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Statements Human Rights Council

Statement by the President of the Human Rights Council, Joachim Rücker at the Council of Europe Strasbourg, 12 February 2015

12 February 2015

Distinguished delegates,
Ladies and gentlemen,

It is a great honour and privilege for me to address this body today. And I thank the Council of Europe for the invitation and would like to use the opportunity to commend the active engagement and participation of the Council of Europe in the work of the Human Rights Council through its representation in Geneva, headed by H.E. Ambassador Murat Adali and his Deputy, H.E. Ambassador Istvan Lakatos.  

This is the third time that a President of the Human Rights Council is invited to participate in a meeting of the Council of Europe, and I am particularly grateful that it takes place during the first weeks of my mandate.

In 2015, we will commemorate the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. Nazi-Germany had started this war by aggression and had committed unprecedented crimes. I say this, because the sense of responsibility, the sense of “never again”, derived from the past, is one of the strongest motivations for me personally and for my country to promote and protect human rights, bilaterally, embedded in an unified Europe, and particularly within the framework of the United Nations.

The Council of Europe is the first European organization created on the premise that history should never be repeated again. It is exemplary in many ways.

Since the creation of the Human Rights Council, and as stipulated in its founding resolution – General Assembly Resolution 60/251- the Council has been increasingly cooperating with regional mechanisms such as yours. A clear example is the activities carried out by Special Procedure mechanisms of the Council and those of the regional mechanisms, such as joint country visits, ioint statements, or participating in regional consultations. Moreover, and under an initiative traditionally led by Belgium, the Council has requested the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to organize regular workshops with regional organizations, the last one held last October, bringing together relevant stakeholders, All these activities are essential to identify trends, challenges and protection gaps as well as to share best practices and lessons learnt.

Ladies and gentlemen,

The HRC has been criticised by some for exceeding its responsibilities and by others for not living up to its responsibilities. Some have even qualified it as a “toothless tiger”. The truth is that, although there is room for improvement, 20 years after the Vienna Conference, human rights and the Human Rights Council have actually a good story to tell. And we need to tell this story.

The work and decisions of the Council do not remain in the vacuum of the Council’s room. They have a real impact on society and on the ground. The Council has managed to shed light on human rights issues and situations - through a thematic or a country-specific perspective, to point out existing protection gaps, to raise awareness, monitor situations and to advance the recognition of international standards.

In addition to this, the Council is a unique platform where all stakeholders can have a genuine dialogue and where “the public” is included. Our meetings are webcasted and open to the media.

Our Special Procedure mechanisms, qualified by some as “the eyes and the ears” of the Council, can be considered as one of the most important mechanisms at the international level for the promotion and protection of human rights.

74 independent mandate-holders report, monitor, advice and provide recommendations on human rights issues from either a thematic or a country-specific perspective, through, inter alia, presentations of annual reports to the Council, conducting country visits, receiving petitions of victims on alleged violations and sending communications and urgent appeals to States. Although most mandates were established by the former Commission of Human Rights, the HRC, since its creation in 2006, has established 19 new Special Procedures mandates (12 thematic and 7 county-specific).

This shows the capacity of the Council to respond to existing and new protection gaps and to human rights situations. I would like to mention that many members of the Council of Europe have issued standing invitations to the Special Procedures. I welcome this trend and I strongly encourage those who have not done so yet, to consider extending this invitation.

We are also especially proud of a distinctive aspect of the HRC at the international level: the participation of civil society in our work. During our institution building process, it was agreed that NGOs with ECOSOC’s consultative status should be a central participant in our debates. Today, civil society participation is core to our work and is in the interest of all members to maintain a climate of non-intimidation and encouragement for human rights defenders.

Another rather unique feature is our universal periodic review mechanism, the UPR. The human rights situation and commitments of all United Nations member States, without exception, are assessed every four and a half years. In 2012, the mechanism entered into its second cycle, and since we are now at its mid-term we can draw some conclusions on its impact, because we can compare the status quo with the status quo ante. The UPR is a peer to peer review, but civil society is an essential actor in ensuring the implementation of the recommendations.  With regard to recommendations, we can identify nine main topics: human rights treaties, women’s rights, the rights of the child, torture and other cruel treatment, justice, detention conditions, human rights education and death penalty.  

It is worth mentioning that the Council of Europe has been closely involved in the UPR, especially through substantial contributions to the review of its members. As per 2015, ten countries of the Council of Europe will undergo their second review by the mechanisms. Last January, Spain, Armenia, Sweden and Turkey were reviewed by the Working Group on the UPR. Austria, Latvia, Estonia, Belgium and Denmark will be reviewed in the next months.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Let me turn now to our upcoming session.

On 2 March, and for four weeks, the Council will hold its main session. It will start with a high level segment, where approximately 90 dignitaries are expected to take the floor.

