Highlights from the 51st session of the Human Rights Council 

On October 7, 2022, the Human Rights Council concluded its 51st session. Right Livelihood took this opportunity to raise issues affecting multiple Laureates. Below are the highlights of our engagement, as well as general considerations on this session. 

Before the beginning of the session on September 12, the General Assembly elected Under Secretary General Volker Türk as the new United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, who will officially start his functions on October 17. Nada al-Nashif, Bachelet’s deputy, thus remained the acting high commissioner throughout the Council’s 51st session. Introducing the global update, she expressed deep concern over several human rights situations, including the one in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, where seven organisations were recently forcibly closed. She also deplored that the Israeli authorities have not renewed visas for the Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights (OHCHR) staff in Palestine, further restricting human rights engagement. In the Russian Federation, she voiced concern over the restrictive measures imposed on anti-war protesters and “foreign agents”, and underscored the global consequences of the conflict in Ukraine. In this regard, she urged the EU member states to consider the long-term consequences of their fossil fuel investments and not to backtrack efforts against the climate crisis. During the ensuing debate, Right Livelihood and ISACOM drew attention to the situation in Western Sahara, which was not mentioned by Ms. al-Nashif,  pointing to the commitment made by Michelle Bachelet to establish a technical mission to the country and urging Mr. Türk to place it as a priority on his agenda.

Another issue of concern is the situation in Nicaragua, where the OHCHR deplored the continued restrictions of civil and political rights in the country, especially the continued acts of harassment against human rights defenders, journalists and political opponents. Right Livelihood and CEJIL took this opportunity to draw attention to the situation of indigenous and afro-descendant peoples on the Caribbean Coast of Nicaragua, which are increasingly exposed to armed attacks and intimidation, and are being stripped of their territorial autonomy. In his concluding remarks, Mr. Salazar Volkmann, director of field operations at OHCHR, also deplored a lack of progress made by the authorities with respect to the attacks perpetrated against them.

The September session of the Council counts a number of debates directly relating to indigenous rights issues:  the interactive dialogue with the Expert Mechanism on indigenous peoples, which focused on the agreements made between indigenous peoples and States, as well as the interactive dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on indigenous peoples, which looked at the role of indigenous women in the development and preservation of scientific and technical knowledge. Two more discussions were of particular relevance to Right Livelihood Laureates. First, the one on the report of the Special Rapporteur on the rights to water and sanitation, which looked at that rights from an indigenous perspective, addressing the richness of indigenous knowledge on water management while deploring the ongoing water grabbing occurring in many communities, as well as the impact of extractivism of natural resources, which jeopardizes safe drinking water. Among the cases highlighted was that of Brazil, where indigenous waters are increasingly unsafe due to mercury contamination. Second, the Special Rapporteur on toxics and human rights-focused his report on the dangers of small-scale gold mining, an issue which directly affects the Yanomami people, represented by 2019 Right Livelihood Laureate Hutukara Yanomami Association. While Brazil did not participate in the debate, Right Livelihood delivered a statement to highlight both the threat posed by mercury contamination of waters in the Amazon regions as well as that of violence posed by wildcat miners invading indigenous territories in the Amazon, who act with complete impunity.

Multiple Right Livelihood Laureates remain behind bars or are targeted with reprisals due to their human rights activities. In this respect, two related debates at the Council were of particular relevance. The Council held an interactive dialogue with the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, in which it called on States to better interact with the working group, including by answering communications about arbitrarily detained individuals in a timely manner and ending all acts of intimidation against those who had cooperated with the Working Group. In the following debate, several States pointed out the increasing arbitrary detentions in the Russian Federation. Right Livelihood, ALQST and MENA Rights Group on the other hand took this opportunity to highlight the situation of detained Laureates Mohammed al-Qahtani and Waleed abu al-Khair, who are serving respectively 10 and 15 years in prison on activism-related charges. We called for their release and urged States not to compromise on human rights as normal diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia are restored. Right Livelihood Laureates were also mentioned in the report of the Secretary-General on reprisals against those who cooperated with the United Nations. During the ensuing interactive dialogue, numerous States were alarmed by the increasing number of reprisals, and many highlighted the opportunities and dangers of digital technologies, which pose a critical challenge. Right Livelihood gave more details on Laureates mentioned in the report, starting from Aminatou Haidar, who was targeted with the Pegasus spyware last year.

