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Key issues on the agenda of the General Assembly’s 76th session’s Third Committee

Today, the UN General Assembly’s principal human rights committee — the Third Committee — kicked off its deliberations. This year’s session will run for seven weeks from 30 September to 19 November 2021. The Committee will be chaired by Ambassador Mohamed Siad Doualeh (Djibouti).

The Third Committee is a key moment in the year for UN member States to take action in support of the respect of human rights globally, through the negotiation and adoption of resolutions focused on thematic or country concerns. The Third Committee also brings together a wide array of Special Procedures mandate holders mandated by the Human Rights Council to report and advise on pressing human rights concerns.  

This year’s Third Committee is expected to consider approximately 60 resolutions on a range of topics. ISHR will be closely monitoring the work of the Third Committee as well as relevant developments in the plenary of the General Assembly and will report on key developments relevant to human rights defenders. 

Due to ongoing COVID-19 restrictions, the Third Committee is operating in a hybrid fashion, with some sessions held in person and some virtually. Civil society has been denied physical access to the UN headquarters for the second year in a row, while all other accredited stakeholders such as Member States, UN staff and resident journalists have been granted in-person access to this Committee session. Furthermore, from the perspective of civil society, there has been a lack of clarity regarding modalities for resolution negotiations. At present, the precise modalities for the session have not been shared with civil society. This differential access and information gaps significantly impact civil society’s ability to engage with States in both formal and informal settings and to contribute its expertise to the crucial work of the Committee. We encourage all delegations to engage bilaterally with civil society and invite NGOs to participate in informals held to negotiate resolutions.

Formal meetings of the Third Committee can be watched live on the UN Web TV. Follow us on Twitter at @ISHRglobal using #UNGA76 for the latest updates.

Resolutions 

Through its resolutions, the Third Committee regularly considers specific thematic issues and country-specific situations, either annually or biennially. Though many topics are considered year after year, resolutions on issues not previously addressed can also be presented.  

Thematic

  • Human Rights Defenders (Lead Sponsor: Norway) This year Norway will present its biennial resolution on human rights defenders. As threats, attacks and killing of defenders continue around the globe, this resolution remains a critical subject for discussion at the Committee. Building on previous resolutions, civil society organisations are hoping to see a strong text that reflects the realities of defenders and challenges they face. This should include strengthened language on surveillance and privacy that reflects increasing threats of authoritarianism and the use of spyware, digital surveillance and hacking.
  • Safety of Journalists (Lead Sponsors: Argentina, and France) – A resolution on the safety of journalists is expected to be advanced at this session. When the resolution was last considered in 2019, a record number of States also supported it, strengthening many commitments to prevent, protect against, and ensure accountability for attacks on the media. A resolution on the same subject presented to the Human Rights Council last September made valuable progress on emerging issues, including extraterritorial threats and the situation of journalists covering protests. We hope to see these advances reflected in the resolution presented at this session, as well as language on and misinformation, and expanded protections for human rights defenders and journalists, including with regards to their digital safety. 
  • Terrorism and Human Rights (Lead Sponsors: Mexico and Egypt) – This will be the third time that two previously separate resolutions on human rights and counterterrorism led by Mexico and Egypt are combined, the first instance being in 2018 when they used as a starting point their merged resolution from the Human Rights Council. The resulting merged resolution, Terrorism and Human Rights, passed by consensus in 2018 and 2019. In 2019, Mexico remarked that it was a technical update of the previous resolution, and a work in progress that does not yet include all the concerns of member states. At the time, civil society regretted that, while maintaining consensus, the resolution failed to restore important human rights language from previous UNGA resolutions on the promotion and protection of human rights while countering terrorism. 
  • National Human Rights Institutions (lead sponsor: Germany) – The Third Committee will once again consider a resolution on national human rights institutions (NHRIs). When the last resolution was adopted in 2019, civil society was disappointed that the Committee did not commit to formalising the relationship between the Global Alliance for National Human Rights Institutions and the UN – a measure to further enable the UN to benefit from the work of NHRIs. We look forward to a strengthened text at this session. 

Several resolutions address women and girls and gender issues, and many are expected to become battlegrounds regarding references to gender and sexual and reproductive health and rights, as has been the case in previous sessions of the Third Committee. That includes the resolutions on the Rights of the Child; Policies and Programs Involving Youth; Rural Women and Girls (which may be a technical rollover); Violence against Women Migrant Workers; the Girl Child; and a new resolution on Widowhood. 

