On Thursday, the High Commissioner presented her annual report, outlining a number of thematic priorities, including tackling discrimination on all grounds, ensuring accountability for human rights violations, and strengthening human rights mechanisms.
Following the presentation of the report a number of States took the floor to respond. The High Commissioner faced criticism from States unhappy with her highlighting of particular country and thematic situations of concern during her annual update to the Human Rights Council.
Her call on States to ensure that no individual faces discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity, was met once again with categorical denial by the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) that any such responsibility exists in international human rights law. The OIC reproached the High Commissioner for promoting a notion that is ‘outside the framework of international human rights law’. The OIC has expressed this position many times previously, but it is increasingly anachronistic given the mounting acceptance at the Council that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity as shown by its adoption of a resolution on this subject in June 2011 and subsequent holding of a panel discussion.
In its statement, Botswana acknowledged that violence against women remains one of the most widespread human rights violations in the world and that such violence is rooted in negative cultural values and practices. Botswana further acknowledged that ‘traditional values must never be relied on to undermine universal human rights’.
Germany reacted strongly to what it described as ‘unjustified criticism’ of the High Commissioner, disapproving in particular of a statement made earlier in the session, by the Sri Lanka Special Envoy on Human Rights, that attacked the High Commissioner’s report on the situation in the country as ‘based on unsubstantiated evidence founded on conjecture’ and as ‘counter to the detachment, objectivity, and impartiality expected from the holder of such an exalted office’. Similar criticism was made by Syria, which described the approach of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) to the situation in the country as partial and selective.
Also during the discussion, 44 states joined together to express concern on the situation in Bahrain, urging the country to improve its cooperation with OHCHR, and criticising in particular the continuing imprisonment of human rights defenders. Support for the statement increased from the 27 States that signed on at the 20th session last June, with new backing from States including the United States, the United Kingdom, Botswana, Uruguay, and the Republic of Korea. While this is the strongest response yet from the Council, it still falls far short of reflecting the situation on the ground.
The financial constraints facing OHCHR’s activities are another threat to the ability of the Office to do its work effectively and independently. Cuba took the opportunity to call yet again for the Council hold a debate on the High Commissioner’s programme and budgetary priorities. Cuba has for many years been attempting to establish the Council in an oversight position over the High Commissioner and her Office: a move that would likely politicise and substantially diminish the independence of the High Commissioner.
The High Commissioner noted that she would hold an informal dialogue on her Office’s next two-year strategic plan, in the spirit of transparency.
Countering Cuba’s position, 41 States from all regions came together to affirm the fundamental need to maintain the independence of OHCHR in the face of these financial constraints, answerable only to the General Assembly and UN Secretary General. These States committed to continuing to support the High Commissioner’s office through providing voluntary contributions, with Germany pledging a 5 million euro contribution for 2013 to match its 2012 donation.
A number of States spoke to the process of treaty body reform. While some States, including Sri Lanka, emphasised that treaty body reviews should be ‘intergovernmental’ (in other words that there should be no, or substantially reduced, input from NGOs), other States, including the UK and Australia emphasised the need to strengthen the independence, accessibility, visibility, and effectiveness of treaty bodies.