‘State obligations to achieve equality and non discrimination are immediate, and not subject to progressive realisation,’ wrote Maina Kiai, the Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, a phrase that was to become my basic principle during the 26th Session of the United Nations Human Rights Council.
In the weeks leading up to the Council, the international media was dominated by reports of state-sanctioned abuses of human rights, making apparent the gulf between the discussions on the promotion and protection of human rights in Geneva, and the reality on the ground. Despite legally binding instruments establishing rights standards existing for more than sixty years, the global situation of human rights is deplorable. The assertions made by scholars that States ‘usually obey’ (Koh, 1997) international rules, and that ‘almost all nations observe almost all principles of international law almost all of the time’(Henkin, 1979) are, in the words of Marc Limon, Director of the Universal Rights Group, ‘somewhat utopian’; in mine, frankly untrue. ‘It’s the implementation, stupid!’ wrote Limon – and how right he is. With this in mind, I arrived in Geneva with several statements to deliver on behalf of the British Humanist Association, urging state co-operation with human rights mechanisms and adherence to international law within a range of contexts.
The session had a large focus on women’s rights, with specific panels addressing women and development; child, early and forced marriage; and violence against women In addition, a resolution was passed on combating gender based violence, and there was much positive discussion about the inclusion of a gender-specific goal in the Post-2015 Development Agenda. There is international consensus that sustainable development cannot be achieved without female emancipation, and the link between good governance and equality is widely documented: public policy is instrumental in ‘transforming the institutional norms and practices’ and in combating the ‘myriads of social pathologies’ which legitimize and perpetuate inequality. Despite this, women suffer systematic and legally enshrined discrimination throughout the world, which contravenes both Council membership obligations and international law.
‘Quite plainly, Mr President, there is no excuse for the persistence of state discrimination against women… Legal inequality legitimises gender-inequitable attitudes and patriarchal dominance, which are manifested in acts of psychological, physical and sexual abuse against women, and contribute to the widespread culture of impunity. How can such issues be challenged when domestic authorities classify women as second-class citizens?’
Although there is, undoubtedly, much to be done by way of implementation of existing UN guidelines, I am pleased to announce that a resolution ‘accelerating efforts to eliminate all form of violence against women’ was passed: this is the first time it has been recognized as a specific human rights violation, and will therefore shape future discourse. Furthermore, the central nature of women’s rights in Post-2015 discussions gives me hope that there will be increased UN monitoring, targets and indicators on women’s rights, shining a brighter light on this than ever before.
Freedom of expression was in focus during the June session, both inside and outside the Council. During the campaign against Twitter censorship in Pakistan, a copy of the campaign letter (signed by the BHA, among other organisations) was hand-delivered to the Pakistani delegation in Geneva. In an oral statement, I raised the issue of blasphemy laws, addressing Pakistan’s attempt to silence their citizens as symptomatic of a wider issue, which has now given rise to a myriad of human rights abuses:
‘The recourse to justice for those accused of blasphemy is, at best, skewed; at worst, non-existent. Arbitrary arrests, mob violence and extra-judicial killings are common consequences of blasphemy allegations. Lawyers refuse to take defence cases, for fear of reprisals: unsurprising, given that in the past month, the lawyer on a blasphemy case in Saudi Arabia is now in jail, while in Pakistan, lawyer Rashid Rehman, who said that defending someone accused of blasphemy was akin to ‘walking in to the jaws of death’, has indeed been murdered.’
During the Interactive Dialogue with the outgoing Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Opinion and Expression, Frank La Rue, I once again raised the issue of blasphemy, citing Raif Badawi’s case, and shining a light on the gulf between the Saudi Arabian delegation’s words in Geneva, and their government’s actions at home:
‘During the 25th Session of this Council, the Saudi Arabian delegate reiterated the importance of the Rabat Plan of Action, and stated that the country ‘exerts its supportive efforts domestically’. Why, therefore, does Raif Badawi remain in jail, convicted of blasphemy and sentenced to ten years and 1000 lashes for establishing a liberal website?…May we remind States that membership to this Council obliges them ‘to uphold the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights’, not just in platitudes, but in practice.’
We were not the only NGO to raise Badawi’s case, and a close friend and colleague spoke on behalf of the US Center for Inquiry (CfI), calling for his immediate release. Throughout her speech, the Saudi Arabian delegation made repeated (and increasingly desperate) interruptions, saying to the Vice President ‘I told you to shut her up!’ (video). The USA, Ireland, France and Canada all intervened, emphasizing her right to speak, and she was indeed allowed to continue. Ironically, Saudi Arabia’s attempts to silence her generated a huge amount of media attention, and in turn have raised the profile of Badawi’s case.
Outside of the Palais des Nations, the Saudi delegation’s attitude was mirrored by the Egyptian judiciary, with far greater consequences. The guilty verdict delivered to three Al Jazeera journalists, and eleven others in absentia, was absolutely galling. The trial was farcical, the evidence laughable, and the consequences all too serious. While speaking to the Egyptian ambassador, horrified at the verdicts and referring to the wider clampdown on dissent, which has seen 16,000 people incarcerated, I received innumerable platitudes – that the case can be appealed, that Egypt has an independent judiciary, and that the Government are in fact concerned about the harsh nature of recent verdicts, but cannot intervene with the judiciary as that would be authoritarian, and against the principles of democracy that they stand by. If only that were true! I can but hope that there will be an appeal, and that with sufficient international pressure, the innocent journalists will be freed.