During this 28th session, the High Commissioner for Human Rights will present his annual report to the Council and we will also hold an interactive dialogue with the Special Rapporteurs on the right to food, freedom of religion and belief, the protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism, adequate housing, human rights defenders, sale of children, cultural rights, and on the rights of persons with disabilities; as well as with the Special Representatives of the Secretary General on violence against children and for children and armed conflicts,  and with  the Independent Experts on foreign debt and on the enjoyment of a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable development.

Numerous country situations will be also addressed: Syrian Arab Republic, the Islamic Republic of Iran, Myanmar, DPRK, Eritrea, Guatemala, Bolivia, Colombia, Cyprus, Sri Lanka, Iraq, Mali, Haiti, Côte d’Ivoire, Central African Republic, Afghanistan, Guinea, South Sudan and the Palestinian Territory. The report of the Commission of Inquiry on the 2014 Gaza conflict will attract significant attention. As I publically informed, one of its members and chair, professor William Schabas, presented its resignation last week.

Regarding the high level panel on human rights mainstreaming, this year will be focused on enhancing international cooperation in the field of human rights. In addition to this, the Council will hold panels and interactive debates and discussions on the question of the death penalty, climate change, the rights of the child, the rights of persons with disabilities, national policies and human rights, technical cooperation and on the state of racial discrimination worldwide.

Following the trend of past sessions, we can expect that around 40 texts will be adopted during this March session

Ladies and gentlemen,

The members of the Council of Europe have been very active in sponsoring some of Council’s thematic mandates.

Issues such as freedom of religion and belief, minority rights, torture, arbitrary detention, human rights defenders, rights of the child, extreme poverty, human rights of migrants, internally displaced persons, extrajudicial executions, judiciary, truth, justice and reconciliation, trafficking, sale of children, contemporary forms of slavery, right to education, adequate housing and right to water and sanitation are solidly established on the agenda of the Council and they are of the special interest for all stakeholders.

Moreover, the Council is seized with numerous issues such as the safety of journalists, the right to privacy in the digital age, sexual orientation and gender identity and racism. With regard to racism, for example, I would like to draw your attention to a report of the High Commissioner on combating intolerance, negative stereotyping of and discrimination, incitement to violence and violence against persons based on religion or belief which will be presented in March, as well as  this year’s report of the Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance which will focus on the glorification of Nazism, neo-nazism and other practices that contribute to fuelling contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance.

Much of the Council’s work is thematic, focusing on human rights standards and norms. However, the Council also pays considerably attention to country-specific situations, either from a monitoring perspective or through technical cooperation. This is a very important part of the mandate that Heads of States and Governments gave us in 2005. For the Council of Europe, it may be of interest that the human rights situations in Belarus will be addressed again in June 2015. It is also worth mentioning that last September, as requested by the Human Rights Council, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights presented a  report on the human rights situation in Ukraine, prepared by the OHCHR on the basis of its findings through the Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine
Last year, the Human Rights Council also demonstrated that it can respond promptly to human rights emergencies: the Human Rights Council held three special sessions, on the human rights situation in the Central African Republic, where it established an Independent Expert, on the Palestinian Territory, where it decided to mandate a Commission of Inquiry, and in Iraq, where the OHCHR is currently undertaking a fact-finding mission on the human rights violations of ISIL. Be assured that, in 2015, the Council will continue to address human rights violations in the context of crises and conflicts whenever and wherever they occur.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Some argue that the Council is becoming a victim of its own success and this is partly true. The Council has experienced an exponential growth of its resolutions and initiatives related to its work. For instance, the total number of texts adopted by the Council has increased by 160% since its creation in 2006.

When I assumed my duties as President, I was informed of the already heavily packed programme we have ahead of us for this year. For the time being, 36 weeks of meetings over 52 weeks are already scheduled. This includes 10 weeks allocated to Council’s three regular sessions at March, June and September. In addition to this, during every Council session, around a hundred side-events and parallel meetings are organised.

The Council, as other organisations in the system, faces a complicate dilemma: balancing the need to fully implement is mandate- and therefore, coping with the protection gap- while at the same dealing with resource constraints. Only three percent of the UN budget is devoted to human rights. This is simply not sufficient. A strong Council and a strong Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights are conditions sine qua non for a universal promotion and protection of human rights. In this regard, I fully echo the call made by the High Commissioner that we have to live up to our standards and support our decisions with the necessary resources.

During 2015, I sincerely hope that we can move in the right direction as Human Rights Council on the institutional issues outlined and the substantive challenges we face. We will try to find solutions to face our internal challenges relating to efficiency. However, we should always bear in mind our effectiveness and our impact on the ground. 

I thank you very much for your kind attention.