Human Rights Annual Report 2008 - Foreign Affairs Committee Contents

6  The International Framework

UN Human Rights Council

139.  The UN General Assembly established the new Human Rights Council in March 2006. It succeeded the Commission for Human Rights, which was abolished. Many Western states and NGOs had felt the Commission for Human Rights had been too soft on countries accused of serious human rights violations. In our 2006 Human Rights Report, we welcomed moves to establish the Council.[265]

140.  The FCO's report states that "the Human Rights Council remains a difficult environment within which to deliver a progressive, active human rights policy". In particular, it notes that "the perceived clash between freedom of expression and the desire of certain countries to protect religions from defamation" is a source of division within the Council.[266]

141.  However, the FCO also asserts that "despite the difficulties we face in the Council, there were positive moves in 2008". It notes that although in its view the Council still spends a disproportionate amount of time on the issue of human rights problems in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, there was a welcome reduction in the number of special sessions and resolutions on the subject.[267]

142.  The FCO's report contains, for the second year in succession, a table showing the voting records of each country in the Council on key resolutions (originally included in response to a recommendation by the Committee[268]). In last year's report, the table showed that out of the ten key resolutions it provided, the Government voted against the resolution seven times, abstained three times, and did not vote in favour of any.[269] In this year's report, the table shows that the balance has shifted towards greater UK support for draft Council resolutions: out of eight key resolutions, the Government voted against the resolution twice, abstained three times, and voted in favour three times.[270]

143.  The process of 'Universal Periodic Reviews' instigated by the Council is now well advanced. This involves a peer review of all member states of the UN once every four years on their human rights practices, followed by adoption of a document by the Council considering to what extent each state is meeting its obligations under international human rights law and any voluntary commitments it has made. The UK was the seventh country to have its human rights records reviewed by the Council. The FCO claims that "our open and comprehensive approach to the UPR helped set the tone for the process".[271]

144.  A significant development since publication of the FCO's report has been the election of the United States to a seat on the Council for the first time. The Obama Administration has reversed the policy of its predecessor to boycott the Council (on grounds of its failure to condemn human rights violations in Darfur, and its alleged anti-Israel bias). In the vote by the UN General Assembly on 12 May 2009, the US received 167 votes, considerably more than the 97 needed in the secret ballot. In March, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon had welcomed the announcement by the US that it would seek a seat on the Council, saying it embodies the country's commitment to a "new era of engagement."[272] The US took up its seat for the first time on 19 June 2009.[273]

145.  Human rights groups have criticised the Council for its resolution passed on 27 May 2009, at a special session convened to discuss the human rights situation in Sri Lanka following the military defeat of the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam). The motion, proposed by the Sri Lankan government, was supported by 29 countries including China, India, Egypt and Cuba. It was opposed by 12 countries including the UK. It commends the Sri Lankan government for its "continued commitment […] to the promotion and protection of all human rights", praises its humanitarian record, condemns human rights abuses by the LTTE, and reaffirms "the principle of non-interference in matters which are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of States".[274]

146.  A spokesperson for Amnesty International said: "The vote is extremely disappointing and is a low point for the Human Rights Council. It abandons hundreds of thousands of people in Sri Lanka to cynical political considerations."[275] Tom Porteous, London director of Human Rights Watch, told us that "the performance of the Human Rights Council this year has been particularly dismal, particularly over Sri Lanka […] The resolution in May was absolutely appalling. It was an opportunity for the Human Rights Council to do what it is supposed to do, which is to protect human rights, but it completely failed".[276]

147.  We discuss the human rights situation in Sri Lanka separately in paragraphs 257 to 274 below.

148.  A more positive development has been the vote in the Council on 18 June 2006, albeit by a narrow majority (20 to 18, with 9 abstentions), to extend the mandate of the UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Sudan, Dr Sima Samar.[277] This proposal was carried against the wishes of the Sudanese government. It has been reported that the United States played a significant part in negotiating the text finally agreed.[278] We discuss the human rights situation in Sudan in paragraphs 275 to 283 below.

149.  Assessing the overall record of the Human Rights Council, Kate Allen of Amnesty International told us that the Council "continues to be politicised". However, she noted "reasons for optimism" about its work, in particular its promotion of Universal Periodic Reviews.[279]

150.  On elections to the Council, Kate Allen commented:

We are quite disturbed by the lack of competition for places: this is sort of sewn up ahead of the actual elections, so that we do not see votes taking place. That practice could come back to bite the Human Rights Council over time and we could start to see the likes of Zimbabwe and Sudan back here. But we also welcome the USA's election to the council. That is a change in terms of engagement that will, hopefully, start to provide some real support there.[280]

151.  Mr Miliband told us that the result of the special session on Sri Lanka was "disappointing", and reflected "deep divisions" within the UN "between those who hold fast to a view that what goes on in a country is its own business and does not belong on the international agenda, and those who believe that it does". However, he defended UK engagement with the Council and pointed to the Universal Periodic Review process as a worthwhile achievement.[281]

152.  We conclude that the UN Human Rights Council's May 2009 resolution rejecting calls for investigation of human rights violations in Sri Lanka is deeply regrettable, and has damaged the credibility of the Council. We recommend that the Government continues to promote the view that significant transgressions of human rights committed by parties to internal political conflicts should not be regarded as being solely the "domestic business" of the state concerned. We conclude that the international community has both a right and a responsibility to express concern about, and where appropriate to launch investigations into, situations where major abuses have been alleged.

