UN Third Committee - Highs, Lows and Poetry
As part of Human Rights Day and to highlight the work the UN does on human rights we asked the UK Mission’s Human Rights team to reflect on the last few months of human rights work in New York and on the weird and wonderful world that is the UN Third Committee. Here is their story:
UN Third Committee - Highs, Lows and Poetry
For delegates in New York who focus on human rights, UN Day Human Rights Day, is indeed a time for celebration and reflection, as we say goodbye to two months of very intense work on the UN General Assembly’s Third Committee.
The Third Committee (Social, Humanitarian & Cultural issues) is the UN’s only human rights body with universal membership, where all countries have a seat and a say. The 68th annual session of the Committee began on 7 October and concluded 8 weeks later, on the 27 November. During this year’s session over 70 resolutions, on a wide range of human rights and social issues, were agreed – by consensus or vote. While not legally binding, these resolutions are important as they carry political weight and reflect the views of the international community.
The 2013 session, as with any session, saw its share of highs and lows. The highs included the Committee taking action on Syria by adopting a strong text, reflecting the worsening human rights situation in this brutal conflict. We, the UK, were particularly pleased to see the resolution’s reference to the importance of the International Criminal Court and its condemnation of the regime’s obstruction of humanitarian efforts. A resounding number of member states (123 of 193) voted in favour of the resolution.
The adoption of the resolution on the human rights situation in Iran was another important effort to keep pressure on Iran, where the situation remains dire for many. But it’s sad to know that this is the tenth consecutive year that the Third Committee has needed to pass such a resolution on the human rights situation there.
This year we maintained the consensus, achieved last year, on the resolution on the situation of human rights in Burma. By highlighting the progress made in Burma and addressing the ongoing concerns we sent a powerful signal of the international community’s unity in supporting reform in Burma. The fourth country situation the Committee focused on was North Korea (DPRK). We think it is important that the Committee focuses international attention on the systematic, widespread and grave violations of human rights in DPRK.
We were pleased to see a strong text passed on the prevention of torture thanks to strong Danish chairing and the UK was pleased to join consensus on the new initiative on ‘The Right to Privacy in the Digital Age’. We strongly support the right to privacy and the right to freedom of expression.
Freedom of religion or belief and combating intolerance on the grounds of religion or belief are key concerns for the UK. This year the negotiations on the two resolutions on these topics were marked by a greater sense of common understanding of what is needed to tackle the rising tide of attacks on religious freedom.
But there are always lows too. The last day of the Committee the plenary meeting was extended well into the evening. There were two outstanding issues of contention that delegates tried to find solutions to. The first was the resolution on the ‘Report of the Human Rights Council’ brought by Gabon on behalf of the African Group. The resolution included a proposal to reconsider the Human Rights Council’s creation of a UN Focal Point on reprisals against people for cooperating with the UN system. The resolution proposed deferring consideration of the resolution (HRC resolution 24/24). We felt this set an unhelpful precedent, not only in terms of reprisals, but also vis-a-vis reopening Human Rights Council resolutions in the General Assembly. The plenary was suspended and extension of the Committee discussed in order to give more time for a solution to be found but none was forthcoming. The amendment to delete this language in the resolution, which was brought by all EU member states, Japan, the USA and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia was defeated by only two votes (76 to 74).
The second was the Norwegian led Women Human Rights Defenders resolution. Despite weeks of negotiations on the text the African Group, China, Russia, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman, UAE, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, DPRK and Singapore decided to propose 12 amendments to the text which would all need to be voted on separately (to note, not all countries supported all amendments). Considerable attempts were made by Norway in the last couple of days to accommodate the amendments by proposing edits to the text but the amendments were not withdrawn. The final agreement to ensure a consensus adoption was reached late on the last day and included the deletion of an important paragraph on violence against women. Many supporters of the resolution took the floor to express concern at the deletion. The Icelandic Permanent Representative intervened to say that she saw the deletion of a paragraph on violence against women as a low point in the history of the Committee. The resolution passed by consensus but the UK, along with all other EU Member States regretfully withdrew co-sponsorship of the resolution from the floor. While we fully support the adoption of this important resolution we felt that we needed to register our concern at the last minute weakening of the text.
But this is not the end of the story and we will continue to work with other countries including on protecting Women Human Rights Defenders and the vital work they do. The UN is all about engaging other member states in dialogue and putting forward our point of view which we will continue to do; both in ongoing work here in New York and at the next session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva in March, where the UK will be joining the Council.
To do this we need to build and sustain relationships with each other. That’s why, after many hours and days of intense negotiations, we still found time for the annual salutary UK-Egypt poetry slam, a yearly opportunity to bring some rhyme and humour to UN discussions. No one is sure when or why the tradition started but it’s a much enjoyed idiosyncrasy of the Committee. For those that would like to see you can watch UK’s here and Egypt’s response here. Kudos to the Egyptians for such skilful rhyming, very impressive indeed.
So the Third Committee is over for another year but much other human rights work continues. Happy Human Rights Day.