on mutual respect, the increased politicisation of the work of the Council, the interference in sovereign affairs, the practice of double-standards, the practice of naming and shaming, the polarisation in the Council, the stigmatisation of certain countries, and growing Islamophobia. On behalf of Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), Azerbaijan encouraged the Council to give more attention to poverty issues and underdeveloped countries as well as countries who are concerned by terrorist threats. Belarus criticised the Council for using this forum as “geopolitical rivalry” of the West against other states. Nicaragua criticised the practice of the Council for encouraging unilateral coercive measures against Russia, for example.
Finland’s statement provided a poignant summation of the themes of the General Debate:
Human Rights are the backbone of the United Nations. Through the UN Charter, all States have committed to realise human rights for all. [...] It is equally important that the Council addresses abuses and violations when and wherever they occur. The General Assembly vested this fundamental task upon the Council. Addressing human rights violations is never about naming and shaming, it’s about ensuring human rights and accountability.
Sources and further readings:
UN Web TV (26 September 2023). Item:4 General Debate - 24th Meeting, 54th Regular Session of Human Rights Council. Retrieved on 1st of October, 2023 from https://media.un.org/en/asset/k1i/k1iwskuo5l
UN Web TV (27 September 2023). Item:4 General Debate (Cont'd) - 25th Meeting, 54th Regular Session of Human Rights Council. Retrieved on 1st of October, 2023 from https://media.un.org/en/asset/k16/k16ecevalf