153.  We conclude that other aspects of the work of the Human Rights Council are to be applauded, in particular the developing system of Universal Periodic Reviews, and the decision to continue the international investigation of human rights abuses in Sudan. We further conclude that the increase in 2008 in the number of Council resolutions which the Government was able to support is to be welcomed, and that it is to be hoped that the participation of the United States will lead to a strengthening of the positive work of the Council.

The Durban Review Conference

154.  The UN Durban Review Conference, the follow-up to the 2001 UN World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance, took place in Geneva in April 2009.

155.  The UK agreed to take part in the conference with reservations, having made clear that "we would not accept a repeat of the appalling anti-Semitism seen at the first Durban Conference in 2001". In negotiating in advance an outcome text, the Government stated that it had

"resisted attempts for language calling for restrictions to the right of freedom of expression, including through the concept of 'defamation of religions', […] secured language on Holocaust remembrance […] and the fight against anti-Semitism, and successfully rebutted attempts to single-out any country for criticism […]. We also ensured the text included references to multiple forms of discrimination - which we interpret to cover also the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people - and the importance of the right to freedom of expression in combating racism.[282]

156.  In the event, on the first day of the conference (20 April), President Ahmadinejad of Iran delivered a speech containing what the Foreign Secretary described as "offensive, inflammatory and utterly unacceptable" comments describing Israel as a "racist government" established on the "pretext of Jewish suffering". On instructions agreed between several like-minded countries, the UK delegation—along with a number of others —left the hall in protest. The delegation returned to the hall once the Iranian President had finished speaking. The Foreign Secretary justified the UK's decision to continue to participate on the grounds that

"The fight against racism remains a global struggle. Victims of racism deserve better than political squabbling and intolerant polemics. I believe that the Government did the right thing by remaining in the conference, having our voices heard, and ensuring an acceptable outcome document." [283]

157.  Human Rights Watch commented that it was "satisfied with the constructive role the UK subsequently played in [the Durban Review] Conference in obtaining an agreement that led to a dropping of language on defamation of religion". It noted that the UK's position was "in notable contrast to several of its European and other allies who boycotted the Conference, despite having obtained the language they wished".[284] Tom Porteous told us that

I don't need to remind you […] of the importance of combating racism in all its forms. The Durban review process, albeit flawed and difficult, is the only process at the international level that makes that effort to address the problem of racism. It is an issue that we especially cannot afford to ignore in a time of global economic recession.[285]

158.  Kate Allen told us that

we absolutely reject and condemn what was said by the President of Iran, but we were pleased that the British Government were there to argue and face down those kinds of issues and to engage in discussions about racism and how to tackle it. It was necessary to stay at the conference and confront those issues, not ignore them.[286]

159.  Mr Miliband said that the Government had set two "red lines" for the conference: first, that the resultant text should "brook no doubt about the unique nature of the Holocaust, anti-Semitism and a range of other issues", and, second, that the UK would not participate if the conference turned into "a bit of a circus" like the original Durban conference in 2001. He argued that both red lines had been met. In particular, he claimed that President Ahmadinejad's "attempt to steal the show […] failed: all he did was expose his own isolation, including within the Islamic world, because one of the most significant things that happened at the conference was that important Islamic countries did not side with Iran".[287]

160.  We conclude that the UK's handling of the issue of participation in the "Durban Review Conference" held in Geneva in April 2009 was well-judged. The UK delegation left the conference hall in protest at President Ahmadinejad's offensive and anti-Semitic remarks, but did not allow his calculated provocation to derail the wider work of the conference, in which the UK played a full part. We recommend that the Government continues to support the positive work of the Durban review process in combating racism worldwide, while at the same time maintaining the right of freedom of expression in relation to ideologies and beliefs, and defending the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.

International criminal law

161.  The International Criminal Court (ICC), based in the Hague, was set up under the "Rome Statute" in 2002. Proceedings are either active or pending in the ICC in relation to alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity in the Democratic Republic of Congo (the trial of the militia leader Thomas Lubanga Dyilo began in January 2009), Central African Republic (Jean-Pierre Bemba , a former Vice-President of the DRC, is in custody awaiting trial), Uganda (arrest warrants were issued in 2005 for senior leaders of the Lord's Resistance Army) and Darfur (see next paragraph).[288]

162.  In 2007 arrest warrants were issued for the Sudanese government minister Ahmad Muhammad Harun and the Janjaweed militia leader Ali Kushayb in connection with alleged crimes in Darfur. These warrants remain outstanding, the Sudanese government having refused to respect them. On 4 March 2009 a warrant was issued for the arrest of the President of Sudan, Omar al-Bashir, accused of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity . Bashir has denied the charges and refused to co-operate with the court.

