A general view of participants at the 38th Regular Session of the Human Rights Council. 22 June 2018. UN Photo / Jean-Marc Ferré

The Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies at the United Nations | 38th Session of the Human Rights Council

In International Advocacy Program, United Nations Human Rights Council by CIHRS

Between 18 June and 6 July 2018, the 38th session of the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Council (the Council) took place in Geneva, Switzerland. While the session focused mostly on thematic resolutions, including those related to the protection of civil society space and the right to peaceful protests, the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS) and partners from the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region raised significant concerns regarding country situations and called on UN member states to take strong action during the current and upcoming Council sessions.



38th session of the Human Rights Council: Photo by UN Geneva

The Council held an interactive dialogue with the Independent and International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic (CoI) to discuss ongoing violations of international law, including war crimes and crimes against humanity. Since its establishment in September 2011, the CoI has briefed the Council 24 times on the situation in Syria. In their oral report this Council session, the CoI focused on a paper that they had published on 20 June summarizing a comprehensive and independent inquiry on the situation in eastern Ghouta.

The CoI found that the “systematic and strategic use of military forces to encircle, starve and, ultimately, compel surrender, amounted to crimes against humanity.”[1] The paper further described the five-year long siege of eastern Ghouta as having inflicted immense physical and psychological harm on civilians. It also highlighted the aftermath of the siege and the impact on thousands of survivors who were “forced to leave their homes and now face an uncertain future.” [2] In conclusion, the CoI urged all parties to the conflict in Syria to desist from resorting to sieges in the future, concluding these sieges are characterized by war crimes.

In its dialogue with the CoI at the Council, CIHRS delivered an oral intervention requesting follow-up on two calls made by the CoI in their report to the Council of 6 March 2018. The first pertains to any developments related to a dedicated international mechanism consolidating claims regarding missing and forcefully disappeared persons, to which the CoI member Mr. Hanny Megally replied in session that there had been “no progress thus far.”  He noted that the CoI would like to see progress on establishing a mechanism looking at this issue, given the many people being held in secret detention in Syria. He noted the need to identify those in secret detention and that national jurisdictions, with the assistance of the international community, are a good place to start working on this.[3]

Second, CIHRS raised a recommendation by the CoI that reconstruction funding and assistance by states and multilateral organizations for Syria be contingent on the fulfilment of accountability and other human rights benchmarks. CIHRS voiced its strong support for this recommendation and stressed that transnational corporations and businesses must also adhere to appropriate human rights standards when engaging in Syria, and their activities should not undermine human rights and accountability processes



38th session of the Human Rights Council: Photo by UN Geneva

Yemen neither was subject to focused discussion during the 38th Council session nor was it   addressed by the High Commissioner for Human Rights in his oral update to the Council.  Nonetheless, CIHRS and its partners began to advocate for the need to renew the mandate of the Eminent Group of Experts on Yemen established by the Council in September of 2017.  The Group is mandated to investigate violations of international law committed by all parties to the conflict in Yemen and report back to the Council on its findings.  It is expected that Saudi Arabia and other members of coalition forces accused of committing war crimes in Yemen will attempt to end the mandate of this investigative body when it comes up for renewal in September 2018.

Yemen remains the worst man-made humanitarian crisis in the world, with famine and cholera threatening the lives of millions of civilians. Yemeni civil society organizations and human rights defenders are working to ease the humanitarian crisis and seek accountability for all parties involved in atrocities against civilians in the context of the ongoing conflict in Yemen. These organizations continue to be targeted by reprisals for their work in the Council and other multilateral bodies.

In an intervention responding to the High Commissioner for Human Rights during the first week of the session, CIHRS highlighted that Radhya Al-Mutawakel and Abdulrasheed Al-Faqih, members of a partner Yemeni human rights organization Mwatana for Human Rights, had been detained by Hadi-government forces while attempting to travel outside of Yemen as the 38th Council was in session. Due to international pressure, including within the Council, both human rights defenders were released a few hours following their detention and were allowed to travel outside of Yemen. It is important to note that both defenders were threatened with death and physical assault if they continue in their human rights work.

CIHRS also participated in a side-event organized by Americans for Democracy and Human Rights in Bahrain entitled “From Yemen to the Eastern Province: Saudi Arabia’s Regional and Domestic Human Rights Abuses.” The side-event addressed Saudi Arabia's violations of international humanitarian law in Yemen, including attacks against civilians; and domestic rights abuses, including executions and the denial of basic rights to women.



Along with the Danish Institute against Torture (Dignity), CIHRS co-organized a side-event on the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture entitled “Torture in Egypt and the Search for Justice: Testimony of the Giulio Regeni Family and Rights Defenders.” The side-event invited both Paola Deffendi and Claudio Regeni – mother and father of Giulio Regeni – to speak about their experience seeking justice for the killing of their son, likely by Egyptian government officials. The family lawyer Ms A. Ballerini also spoke during the side-event and highlighted that Giulio’s mother Paola Deffendi had started a hunger strike movement on 14 May to protest the arrest of Ms Amal Fathy on 11 May for publicly sharing her experience of sexual harassment in Egypt. It is suspected that Ms Fathy is being targeted due to her husband’s efforts to ensure justice for the killing and torture of Giulio Regeni. On 3 July, CIHRS distributed an urgent appeal calling for the UN, EU and governments to take urgent action to ensure the release of Amal Fathy after it was learned that Ms. Fathy’s health is quickly deteriorating due to harsh detention conditions.


