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Sixth session of the Human Rights Council opens in Geneva

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Last week saw the opening of the sixth session of the UN Human Rights Council. Much of the week was taken up by informal discussions on institution building. The Council also heard the annual report of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and began to carry out the review of mandates of special procedures.
Last week saw the opening of the sixth session of the UN Human Rights Council. During the first meeting on Monday morning, the President of the Council announced that the Council would meet informally until Thursday, to discuss a number of outstanding issues related to the Council’s institution building process. These issues included the technical requirements for special procedures mandate holders and for members of the Council’s Advisory Committee, guidelines for the preparation of information under the universal periodic review, and the future of the working groups of the former Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights.

The Council’s regular session resumed on Thursday morning, with the report of the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, Ms. Asma Jahangir, and the Independent Expert on human rights and international solidarity, Mr. Rudi Muhammad Rizki. A joint statement was delivered on behalf of FORUM-ASIA during the interactive dialogue with Ms. Jahangir, expressing concern about recent attacks on religious leaders and places of worship in Sri Lanka.

On Thursday afternoon the Council heard the annual report of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Ms. Louise Arbour. Ms. Arbour touched upon a number of Asian issues, noting recent progress in Aceh and the deterioration of the human rights situation in Burma. She urged the Burmese authorities to release detainees and political prisoners and to ensure respect for fundamental human rights. The High Commissioner also called upon members of ASEAN to adopt the ASEAN Charter, and to make progress towards a regional human rights mechanism in Asia, and announced a planned visit to Sri Lanka. FORUM-ASIA welcomed her continued commitment to human rights in Asia, flagging the inadequacy of domestic mechanisms in the region and the lack of a regional human rights mechanism. It echoed the High Commissioner’s concern about developments in Burma, and called on the Council to establish a study group to examine recent human rights violations there. It also welcomed the High Commissioner’s planned visit to Sri Lanka, expressing the hope that the visit could facilitate the establishment of an OHCHR presence in the country.

On Friday, the Council heard the report of the Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance, Mr. Doudou Diène. His report examined the issue of defamation of religions, as requested by Council resolution 4/9, primarily focusing on Islamophobia. The review of mandates then began, with a statement by the Chairperson-Rapporteur of the working group on arbitrary detention, Ms. Laila Zerrougui. Ms. Zerrougui provided some background on the mandate of the working group, outlining some of its activities since its establishment in 1991. The President of the Council announced that the review would resume this week.

The Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, Ms. Asma Jahangir, then presented her own mandate, describing its continuation as “vital.” Portugal, as the sponsor of the resolution which first established the mandate, stated that it was seeking its renewal for another three years. The review of mandates will continue this week when the Council will also hear general statements on agenda item 3 on the “promotion and protection of all human rights, civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights, including the right to development.”

The Council, as a new body, is being closely watched by the NGO community as it enters its second year. Many hope that the Council will usher in a new phase in the history of the United Nations and play a key role in the protection and promotion of human rights all over the world. FORUM-ASIA and eight other NGOs from around the world have written to the President of the Council to express disappointment at the manner in which the Council’s agenda item 4 deals with global human rights situations. The current programme of work provides for just half-a-day of discussion under this broad agenda item, which covers “human rights situations that require the Council’s attention.”

With the Expert Group on Darfur set to present its update report during this half-day, FORUM-ASIA is concerned that Darfur will be the only issue discussed under item 4. While the situation in Darfur is of course a hugely important issue, it is by no means the only grave or urgent issue that the Council should allow to be taken into consideration. The joint letter therefore seeks to remind the President of the centrality of the principles of inclusiveness, universality, impartiality, balance and non-selectivity to the work of the Council, as provided for in General Assembly Resolution 60/251. It urges him to increase the time allocated to item 4 to two full days, of which not less that one day is dedicated to an open forum in which human rights situations not included on the agenda can be discussed by both state delegations and NGOs.