Cases such as this appear in the media every few months, reminding us that freedom of expression, which we take for granted, is a luxury, if not a fantasy, for many. In May, I spent a month travelling around Vietnam, and – please bear with my tangential story – after a chance meeting with an local man, some friends and I had dinner with him. Over the course of the evening, he spoke to us about the human rights situation in Vietnam, focusing on the absence of freedom of expression. As he spoke about the political prisoners, incarcerated for their liberal, democratic thoughts, he was constantly looking over his shoulder, his eyes darting around the streets. When asked what was wrong, he said he was checking for secret police. This stunned me: I had been travelling around his country, visiting towns and commenting on their beauty, going to museums, thinking I was learning about the culture, when underneath it all lay a police state.
I told him I would try my best to raise the issue at the UN, and am incredibly satisfied to say that I did so, raising the broad legal framework that is invoked to eliminate dissent, and the role of incarceration, ‘police intimidation, harassment…[and] prolonged detention without access to legal counsel’ preventing potential critics from or punishing them for speaking out. However, I can’t tell him that I did: email traffic is monitored, he said, and it would be dangerous for us to communicate. After I spoke, the ex-Ambassador of Vietnam to the UN in Geneva took the floor: so disheartened by the gross violations of human rights by his government, he sought political asylum in Geneva, and bravely condemned his previous colleagues and country. He confirmed that Vietnam is a police state, with 1 in 18 people working in state security. The courage of both men is astounding, and I am incredibly honoured to have met them.
Throughout the session, informal consultations take place regarding the resolutions that are tabled that session, which are then adopted or rejected in the last two days of the Council. It is with sadness that I report the adoption of a regressive resolution on the protection of the family, its innocuous name shrouding a far darker intention to roll back progress on the rights of individuals and minorities. A number of States continued to oppose the resolution, with the UK Mission making a powerful, impassioned intervention in the moments leading up to the vote. The passage of the resolution, which excludes the rights of LGBT and threatens the rights of women and children, is a major blot on the Council’s record. However, some positive steps were taken, including the announcement of a Commission of Inquiry on Eritrea, and the adoption by consensus of a resolution reaffirming that the rights enjoyed by people offline must also be protected online.
The end of this session also marked the end of Navi Pillay’s period as High Commissioner for Human Rights: she is a remarkable woman, who, through her office, has made great steps for human rights worldwide. She will be greatly missed.
Looking ahead to September, it is clear that our fight for human rights for all is far from over: much remains to be done. While the Session may have been peppered with disappointments, the determination of human rights defenders continuously surfaced worldwide, in the face of brutal adversity, and one must take great comfort and inspiration from that. I look forward to the next meeting of the Human Rights Council, and will walk in to the building with renewed passion and steely resolve.
‘I think right now is the moment…We don’t know what is it the moment of, and maybe something much crazier will happen. But really, we see the sunshine coming in…Our whole condition was very sad, but we still feel warmth, and the life in our bodies can still tell that there is excitement in there, even though death is waiting. We had better not enjoy the moment, but create the moment.’
‘Gender Equality, Poverty Eradication and the MDGs: Promoting Women’s Capabilities and Participation, Gender and Development Series #13’, Naila Kabeer. Economic and Social Commission in Asia and the Pacific, 2003; quoted in
‘Gender Equality in the Post-2015 Agenda: Where Does it Stand?’, Alexandra Spieldoch, 2013, p.5 http://www.boell.org/downloads/Spieldoch_Gender_and_Sustainable_Development.pdf
 ‘Practices stemming from gender inequality and dominant ideals of manhood were associated with partner violence perpetration, such as gender inequitable attitudes…’ p.69, ‘Why do some men use violence against women, and how can we prevent it? Quantitative findings from the UN Multi Country Study on men and violence in Asia and the Pacific’, 2013 http://www.undp.org/content/dam/rbap/docs/Research%20&%20Publications/womens_empowerment/RBAP-Gender-2013-P4P-VAW-Report.pdf
 All arrests under blasphemy laws are, according to international law, arbitrary. However, the already unjust law is often employed falsely, due to failures in investigative process, , or to settle personal vendettas. Further, a recent mass arrest in Pakistan only cited 8 of the 68 accuseds’ names.
 Murder of an atheist blogger in Bangladesh http://www.aljazeera.com/programmes/listeningpost/2013/05/2013511988676973.html ; murder of defence layer Rashid Rehman in Pakistan http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-27319433. At least 52 people accused of blasphemy in Pakistan have been lynched since 1990, according to ‘Blasphemy Laws in Pakistan; Historical Overview’, Centre for Research and Security Studies (CRSS). Quoted in many media outlets such as http://tribune.com.pk/story/433305/crss-report-52-murdered-in-two-decades-over-blasphemy/; http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/05/08/us-pakistan-blasphemy-idUSBREA4709N20140508
 ‘My country exerts its supportive efforts domestically to combat the phenomenon’, Meshal Alotibi, 12th March 2014, http://webtv.un.org/meetings-events/human-rights-council/regular-sessions/25th-session/watch/clustered-id-contd-sr-on-religion-and-protection-of-human-rights-22nd-meeting-25th-regular-session-of-human-rights-council/3329494304001
 Paragraph 9, A/RES/60/251 (Human Rights Council Founding Resolution) 15th March 2006