September 23, 2021

As COVID-19 Crisis Unfolded, Human Rights Council Moved Fast to Address Evolving Ground Conditions

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As the COVID‑19 crisis unfolded into a human rights emergency, the Geneva-based Human Rights Council and its mandate holders quickly mobilized to carry out their work despite multiple challenges, its President told the Third Committee (Social, Humanitarian and Cultural) today, as some delegates raised questions about bias and favouritism.

As the COVID‑19 crisis unfolded into a human rights emergency, the Geneva-based Human Rights Council and its mandate holders quickly mobilized to carry out their work despite multiple challenges, its President told the Third Committee (Social, Humanitarian and Cultural) today, as some delegates raised questions about bias and favouritism.

Elisabeth Tichy-Fisslberger

Elisabeth Tichy-Fisslberger, one of two briefers addressing the Committee in a half-day session, said the Council had “nimbly” tackled the challenges and restrictions caused by the COVID‑19 pandemic.  It provided up-to-date information on human rights concerns as well as guidance on addressing them, even during the lockdown.  It was the first United Nations body to resume its work programme and in-person meetings in mid-June, adopting 97 resolutions, 4 decisions, and 2 President’s statements “against all odds” during its regular sessions in 2020.

Further, the Council had held two urgent debates during its regular sessions, in response to situations on the ground, she said.  The first, held in June, addressed systemic racism, police brutality, and violence against peaceful protests.  The second, held in September, addressed the human rights situation in Belarus, and led to a resolution requesting the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) to monitor events and present an interim oral update with recommendations to the Council by the end of 2020.

When the floor opened, an animated virtual dialogue ensued, with several delegates vociferously objecting to country-specific special procedures, which they variously characterized as “unfair”, “selective”, and “politically motivated”.  Ms. Tichy-Fisslberger, responding, said such claims are “as old as the Human Rights Council”.  She urged States with objections to work with special procedures mandate holders, to enter into dialogue with them and share “your version, your story”.  Noting that the Council ensured that its “huge machinery, involving thousands of people” continued to run during the pandemic, she said, “We managed to avoid the broken windows effect:  If you don’t put away the little bits and pieces, people will think nobody cares about human rights violations.” 

Next, the Committee heard from Edna Maria Santos Roland, Chairperson of the Group of Independent Eminent Experts on the Implementation of the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action, who voiced concern that it is among the least disseminated United Nations programmes. “Most States have not done enough to mainstream this instrument within their human rights efforts and to invest the necessary resources to educate the public” about the world’s most comprehensive guide for combating racism, she said.

The lack of public knowledge about the real content of the Declaration — adopted at the 2001 World Conference against Racism — constitutes a major obstacle towards generating political will for its implementation, she said.  In many countries its content has been distorted.  “We need to restore the dignity” of the Declaration, she said, calling it a roadmap for addressing racism, xenophobia and related intolerance.

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