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Key issues on the agenda of the General Assembly’s 78th session’s Third Committee

The UN General Assembly’s principal human rights committee — the Third Committee — has kicked off its deliberations. This year’s session will run for 7 weeks from 28 September to 17 November 2023. The Committee will be chaired by Ambassador Alexander Marschik (Austria). We present the key issues on the agenda below.

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 five country-specific resolutions and 52 thematic 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. 

Once again this year, information on the negotiations of resolutions will only be shared on the E-delegates platform — a deviation from the pre-pandemic practice of sharing it on the public and more accessible UN journal. 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 meaningfully with civil society including by inviting NGOs to participate in informal negotiations on resolutions.

Formal meetings of the Third Committee can be watched live on the UN Web TV. Follow @ISHRglobal using #UNGA78 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) – Norway will present the biennial resolution on human rights defenders. This resolution is expected to focus on the 25th anniversary of the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, and the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights. Human rights defenders continue to face attacks, underscoring the need for a strong text that reflects the vital role defenders play, the risks they face, the forms of protection they need, and  the multiple intersecting forms of discrimination they face. We call on States to cosponsor this resolution as a sign of support to human rights defenders globally. 
  • Strengthening the role of the United Nations in the promotion of democratisation and enhancing periodic and genuine elections (Lead Sponsor: United States) –  This resolution calls for States to eliminate discriminatory practices that detract from citizens’ capacity to participate in public affairs on the basis of social identity factors. ISHR hopes the language that addresses sexual orientation and gender identity dimensions adopted by consensus in 2021 is preserved and that an increased number of States co-sponsor this resolution. 
  • The safety of journalists and the issue of impunity (Lead Sponsor: Greece): This resolution highlights States’ obligations to implement practices that prevent and protect against attacks on the media and journalists, to hold violators accountable, and to create a safe and enabling environment for journalists and media workers. Civil society hopes to see language that stresses the unique experiences of women and gender-diverse journalists, the significance of safeguarding encryption, and protections against surveillance and spyware. 
  • Terrorism and human rights (Lead Sponsors: Mexico and Egypt) – For the fourth time, the separate resolutions on counterterrorism and human rights will be combined and presented together. The resolution addresses States’ human rights obligations in the context of counterterrorism. This resolution should follow the approach taken in previous resolutions, using language that reflects the importance of maintaining and protecting human rights while enacting counterterrorism measures. Important language to maintain includes: the prohibition on torture, the right to privacy, due process, and the rights of children. 
  • Human rights in the digital context (Lead Sponsors: Mexico, Maldives, the Netherlands, South Africa, and the Czech Republic) – A new resolution on human rights in the digital context will address the importance of promoting and protecting human rights in an increasingly digital world. ISHR and other NGOs hope to see language that emphasises the significance of digital public infrastructure, children’s rights in a digital environment, safeguarding encryption, gender-based violence online, combating hate speech, and the false dichotomy between online and offline violence. 

Several resolutions 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. This includes resolutions on the Rights of the child; Violence against women migrant workers; the Girl child; follow-up to the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action; and improvement of the situation of Women and girls in rural areas. It is important for States to preserve existing language that recognises the unique experience of women, girls, and gender-diverse people and incorporate relevant language where not already included.  

Country situations

  • Canada will once again present a resolution on the Situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran that highlights the worsening human rights environment in the country. Given the risk of normalisation of the deplorable human rights situation in Iran, we encourage States to support this resolution. ISHR and partners hope to see language that condemns the executions of religious minorities, the targeting of educators and students, and the continued degradation of women’s rights following the death of Mahsa Amini.
  • The United States, together with a core group, will present a resolution on the Syrian Arab Republic. The resolution will call attention to declining human rights conditions in Syria and a decrease in humanitarian reporting. Given the risks of normalisation, ISHR calls on States to support this resolution, rather than abstaining from engagement. 
  • The European Union will again present a resolution on the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea which is expected to be adopted by consensus as in recent years.  
  • Ukraine will present a resolution condemning the violation of human rights by Russia in Crimea. It remains to be seen whether this resolution will broaden its focus to highlight similar practices by Russia in other occupied parts of Ukraine. 

The European Union and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) will present a resolution on the Situation of human rights of Rohingya muslims and other minorities in Myanmar, highlighting a range of human rights violations and calling for an end to violence. These human rights violations include but are not limited to torture, arbitrary detention, execution of political opponents, and persecution of Rohingya people.   

