Civil society’s hidden power: firsthand experience from the United Nations Human Rights Council

I remember very fondly receiving my acceptation letter to the field research in Geneva, precisely to the Human Rights Council (HRC.) A Canadian student of international affairs, specializing in conflicts and human rights, the idea of being able to witness how human rights were concretely protected through the United Nations, seemed to me the opportunity of a lifetime. I studied the Council’s mechanisms extensively for about 4 months before finally attending its 32nd session in June 2016. Obviously, being young students, whose sole goal at the HRC was to learn more about the in-and-outs of the institution, made us almost invisible. The beauty of being perceived as “harmless” was that we could go around everywhere, witness everything and truly criticize not only the works of the institution, but also the criticism made against it.

Very much like today’s activists’ communities in light of Saudi Arabia’s election to the Commission of Women, I was astonished that the HRC could be composed of States- members with poor human rights records and unwillingness to improve. How could Egypt, Qatar, China and Saudi Arabia (to name only a few!) access membership to the Council, when they play host to many recorded breaches of human rights? How did that happen?

As I attended formal and informal discussions, it was clear that States had different political agendas. The delegations’ actions, as they consulted on draft resolutions, participated to the Council’s general debates and side events, reflected this reality in a ridiculous fashion. Draft resolution meetings were attended only if important to delegations, whose members showed either a complete disinterest or strong will to supplant and weaken the language and thus the efficiency of a given resolution. They’d rise up threateningly during an NGO’s speech at the Council itself to demand their names and information. It was very easy to see which groups were like-minded and “helping each other out” in either advancing or blocking a certain issue, as they’d agree with each other or “diplomatically” turn down others. Perhaps most shocking was the silence that accompanied scandalous statements. And even when some expressed the wish to change their own situation, making me instantly hopeful, studying reports on their actions at the national level clearly did not support their embellished ambitions.

The sheer politics of such a forum was astounding and disheartening. To witness the distinct lack of political will from States to implement certain sets of rights was discouraging. The criticisms of the UN that I had read and hoped to dismiss, could no longer be ignored. The current contexts have weakened States and the danger to their national sovereignty of security issues, rise of ever-more powerful non-State actors such as armed groups and businesses, the increasing powers invested in the intergovernmental institutions etc has led to retaliation and reluctance to change. For the first time, I could witness what this implied. If the will to transcend national interests for the enjoyment of human rights for all has been expressed and even institutionalized, it wasn’t rooted in these State actions in these proceedings. The possibility seemed slim that the Council would progress from reactive to preventative action on human rights issues.

Counter to this negative impression, though, was the fact that civil society leaders would not accept being silenced and would stand up in a way that I had hoped delegations would. Talking to them, witnessing their campaigns, the liberty they possessed to question, to highlight and demand accountability for human rights abuse was eye-opening. Activists do not realize the power they hold as change-makers in a way that States realize. The retaliation faced by human rights activists around the world confirms it. The continuous demands for change, sustainable and unequivocal change towards a better world led to the very creation of human rights charters and mechanisms. We often forget the human rights movements led States to listen and act towards this. We fall into the same trap we often criticize today – our devotion to the UN and its capacities is perhaps itself the result of a “state-centric” perspectives in international affairs. We too often forget the power we hold – that the liberty we possess, unbound by national interests, leave civil society leaders alone with the strength and guts to advance issues and expose the absurdities of the international legal system, that States wouldn’t or couldn’t dare confront.

The HRC mechanisms may in themselves be flawed, but the participation of States and their strong reactions to any form of criticism confirmed the credit it is being given. Indeed, by being inclusive and by focusing on “positive criticism”, instead of naming-and-shaming tactics, it has become a powerful institution that gained over the year an unprecedented participation rate. This forum gives human rights defenders and activists the capacity to regroup, to pressure, to coordinate and criticize in front of the world’s nations the actions of States. Giving every State access to membership is a necessary, if uncomfortable, cost to ensure the existence of such forum.

As such, how we see the HRC needs to change, or broaden at least, if we are to use this weapon for human rights. I used to believe that States, the UN and the Council were the central actors for change and progress. My experience reflected the fact that the United Nations remains primarily a political forum and needs to be considered as such. Mutually bounded by political goals, it is very unlikely that States would make the criticism needed to truly shake up the status quo. By raising our voice, crowding the space, demanding change in the UN procedures, accountability from human rights violators and human dignity and especially refusing to ever stop doing so, we will be able to progress and ascertain human rights as the foundation of our common humanity. But to be truly powerful in doing so, we need a place to be heard internationally – and the HRC is perhaps the best environment to do so.

Note from the author:

Indeed, I had the opportunity to attend the Human Rights Council 32nd session in June 2016 as part of an academic field research course. There were 15 students who flew from Ottawa and were able to attend the sessions. I wrote my own thoughts on the matter at the end of the exercise, I believe that my experience and I am still, as well as most readers, an external actor to these processes, might give new insight and credibility to the conclusion I’ve come to myself.
By exploring my own experiences with today’s current state of affairs, I believe that this story is current and may offer a new perspective on the work of the UN, especially on its role. As things are, and I am in no way indifferent to that perspective, we give the UN an importance as a change-maker in the world. I reflect on the fact that the United Nations remain primarily a political forum, and thus conclude on whom I believe are the real actors of change, civil society actors. In this conclusion, the works of these institutions, flawed in what they amount to, are still tools that can then be used by civil society actors in their society – help them bring accountability to States. Finally, perhaps as civil society leaders, we are plagued with the ‘’state-centric’’ vision of international affairs and progress, and we need to recognize that we are not stuck waiting for States to make change, but we can and must ourselves.