Country situations

For the 19th year, Canada will present a resolution on the Situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran spotlighting the deteriorating human rights situation in the country. ISHR hopes to see strengthened language in this resolution, including in regards to freedom of expression online, internet shutdowns as well as hate speech and bills that undermine freedoms of expression and religion. The European Union will again present a resolution on the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, that will include some updates on the humanitarian situation. The EU, along with the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation will present a draft resolution on the Situation of human rights of Rohingya Muslims and other minorities in Myanmar. Civil society hopes to see this resolution address human rights violations that occurred within the context of the military coup, as well as internet shutdowns and surveillance. Ukraine will again present a resolution condemning Russia’s activities in Crimea (Situation of human rights in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea and the city of Sevastopol, Ukraine). Finally, a resolution on the Situation of human rights in the Syrian Arab Republic will be led by the USA and Saudi Arabia. 

At the 75th session Germany delivered a joint statement on China on behalf of 39 States. A similar statement was delivered on behalf of 25 States at the 74th session. The statement addressed widespread human rights violations in Xinjiang, Hong Kong, and Tibet. The joint statement endorsed an unprecedented appeal from 50 UN Independent Experts for the creation of a UN mechanism for monitoring human rights in China. A recent global civil society appeal from over 400 organizations echoed the experts’ call. Substantial and incontrovertible evidence has been presented indicating crimes against humanity in the region. ISHR joined a 300+ strong coalition of global civil society that continues to call for accountability for these and other violations, including in Tibet and Hong Kong, by the Chinese authorities. ISHR urges States to speak out firmly against the lack of accountability for the Chinese government in light of substantial evidence of violations, including crimes against humanity. 

Other key issues  

For the third year in a row, the UK is expected to lead a joint statement on intimidation and reprisals. The statement is expected to call on all States and the UN to prevent, respond to, and ensure accountability for cases of intimidation and reprisals against those who engage or seek to engage with the UN. Seventy-five States joined last year and it is hoped that an even greater number of States will sign on this year. 

Human Rights Council elections will take place on 14 October. ISHR is disappointed that once again all regions have presented closed slates this year. Furthermore, according to a recent analysis published by ISHR, 10 of the 18 States running for election to the Council have been cited by the Secretary-General in the last 10 years for engaging in intimidation or reprisals. We call on all UN member States to not vote for any candidate that does not uphold the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights and does not fully cooperate with the Council and other UN human rights mechanisms. Despite all regional groups running closed slates, candidate States must still secure at least a two-thirds majority of all voting States to obtain a seat at the Human Rights Council. ISHR has published ‘scorecards’ for each of the States seeking membership. These provide a quick ‘at-a-glance’ objective comparison of the candidates, focusing on their cooperation with the Council, their support for civil society, their engagement with UN treaty bodies and Special Procedures, among others. 

The Fifth Committee will consider the UN’s annual budget during its main session (October- December, including the human rights budget. In the meantime, the Advisory Committee on Administrative and Budgetary Questions (ACABQ) has published its report on the proposed programme budget for 2022. The regular budget resources requested by the Secretary-General for human rights for 2022 amount to $110,487,100, a net decrease of $19,429,400, or 15.0 per cent, compared with the appropriation for 2021. One concerning element in the ACABQ report relates to funding for the treaty body system. The ACABQ has recommended that the Fifth Committee not convert five temporary general assistance positions to P3 Human Rights Officer posts on the basis that staffing changes are ‘premature and should be proposed following any decision of the General Assembly on the review of the treaty body system.’ However there is no ongoing or planned review of the treaty body system at this stage. Last year the ACABQ similarly recommended that the Fifth Committee deny the majority of the Secretary-General’s resource request for additional funding for the treaty bodies at least in part on the basis that the Third Committee would be taking action on the matter of treaty body strengthening during its main session that may affect their resource needs. This was incorrect. Delegations that support the work of the treaty bodies should continue to advocate in the Fifth Committee for the full allocation requested by the Secretary-General.