 

Other key issues  and actions 

China

31 August 2023 marked one year since the release of the groundbreaking OHCHR report finding possible crimes against humanity committed by the Chinese government in Xinjiang. Since the joint statement delivered at the Third Committee on China in October 2022, the recommendations of the OHCHR’s report have been echoed by the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) in its Urgent Action decision, by the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR) and by the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women(CEDAW) in their respective Concluding Observations, and by 15 Special Procedures mandates in seven benchmarks. Yet, in August, President Xi Jinping reiterated China’s hardline policy towards Uyghurs and called for further efforts to ensure ‘social stability’ and ‘control illegal religious activities’ in the region. We call on States to deliver a joint statement during this Third Committee session urging China to implement key recommendations from the OHCHR report, as well as  UN Treaty Bodies and Special Procedures. The statement should focus on root causes of violations commonly affecting Uyghurs, Tibetans, Hong Kongers and mainland Chinese human rights defenders, including the abuse of national security laws and measures reported in the OHCHR’s Xinjiang report, and echoed by Treaty Bodies and Special Procedures.

States should further urge China to repeal ‘Residential Surveillance at a Designated Location’ (RSDL), a form of enforced disappearance used against up to 90,000 individuals, and call for the prompt release of human rights defenders targeted by the Chinese government’s renewed crackdown on human rights lawyers, including: lawyer Lu Siwei, at risk of imminent refoulement from Laos; feminist activist Huang Xueqin, tried in secret on September 22; activists Chang Weiping, Ding Jiaxi and Xu Zhiyong, recently convicted to lengthy prison sentences; as well as Yu Wensheng and Xu Yan, detained en route to meet with EU diplomats in Beijing. Ten years after the detention of woman human rights defender Cao Shunli on her way to attend China’s UPR in Geneva in September 2013, and her subsequent death in custody in March 2014, , delegations at the General Assembly must also pierce the veil of impunity for egregious cases of reprisals, and call on China to acknowledge its responsibility, bring perpetrators to justice and provide adequate remedy.

Intimidation and reprisals

For the fifth year in a row, a joint statement on intimidation and reprisals will be delivered, this time led by Ireland and Uruguay. 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.  Eighty States joined last year and it is hoped that an even greater number of States will sign on this year.

Human Rights Council elections 

On 10 October, the General Assembly will elect 15 new countries to the Human Rights Council out of 17 candidates for the period 2024-2026. ISHR is disappointed that once again many regions have presented closed slates this year but encouraged that two slates, namely Latin America and Central and Eastern Europe, remain competitive. Furthermore, 6 of the 18 States running for election to the Council are cited by the Secretary-General in his latest report on reprisals and intimidation. Candidate States must secure a majority of all voting States to obtain a seat at the Human Rights Council. We call on all UN Member States to only vote for candidates that uphold the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights and fully cooperate with the Council and other UN human rights mechanisms. We also call on all UN Member States to not vote for China, Russia and Burundi, as three candidates that stand out as manifestly unsuitable for membership on the Human Rights Council. Click here to support this call and send a tweet to the UN Member States who will be voting for the candidates.

To support voting States, 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. 

Right to Development

In its report to the 54th session of the Human Rights Council, the Working Group on the Right to Development submitted the Draft International Covenant on the Right to Development and recommended to the Human Rights Council that it transmit the draft, together with the commentaries, to the General Assembly and that it recommend that the Assembly, as the appropriate forum, convene an intergovernmental conference, under the auspices of the United Nations, with the mandate to consider the draft international covenant and conclude the text of an international legally binding instrument on the right to development as soon as possible. It is unclear at this point whether the Human Rights Council will take up the recommendation as the 54th session is still ongoing. ISHR and other civil society organisations would like to see human rights language that emphasises individuals’ right to development rather than States’. 

The Fifth Committee  

Palestinian territories

During the 53rd session of the Human Rights Council this June, civil society welcomed the resolution put forward by the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) to ensure the full implementation of the United Nations database of businesses involved in Israeli’s settlement enterprise in the Palestinian territories. We call on States to ensure that the mandate is implemented in full as it represents a question of credibility to the Council. This includes ensuring that the Fifth Committee adopts a budget in line with the programme budget implications (PBI) included in the resolution adopted at the 53rd session of the Human Rights Council. 

