Highlights from the 52nd session of the Human Rights Council
On April 6, 2023, the UN Human Rights concluded its 52nd session, the longest ever held, counting five weeks and a half. Right Livelihood took this opportunity to raise issues affecting multiple Laureates. Below are the highlights of our engagement, as well as general considerations over the session.
Opening the session on February 27, both Mr. Antonio Guterres, Secretary General of the United Nations and Mr. Volker Turk, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, referred repeatedly to the upcoming 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which remain to this day the cornerstone of international human rights law. In wishing the Council a successful session, Mr. Turk encouraged all states to re-energise human rights work and de-escalate tensions, ensuring that all serious violations are addressed.
Mr. Turk later updated the Council on the global status of human rights and addressed a number of country situations. Much emphasis was given to the worldwide worrying consequences of the conflict in Ukraine, as well as the continued restrictions of fundamental freedoms in the Russian Federation. He also deplored the tyranny imposed on women by the Taliban regime in Afghanistan as well as the acts of torture against protesters in Iran. In Egypt, he condemned the continued reprisals against human rights defenders, which include enforced disappearances, and urged the government to release all political prisoners. In Uganda, he deplored the reconsideration of the anti-homosexuality bill, which will lead to increased discrimination and arrests. Lastly, he expressed concern at the 70 per cent increase in harassment cases towards justice officials in Guatemala, and in particular, the misuse of criminal procedures against them, human rights defenders and journalists. In the ensuing debate, Right Livelihood took the floor to address this particular situation and called on the Council to take all necessary steps to guarantee the fundamental rights of Guatemalans, with particular attention to the upcoming electoral period.
Another issue of concern was the situation of human rights in Nicaragua, which was addressed both by the High Commissioner and by the recently appointed Group of Human Rights Experts on Nicaragua. On both occasions, a wide number of countries expressed concern over the worsening human rights crisis in the country, which has completely disengaged from the OHCHR, and requested an extension of the mandate of the group of experts. Right Livelihood joined this last call and drew attention to the specific situation of indigenous and Afro-descendent peoples on the Caribbean Coast of Nicaragua who are faced with grave threats to their existence due to the presence of illegal settlers on their protected lands.
The Council also showed continued scrutiny of Afghanistan, which situation was addressed on more than one occasion. The Council held an interactive dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the country, in which the specific conditions of women and girls were examined. All speakers agreed that the restrictions imposed by the Taliban regime are unacceptable and urged them to align with Afghanistan’s human rights obligations. While the mandate of the Special Rapporteur is fundamental in shedding light on the gross human rights violations in the country, we, concomitantly with other civil society organisations, urged the Council to reconsider establishing an independent accountability mechanism, which it failed to adopt last year.
The issue of Ukraine also continued to be high on the agenda; the Council held an interactive dialogue with the High Commissioner on the issue, as well as one with the Commission of Inquiry on Ukraine. Nevertheless, numerous States also condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in general debates and other avenues, calling for an end to hostilities and full accountability to be provided. 2022 Right Livelihood Laureate Oleksandra Matviichuk, took part in a side event on the issue, describing Russia’s systematic crimes against Ukrainian children, who are being deported and adopted by Russian families, as also proven by the arrest warrant against Vladimir Putin issued by the International Criminal Court.
In this context, Belarus also saw increased attention. Numerous States deplored Lukashenko’s role in enabling Russia’s war of aggression, while others highlighted the continued repression of fundamental freedoms inside the country. States, particularly EU members, underscored that the authorities might be committing crimes against humanity, and stressed the need for improved accountability mechanisms. Right Livelihood, together with 2020 Right Livelihood Laureate Human Rights Center “Viasna”, drew attention to the unfair trial against Ales Bialiatski and the other leaders of Viasna during the interactive dialogue with the OHCHR examination of the human rights situation in Belarus. We called on the Council to continue urging Belarus to release all political prisoners, encourage the use of universal jurisdiction to ensure accountability for the crime committed and lastly, consider the establishment of an independent investigative mechanism to complement the OHCHR examination. These calls were also emphasised during a side event on the matter in which Natallia Satsunkevich, a member of Viasna, took part. Talking with Anais Marin, Special Rapporteur on Belarus, and the Foreign Minister of Poland amongst others, she underlined the dire detention conditions to which her colleagues are subjected and the worrying legislative developments in the country, now allowing for trials to be conducted “in absentia”.