Overview of Reports and Dialogues with UN Experts:

The UN Special Procedures—Special Rapporteurs, independent experts, and working groups—as well as the President of the Human Rights Council, the High Commissioner for Human Rights, and several heads of UN Agencies will report to the Third Committee and hold virtual interactive ‘dialogues’ with member States. Several of this year’s reports reflect concerns about increased attacks on human rights defenders and emphasise the critical importance of creating and maintaining space for civil society. Click here for a list and schedule of dialogues and here for the list of reports

  • Report of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders A/76/143: In her report to the Third Committee, Mary Lawlor analyses the situation of human rights defenders in long-term detention, serving sentences of 10 years or longer. The Special Rapporteur draws attention to underlying factors that contribute to the phenomenon of detaining human rights defenders for lengthy periods as a result of their legitimate human rights activities, including the misuse of counter-terrorism legislation. The report contains examples of individual cases of human rights defenders serving long-term prison sentences, including those that were sentenced to death, died in detention, or underwent torture while detained. She makes recommendations to relevant stakeholders to halt and reverse these trends and suggests ways to prevent this from happening in the future. A presentation of the report and an interactive dialogue is scheduled to be held on 14 October 2021.
  • Report of the Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association (A/76/222): Clement N. Voule’s  report focuses on challenges faced in exercising rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and association in efforts to advance climate justice, where attacks on advocates come from State and businesses. Voule notes that those exercising these rights are largely civil society, including indigenous peoples, young people, children and other communities that notably experience the impacts of the crisis. Voule emphasizes the ways in which the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed democratic systems’ vulnerabilities, and warns that the climate crisis should not be used as an opportunity to close civic spaces. He further emphasizes States responsibility to adopt all necessary measures to ensure the exercise of rights of freedom of peaceful assembly. A presentation of the report and an interactive dialogue is scheduled to be held on 14 October 2021.
  • Report of the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and the protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression (A/76/258): Irene Khan notes that, despite the impressive gains made, gender equality in freedom of expression remains a distant goal. Adopting a gender lens, she examines the challenges that women face, offline and online, and analyses the relevant legal standards and the responsibilities of States and companies. She reaffirms the mutually reinforcing nature of gender equality and the right to freedom of opinion and expression, and underlines the vital importance of their inclusive realisation for the achievement of peace, democracy and sustainable development. The Special Rapporteur makes specific recommendations to States, the international community and companies to create an enabling environment and safe digital space for equal enjoyment of freedom of opinion and expression. A presentation of the report and an interactive dialogue is scheduled to be held on 18 October 2021.
  • Report of the Independent Expert on protection against violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity (A/76/152): Victor Madrigal-Borloz analyses backlash against the incorporation of gender frameworks into international human rights law. The report complements his recent report entitled ‘The law of inclusion’ submitted to the Human Rights Council earlier this year at its forty-seventh session. A presentation of the report and an interactive dialogue is scheduled to be held on 26 October 2021. 
  • Report of the Special Rapporteur on the right to development, (A/76/154): In this report, the Special Rapporteur, Saad Alfarargi, explores the relationship between the right to development and climate change. He identifies challenges faced by developing countries as being exacerbated by limited participation, access to information, accountability and remedies, funding and technology. Alfarargi recommends a just transition from a carbon based economy towards one that is based in sustainable development; equitable assistance from the global North in building a climate-resilient economy with the global south is crucial to this transition. A presentation of the report and an interactive dialogue is scheduled to be held on 14 October 2021.
  • The Report of the Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance: yet to be issued. A presentation of the report and an interactive dialogue is scheduled to be held on 27 October 2021.
  • Interim Report of the Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment (A/76/168): Nils Melzer presents his interim report where he examines the significance of accountability to the absolute and non-derogable prohibition of torture and illtreatment, identifies the most important legal and practical challenges conducive to the current systemic accountability gap, provides an overview of the various functions and forms of accountability and makes recommendations to States with a view to improving accountability and redress for torture or ill-treatment. The report highlights the role of human rights defenders as actors that enable accountability for victims of torture and ill-treatment. A presentation of the report and an interactive dialogue is scheduled to be held on 12 October 2021.
  • Report of the Independent Expert on the promotion of a democratic and equitable international order (A/76/153): This report examines the extent the COVID-19 pandemic has tested a core principle of democratic and equitable international order: multilateralism. In this regard, it discussed how an opportunity for a renewed multilateralism in the context of the pandemic may be present. A presentation of the report and an interactive dialogue is scheduled to be held on 22 October 2021.
  • Report of the Human Rights Council (yet to be issued): The Third Committee will consider the Human Rights Council Report which compiles resolutions and decisions taken by the Council throughout the year, including those being negotiated at the current 48th session of the Council. A presentation of the report and an interactive dialogue is scheduled to be held on 29 October 2021.

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