Overview of reports and dialogues with UN experts

A record number of 75 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 brief the Third Committee and hold 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

  • The report of the Secretary-General on reprisals and intimidation related to UN engagement. The latest report is available here (A/HRC/54/61). The report, which was just discussed by the Human Rights Council as it is every year in September, will be introduced by the Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights for the second time at the General Assembly, on 12 October 2023, in accordance with HRC resolution 48/17. ISHR urges States to draw attention to the report in their statements during the interactive dialogue, and in particular to raise specific cases of victims of reprisals in their statements. 
  • Report of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders (A/78/131): Mary Lawlor analyses the situation of women human rights defenders working in conflict and post-conflict settings and their valuable contributions to peace and security. The report examines common experiences, risks, and outcomes of women human rights defenders participating in conflict settings and makes recommendations to States and other relevant stakeholders on providing a safe and enabling environment in which to carry out their legitimate human rights work. A presentation of the report and an interactive dialogue will be held on 12 October 2023.
  • Report of the Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association (A/78/246): Clément Voule highlights the important role of freedom of assembly and association in advancing peace and democracy. Drawing on consultations with civil society, victims’ groups, and government stakeholders experiencing conflict, post-conflict, and transitional processes, the report notes systemic barriers to participation in peace processes and makes a number of recommendations to States to protect the right to freedom of association and the activities of civil society and human right defenders. A presentation of the report and an interactive dialogue will be held on 12 October 2023.
  • Report of the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and the protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression (A/78/288): Irene Khan examines the negative impact of gendered disinformation, and its implications for the right to freedom of expression for women and gender non-conforming persons as well as their health and safety. Stressing that there can be no trade-off between women’s right to be safe and their right to speak, the Special Rapporteur promotes a ‘gendered response’ to online threats, including by addressing the underlying factors that drive gendered disinformation and gender-based violence. A presentation of the report and an interactive dialogue will be held on 12 October 2023. 
  • Report of the Independent Expert on protection against violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity (A/78/227): Victor Madrigal-Borloz  analyses colonialism as one of the root causes of violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. The report proposes a series of recommendations for States, including repealing policies which criminalise gender and sexual identity and implementing affirmative protections for LGBT and gender-diverse people. A presentation of the report and an interactive dialogue will be held on 26 October 2023.
  • Report of the Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance (A/78/302): Ashwini K.P. summarises the submissions of States regarding the actions they have taken to combat the glorification of Nazism, neo-Nazism and other practices that contribute to fuelling contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance, and outlines relevant information submitted by other stakeholders. The Special Rapporteur also highlights international obligations to combat racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia, and related intolerance under international human rights law including educational campaigns, hate speech policy, anti-discrimination legislation, and other protective measures. A presentation of the report and an interactive dialogue will be held on 27 October 2023.
  • Report of the Human Rights Council: 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 session of the Council. A presentation of the report and an interactive dialogue with the President of the Human Rights Council will be held on 1 November 2023.
  • Report of the Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent (A/78/277): The Working Group presents its two consolidated annual reports. The first on Economic empowerment of people of African descent (A/HRC/54/67) finds that historical injustices, including colonialism and the slave trade, have led to underdevelopment and economic disparities and that multiple and diverse forms of racial discrimination and racial inequality perpetuate economic inequality, poverty, and human rights violations against people of African descent. The working group stresses two key points: that appropriate resources must be allocated to the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action; and that States should declare a second international decade for people of African descent and fully implement it.
  • The second report (A/HRC/54/71) on Facilitating the journey from rhetoric to reality reviews its twenty years of work. The report emphasises the continued need for the working group and its mandate and highlights that it has seen the reduction of racial equality and justice for people of African descent in some countries. The Working Group stresses that engagement with civil society must remain a priority and has led to valuable contributions that reflect lived experiences. 
  • Report of the Permanent Forum on People of African Descent on its first and second sessions: The annual report (A/HRC/54/68) on the Permanent Forum, summarising its deliberations, conclusions, and recommendations of the two sessions, was submitted to both the Human Rights Council and General Assembly. The Forum stresses that without adequate resources and funding, it will not be able to carry out its mandate and highlights its interest in working with civil society. The report concludes with a series of recommendations to States, particularly around increasing accessibility and support.  
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