Laureates Ales Bialiatski and Memorial International, who have been recently awarded the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize, were also mentioned at the debate on the Secretary General’s report. Right Livelihood further underlined their situation on two occasions. First, the OHCHR updated the Council on the situation in Belarus. It deplored the ongoing repression, and that the trials of political prisoners are conducted in closed hearings without any ounce of respect for international standards. The Minister of Foreign Affairs of Estonia took the floor in such debate, denouncing that the Belarusian regime arbitrarily detained the Chargé D’affaires of the EU delegation after he tried to attend one of such trials. Many States, including Germany, called for the immediate release of all political prisoners. On this occasion, Right Livelihood deplored the prolonged period of arbitrary detention imposed by the regime, including that of Ales Bialiatski, which is being held in inhumane conditions and has been severely restricted in its correspondence. While European States show great commitment to the plea of the Belarusian people, it is worth noting that the debate was heavily polarised, with States such as China, Cuba and Venezuela condemning the interference of the Council in the internal affairs of Belarus. Turning to the situation of Memorial International, Right Livelihood took the opportunity to condemn its dissolution during the General Debate on item 4 (country situations requiring the Council’s attention). In the same debate, many States referred to the human rights situation in the Russian Federation in light of its military aggression of Ukraine, including by mentioning acts of sexual violence by its military forces and its repression of anti-war protesters. Right Livelihood deplored that more than 18,000 people have been arrested in connection with such protests and highlighted the various pieces of legislation that the Russian Federation has been using against them and members of the civil society. We deplored that the authorities sequestrated Memorial’s property and froze the bank account of its executive director.

Of particular recent concern to us is also the situation of the LGBTIQ+ community in Uganda, which faces an increase in attacks and hateful acts. We took the opportunity to raise this situation during the General Debate on item 3 (promotion and protection of all Human Rights), in which we deplored the closure of the NGO Sexual Minorities Uganda and the threats imposed to other organisations. We urged the government to uphold the fundamental rights of LGBTI+ citizens and refrain from utilising their NGO legislation to further limit the activities of their groups.

Lastly, Right Livelihood has been increasingly engaged in the Universal Periodic Review process (UPR). Ahead of reviews of Morocco and Brazil, to which we submitted joint reports, we delivered a statement at the General Debate on the UPR. We urged States to prioritise the violations committed by Morocco in Western Sahara in their recommendations and called on them to urge Brazil to remove all illegal miners from indigenous territories and protect communities from further invasions.

At the end of the session, the Council adopted 41 texts. Various Special Procedures’ mandates of relevance to Right Livelihood Laureates were renewed, such as the one on indigenous peoples, on the right to safe drinking water and sanitation, on Afghanistan, on the right to health and on arbitrary detention. On the latter, it is worth noting that the resolution was strengthened by including a paragraph on the necessity to fully implement the declaration on human rights defenders, a legal cornerstone for the international protection of human rights defenders.

The Council also took steps to address the nuclear legacy in the Marshall Islands, whose people received the Right Livelihood Award in 2015, through the adoption of a technical assistance and capacity-building resolution. With such text, the Council recognises the continuing environmental and health challenges posed by the remaining toxic nuclear waste and radiation in the Marshall Islands. It requested the OHCHR to prepare a report on how to address them in order to ensure full realisation and enjoyment of the human rights of the people of the Marshall Islands.

While the above-mentioned resolutions were adopted by consensus, it is deplorable that the Council does not maintain a unified position when it comes to fundamental thematic issues such as racism. A Global Call against Racism, strongly condemning institutional racism and the discriminatory treatment faced by asylum seekers of African descent, among others, was adopted following a vote. European countries justified their opposition to the resolution by voicing concerns over the implementation of the Durban Declaration, showing, however, an actual disregard for their post-colonial legacies and actually denying the recognition of systemic racism.

Last but not least, it can be said that the Council took one step forward and one backwards concerning two important country situations. The first in relation to the Russian Federation, as the Council created a Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the country. Such a mandate became particularly important since the authorities withdrew from the European Convention on Human Rights, thus creating a complete lack of domestic and regional remedies. The Special Rapporteur will be able to partly address this gap, while keeping the domestic situation of Russia high on the agenda. While the Council showed, through this decision, that it was able to take action on a major international power, it took a step backwards when considering the situation of China. In fact, it rejected a draft decision seeking to hold a debate on the situation in Xinjiang, where the High Commissioner observed potential crimes against humanity in the report she submitted on her last day in office.