ECOSOC 2013. UN photo / Anne-Laure Lechat

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Civil society participation at UN Human Rights Council cannot be an afterthought

ISHR joined dozens of organisations in a joint letter addressed to the President of the UN Human Rights Council, Ambassador of Austria to the UN in Geneva, Director-General of the United Nations at Geneva, and all Members and Observers of the UN Human Rights Council

Update: On 6 December 2021, the HRC decided to renew for another year the ‘efficiency measures’. ISHR delivered a statement during the HRC Organizational Session highlighting our concerns with the decision.

We have consistently raised our concerns that the special emergency measures and ongoing budget constraints adopted by the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) in 2019 and 2020, coupled with measures adopted to respond to the COVID-19 crisis, have heavily restricted civil society participation at the HRC. Given that civic space conditions globally are declining year on year, these ‘efficiency measures’ have been instrumentalised by some delegations, under the pretext of ‘saving meeting times’, to serve other interests, particularly restricting civil society participation and undermining the HRC’s ability to respond to human rights emergencies and to address country situations. 

We reiterate our concerns that the removal of General Debates from the June sessions since 2020 has had a critical negative impact on non-governmental organisation (NGO) engagement, as well as the de facto capping of General Debates in the March and September sessions. General Debates are the only opportunities for States and NGOs to address situations in countries that are not formally on the HRC’s agenda, including those countries in which there are early warning signs of a deteriorating human rights situation, as well as countries on the HRC agenda but that are not the object of interactive dialogues. General debate contributions are essential to inform the HRC and to enhance its capacity to fulfil its prevention mandate. The cancellation of general debates during the June session, which is when many reports and discussions related to gender take place, has left many feminist groups and defenders, including women human rights defenders and those working to combat violence and discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, without speaking slots to address the HRC. We strongly recommend the reinstatement of General Debates in HRC June sessions. 

The use of remote participation tools, such as video statements in all debates of the HRC, has proven to be an effective way to promote more flexibility of diverse and inclusive engagement, including children and youth, partly compensating for the restrictions on in-person participation due to the COVID-19 crisis. The enhanced participation of national civil society actors through video statements helps ensure that the HRC is informed by and responsive to human rights priorities and needs on the ground. Moreover, remote participation has provided a space for under-resourced civil society actors who would otherwise not be able to attend the HRC in person. This is particularly the case of child and youth led movements and gender and sexual diverse advocates who are otherwise rarely heard at the HRC. Remote participation has been a long-standing demand of organisations that are not based in Geneva, and should be maintained as a complement to in-person participation. We strongly recommend the maintenance of the option of remote participation in all debates, including open-ended General Debates and dialogues of the HRC, regardless of COVID-19 measures. 

We also take this opportunity to recall the already significant barriers to entering multilateral spaces faced by civil society organisations and human rights defenders, particularly those working at the national level. These barriers include denial of visas, ECOSOC status requirements, unsustainable costs of travel, lack of translation and interpretation issues, accessibility for people with disabilities, technology access and safety issues. All “efficiency measures” that restrict civil society participation add to those challenges and take away the nuance and expertise that civil society brings to the Council. 

Furthermore, the UN human rights pillar suffers from chronic gross and disproportionate underfunding compared to the other pillars of the UN (Peace and Security and Development). The Human Rights pillar only receives about 3.7% of the UN regular budget compared to its other two pillars. Organisations have reiterated over the years that improving the efficiency and effectiveness of the HRC must also be part of the strengthening of the human rights pillar of the UN. Any argument for consistent UN-wide budget cuts must be placed in the context of balancing UN-wide budget allocation. Further restricting the resources and reach of the highest UN body dedicated to human rights is at odds with UN values and runs contrary to improving the effectiveness and impact of UN human rights bodies. We call for all Member States to ensure adequate funding for the UN’s human rights pillar. 

The drive for expediency leading to the renewal of ‘efficiency’ measures is obstructing rather than advancing broad and diverse participation, and the chronic underfunding of the Secretariat only increases the exclusion. The HRC must center human rights principles of equality and non-discrimination, accountability, participation, accessibility and access to information rather than ”efficiency”. Efficiency cannot be prioritized from effectiveness, as restricting participation of those who raise human rights concerns cannot be said to contribute to the HRC’s effectiveness in addressing these concerns. An efficient and effective HRC is a Council that responds to the issues raised by, demands, needs and concerns of human rights defenders, victims and survivors, and their families. Limiting the space for such issues to be raised at the HRC subsequently limits its ability to be effective. 

As the HRC reconsiders these decisions at its upcoming Organisational Session on 6 December 2021, we urge you to prioritize inclusiveness and expertise over expediency by ensuring that civil society is broadly and effectively consulted. We urge all States to ensure that civil society participation is promoted and safeguarded at the HRC as a crucial part of its work. 

Sincerely, 

  1. AKAHATA A.C.
  2. Al-Haq, Law in the Service of Man
  3. All Human Rights for All in Iran
  4. American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU)
  5. Amnesty International
  6. ARTICLE 19
  7. Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA)
  8. Asian Pacific Resource and Research Centre for Women (ARROW)
  9. Association for Progressive Communications (APC)
  10. Association for the defense of Human Rights of Azerbaijanis in Iran (ARCDH)
  11. Association for the Human Rights of the Azerbaijani people in Iran (AHRAZ)
  12. AWID
  13. Bahá’í International Community – United Nations Office
  14. Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies
  15. Center for Reproductive Rights
  16. Centre Zagros pour les Droits de l’Homme
  17. Centro de Estudios Legales y Sociales (CELS)
  18. Child Rights Connect
  19. CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation
  20. Conectas direitos humanos
  21. CRAN (Platform for reflection and action against anti-black racism) – Observatory of anti-black racism in Switzerland
  22. CREA
  23. DefendDefenders (East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project)
  24. Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR)
  25. Global Network of Sex Work Projects (NSWP)
  26. Human Rights Activists in Iran (HRA)
  27. Human Rights House Foundation
  28. IFEX
  29. ILGA World
  30. Impact Iran
  31. Instituto Marielle Franco
  32. International Commission of Jurists
  33. International Movement Against All Forms of Discrimination and Racism (IMADR)
  34. International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF)
  35. International Service for Human Rights (ISHR)
  36. International Yazidis Foundation  for the Prevention of Genocide
  37. Kurdistan Human Rights Association-Geneva (KMMK-G)
  38. MENA Rights Group
  39. Peace Brigades International
  40. Plan International
  41. Save the Children
  42. Sexual Rights Initiative
  43. The Franklin Law Group, P.C.
  44. Together against the death penalty (ECPM)
  45. UNESCO Inclusive Policy Lab – People of African Descent & the SDGs E-Team I PFPAD Working Group
  46. United for Iran

 

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