163.  On 12 June 2009 the Guardian reported that:

Efforts by the International Criminal Court to secure the arrest of Sudan's president, Omar al-Bashir, for alleged war crimes in Darfur have stalled and are unlikely to move forward in the foreseeable future, EU diplomats and Sudanese officials say.[289]

164.  In its report, the FCO notes that:

there has been some criticism directed at the Court in 2008, accusing it of bias against Africa. We strongly disagree. Although all four of the situations currently under investigation are in Africa, three of these were referred to the Court by the countries themselves. Thirty African states are party to the Rome Statute - only Europe has a higher rate of ratification.[290]

165.  Three of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (China, Russia and the US) have been critical of the Court and are not States Parties to the Rome Statute. The Obama Administration has not yet formally announced its policy in regard to the ICC, but Secretary of State Clinton indicated to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that "we will end hostility to towards the ICC, and look for opportunities to encourage effective ICC action in ways that promote US interests by bringing war criminals to justice."[291]

166.  Giving evidence to us, Tom Porteous commented that:

There is increasing polarisation in the world, particularly between the west and the south, on the subject of sovereignty. As we see a redistribution of global power from the west to the east, the rise of China and the rise and influence of other states that do not have particularly good human rights records and that are keen to assert the principle of total sovereignty, we will see more of this kind of thing.[292]

167.  Mr Miliband told us that after 10 years' existence the ICC has established itself and "there have been some notable successes", but that, overall, "the implementation of the Rome statute is clearly not going forward in the way that we would like". He said that the Government deplored the Sudanese government's rebuff to the Court over the prosecution of Omar al-Bashir, which was an important test case for the future of the ICC.[293] Asked about the prospects for participation in the ICC by the United States, Mr Miliband replied that "the new US Administration is distinctly more multilateralist although I don't think that the ICC is at the top of their list of multilateral re-engagement".[294]

168.  We conclude that there is mounting hostility to the International Criminal Court in Africa and elsewhere, manifested most dramatically in Sudan's refusal to co-operate with the Court. This reflects a deepening division between Western countries and some other countries, particularly those from the developing world, over issues of state sovereignty in relation to human rights - exemplified also in the UN Human Rights Council's recent rejection of international "interference" in the investigation of alleged human rights abuses in Sri Lanka. We further conclude that such attitudes, if they continue to spread, may have the effect of undermining the promotion of universal human rights worldwide. We recommend that the Government works to strengthen international support for the ICC, and for the principle of bringing to justice those who commit war crimes or crimes against humanity. We further recommend that it encourages the new Administration in the United States to accede to the Rome Statute of the ICC, which would mean that a majority of the Permanent Members of the Security Council would have acceded, marking a significant step towards the long-term aim of achieving universality of the Rome Statute.

265   Foreign Affairs Committee, First Report of Session 2005-06, Human Rights Annual Report 2005, HC 574, February 2006, para 15 Back

266   Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Annual Report on Human Rights 2008, Cm 7557, March 2009, p 41 Back

267   Ibid., p41 Back

268   In Foreign Affairs Committee, Third Report of Session 2006-07, Human Rights Annual Report 2006, HC 269, April 2007, para 19 Back

269   Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Annual Report on Human Rights 2007, Cm7340, March 2008, pp 54-55 Back

270   Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Annual Report on Human Rights 2008, Cm 7557, March 2009, pp 62-63 Back

271   Ibid., p 41 Back

272   "Ban welcomes US decision to seek seat on UN Human Rights Council", UN News Centre, 31 March 2009, Back

273   Reuters, "U. S. takes seat at U.N. rights forum, urges unity", 19 June 2009, Back

274   UN Human Rights Council Resolution S-11/1, "Assistance to Sri Lanka in the promotion and protection of human rights", agreed at Eleventh Special Session, 29 May 2009 Back

275   "UN rejects calls for Sri Lanka war crimes inquiry", The Guardian, 28 May 2009, Back

276   Q 62 Back

277   Associated Press, "UN rights body votes to continue Sudan scrutiny", 18 June 2009, Back

278   Reuters, "U. S. takes seat at U.N. rights forum, urges unity", 19 June 2009, Back

279   Q 62 Back

280   Q 62 Back

281   Q 179 Back

282   Written Ministerial Statement, "United Nations Durban Review Conference", HC Deb, 28 April 2009, cols 41-42WS Back

283   IbidBack

284   Ev 103 (para 25) Back

285   Q 65 Back

286   Q 67 Back

287   Q 181 Back

288   Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Annual Report on Human Rights 2008, Cm 7557, March 2009, p 47 Back

289   Simon Tisdall, The Guardian, 12 June 2009, "Sudan strengthened as United Nations members ignore warrant for arrest of Bashir" Back

290   Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Annual Report on Human Rights 2008, Cm 7557, March 2009, p 48 Back

291 Back

292   Q 63 Back

293   Q 182 Back

294   Q 182 Back

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Prepared 9 August 2009