The Human Rights Council (HRC) is currently holding its 54th session at the United Nations headquarters in Geneva. It is now the midpoint of this five-week gathering (11 September – 13 October) of the global community of scholars, human rights experts and defenders, NGO-representatives, advocates, and member state delegations. A wide range of human rights issues have so far taken centre stage throughout the Council’s diverse sessions, hearings, bodies and committees, including on climate change, Ukraine and Myanmar.
Speaking at the opening session, High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk flagged how people everywhere want – and have a right to – a decent standard of living, food on the table, affordable medical care, education and equal opportunities for themselves and their children: “But time and again, I see people deprived of these rights, and crushed by development that is neither respectful nor fair. Injustice, poverty, exploitation and repression are the cause of grievances that drive tensions, conflicts, displacement and further misery – on and on.”
Climate change is a “spiralling human rights emergency for many countries”
The High Commissioner warned of the risks of the politics of deception, helped by new technologies, lies and disinformation that are mass-produced to sow chaos, to confuse, and ultimately to deny reality and ensure no action will be taken that could endanger the interests of entrenched elites. The most apparent case of this is climate change, he added.
“I am also attentive to the need to counter the impunity of people and businesses who severely plunder our environment. An international crime of ecocide has been proposed for inclusion in the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court by a number of States and civil society groups. I welcome consideration of this and other measures to expand accountability for environmental damage, both at national and international level,” Mr Türk said.
“Systematic and widespread” use of torture: UN Commission of Inquiry on Ukraine
The Human Rights Council works with so-called “special procedures”, amongst others. The special procedures are independent experts appointed by the Council to mandates as special rapporteurs, independent experts, special representatives or members of working groups. They monitor, examine, advise and publicly report on thematic issues or situations of human rights in specific countries.
Widely awaited was the presentation by the UN Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Ukraine and the investigators’ latest update to the UN Human Rights Council, which expressed concern over the “continuous evidence of war crimes committed by Russian armed forces in Ukraine”.
The use of torture by Russian armed forces has been “systematic and widespread”, said Commissioner Pablo de Greiff, who added that it seems to be a “common practice”, particularly in places of detention that are under Russian control for extended periods of time.
The UN-appointed independent rights investigators also expressed concern about allegations of genocide in Ukraine. “We are looking further into these issues,” said Chair of the Commission Erik Møse. The Commission also recalled the need for the Ukrainian authorities to “expeditiously and thoroughly” investigate the few cases of violations by its own forces.
Myanmar: “Flagrant human rights violations” continue to be inflicted
Highly anticipated by many was the report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights before the Council in Geneva, which covers the period from 1 April 2022 and 31 July 2023, and unveils how Myanmar’s military has further expanded its assault against the civilian population, while armed conflict has intensified substantially, top UN-appointed independent rights experts maintained at the HRC.
“Given the continuing gravity of the situation and impunity on the ground, I reiterate my call for the UN Security Council to refer this situation to the International Criminal Court”, High Commissioner Türk said.
Wide range of topics
Beyond country-specific investigations and hearings, the Human Rights Council, more broadly, also heard transnational topics, such as on the rights of Indigenous Peoples, on the right to development, on ways to counter cyberbullying against children, or on the prioritisation of participation of youth in climate and environmental processes.
The Committee on Enforced Disappearances addressed issues including cases of disappearances in Brazil, Spain, Colombia, Rwanda, Eritrea, the Philippines and elsewhere, cases of pushbacks of migrants in Europe, especially in the Western Balkans and Greece.
The Human Rights Council had a hearing on arbitrary detention, homelessness and contemporary forms of slavery. Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery Obokato said, according to the most recent global estimates, 50 million people were subjected to these practices on any given day in 2021, an increase of 10 million people since 2016.
The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights opened its Seventy-Fourth Session during which it is scheduled to review the reports of Chad, the State of Palestine, Brazil, France, Qatar and Armenia.
This year’s seventy-fifth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights offered an opportunity to hold true the virtue that all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. While the Declaration had stood the test of time, the global order in which it was carved had drastically changed 75 years later. However, the search for universal equality and dignity persists, OHCHR emphasised time and again in Geneva.
The 54th session of the Human Rights Council will be ongoing and concludes on 13 October. The webcast of the Human Rights Council meetings can be found here. All meeting summaries can be found here. Documents and reports related to the Human Rights Council’s fifty-fourth regular session can be found here.
General information on the UN Human Rights Council
The Human Rights Council (HRC) is an intergovernmental body within the United Nations system responsible for strengthening the promotion and protection of human rights around the globe and for addressing situations of human rights violations and making recommendations on them.
The Human Rights Council’s mechanisms include the universal periodic review, which serves to assess the situations of human rights in all States Members of the United Nations.
The Advisory Committee serves as the Council’s “think tank”, providing it with expertise and advice on thematic human rights issues. The complaint procedure allows individuals and organizations to bring human rights violations to the attention of the Council.
The Human Rights Council-appointed mechanism of UN-appointed independent rights experts intends to use the evidence to facilitate justice and accountability in courts and tribunals that are willing and able to prosecute these cases.