While we welcome the increased attention to the Belarusian case, we are concerned by the continued lack of attention given to Saudi Arabia by the Human Rights Council. Fundamental freedoms in the country continue to be curtailed at all levels, and activists are handed extremely lengthy sentences or see their cases re-examined upon release. Under General Debate item 4 (human rights situations requiring the Council’s attention) we, MENA Rights Group and ALQST thus called on the Council and Member States not to let business interests prevail over human rights principles and to urge Saudi Arabia to release all arbitrarily detained activists and immediately provide information on the fate of those forcibly disappeared, including 2018 Right Livelihood Laureate Mohammed al-Qahtani.
The authorities of all the countries mentioned above engage in systemic human rights violations and reprisals against human rights defenders. In too many parts of the world, the contributions that activists bring in terms of human rights advancement are, more often than not, unrecognised. On the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, Mary Lawlor, the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, focused her report on the successes brought by human rights defenders worldwide. In the ensuing dialogue, some States took this opportunity to finally celebrate activists, including LGBTIQ+ activists, indigenous, children and women human rights defenders. We also took the floor, underlining that while all Right Livelihood Laureates dedicate their lives to social change, they have been operating in an increasingly dangerous climate worldwide. We stressed that urgent action is needed to hold governments and companies accountable for the violence faced by defenders and called on the Council to guarantee their protection and ensure that they can work in a conducive environment.
Lastly, Right Livelihood concluded its engagement with the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) processes of Morocco and Brazil by delivering two joint statements at their respective UPR adoptions. Together with Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights and ISACOM, we deplored that Morocco rejected all recommendations pertaining to the Sahrawi’s right to self-determination and accepted others on the false premise that Western Sahara is a “Southern Province.” While we noted that Morocco accepted to allow access to Western Sahara to the OHCHR, we stress that such access must be unconditional and not imply a recognition of Morocco’s authority over the territory.
Turning to Brazil, together with Survival International, we welcomed that all recommendations pertaining to indigenous rights had been accepted by the delegation and praised the commitments undertaken by the new administration to expel illegal miners from the Yanomami territories. Nevertheless, we called on Brazil to ensure that all those responsible for committing crimes against Indigenous peoples are held to account, as well as restructuring indigenous protection mechanisms and healthcare facilities. The humanitarian crisis faced by the Yanomami people was also previously mentioned by us in the session on the occasion of the interactive dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on the right to food, where we stressed the gravity of the ongoing crisis in the Yanomami territory directly caused by the presence of gold mining activities and inaction of the previous administration. We note with deep appreciation the diametrical change of position of Brazilian diplomats with regard to indigenous rights issues, which are now considered a priority by the new government.
At the end of the session, the Council adopted 43 texts. Eighteen Special Procedures’ mandates were renewed, including some of the particular relevance to Right Livelihood Laureates such as those on human rights defenders, freedom of expression and torture. Turning to country situations, the Council decided to renew the mandates on Nicaragua, Belarus, Iran, Nicaragua, Syria and Ukraine. The mandate of the group of experts on Nicaragua is particularly noteworthy, as it was extended for two more years, and the resolution includes numerous references to the violations against indigenous peoples. There is, therefore, hope for some future emphasis on their situation in future reports. On Belarus, on the other hand, while we welcome the renewal of the OHCHR examination, we regret that the Council did not consider the establishment of an independent accountability mechanism for the violations committed in the country.
On thematic resolutions, we particularly welcome the one related to the human right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment, stressing the need for enhanced cooperation for the protection of said right as well as calling upon States to protect and restore healthy ecosystems. We deplore the numerous amendments tabled by some States, including the Russian Federation, that continue to doubt the universal and inalienable nature of the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment. Nonetheless, we particularly appreciate that all of them were rejected or non-considered and that the resolution was ultimately adopted by consensus, underscoring the importance of such right for the international community as a whole.