During the event, Paola Deffendi called on member states of the UN, including Italy, to take action at the UN and elsewhere to end torture and attacks against human rights defenders in Egypt. Panelists further discussed cases of torture in Egypt and highlighted that the Egyptian government continues to enjoy impunity for serious crimes it commits on a regular basis, even when it involves Italian citizens as in the case of Giulio, who was tortured and killed, likely by Egyptian government officials, in November 2015. Several European states attended the event, including Italy, Germany, the United Kingdom, and the Netherlands.  The Ambassador of Italy in Geneva, addressing the audience, reiterated Italy’s commitment to ensuring justice for the killing of Giulio.

On the 20 June, the Director of the Geneva Office of CIHRS chaired an event at the UN on “Increasing Death Sentences and Executions in Egypt” organized by the International Commission of Jurists.  Panelists included Dr. Agnes Callamard, UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions.

It was of concern that, during the 38th Council session, the High Commissioner for Human Rights did not address ongoing violations by the Egyptian government in his oral update to the Council. Egypt merits stronger scrutiny by the High Commissioner and by states at the Human Rights Council. As CIHRS highlighted in an oral intervention under Agenda Item 4 of the Council session, Egypt is a country that continues to commit grave and widespread human rights violations yet remains off the Council’s agenda due to political double standards. More positively, several countries raised the human rights situation in Egypt before the Council, including the United States, Germany and the United Kingdom.


Human Rights Council special session on the situation in Palestine

Human Rights Council special session on the situation in Palestine :Photo by UN Geneva

In his oral update to the Council, the High Commissioner for Human Rights noted that the Council’s impartial monitoring and expert recommendations to advance accountability and justice in Palestine “is entirely justified by the gravity of the situation.”[1]

In a statement released during the Council session by the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967, Mr Michael Lynk, expressed alarm that his latest visit “painted the most dispiriting picture yet of the situation on the ground” with a continuing deterioration of human rights in the Occupied Palestinian Territory.[2]

In a joint oral intervention during the General Debate under Agenda Item 7, CIHRS and a partner organization, Al-Haq, highlighted that accountability for Israel’s serious crimes as part of a prolonged occupation is undermined by pressure to remove Agenda Item 7, an Agenda Item that is dedicated to addressing the provision of human rights in an occupied territory. Pressure for the removal of the Agenda Item has recently escalated. The UK said in statement that it will vote against all resolutions under Agenda Item 7 unless they are addressed under an “appropriate” Council Agenda Item.

CIHRS and Al-Haq also highlighted that third states contribute to Israel’s colonization of Palestinian land by continuing to trade with illegal Israeli settlements. Our organizations urged the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to release the database of businesses operating in Israeli settlements (the database). CIHRS notes that it has engaged with partners over the last year to ensure that the database can be used as an effective tool for all stakeholders interested in responsible business conduct, particularly in conflict-affected areas.[3] [4]

CIHRS welcomed the High Commissioner remarks on the UN database in his oral update to the Council, in which he noted “his Office will continue its work on the database of business enterprises engaged in specific activities related to Israeli settlements, as called for by the Council, with an update possibly before September.” In a joint statement, CIHRS and the International Federation for Human Rights urged the Council to ensure that the database process remains dynamic and alive. Accordingly, our organizations called for the allocation of a renewable and adequate budget that permits the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to operate the database as a living mechanism, beyond the annual publication of a report. CIHRS remains concerned by states’ attempts to intimidate the High Commissioner and his Office in order to prevent the release of the database, and reiterates the call of civil society organizations for the OHCHR to ensure the release the database without undue delay.

Resolution to Protect Civil Society Space

CIHRS, along with a group of international, regional and local human rights organizations, signed on an open letter sent to member states of the Council calling on their support of the draft resolution ‘Civil society space: engagement with international and regional organisations.’ The letter further called on member states to co-sponsor the draft resolution on the protection of civil society space as tabled, rejecting any attempts to undermine this draft resolution. The resolution passed by 35 states voting in favor and 11 abstentions. No amendments to undermine the resolution introduced.

Designation of Upcoming High Commissioner for Human Rights

CIHRS also joined a group of international, regional and local human rights organizations in an intervention highlighting the added value of having the new UN High Commissioner for Human Rights be a dedicated human rights defender. The intervention further highlighted that the next UN High Commissioner must “…be committed to working with and for human rights defenders; consulting and partnering with them, supporting their causes, and speaking out and protecting them when they are threatened or attacked.”

US departure from the Council

On 19 June, the United States decided to withdraw from the Council, claiming that the Council is biased against Israel and that it provides a platform to some of the greatest suppressors of human rights. CIHRS, along with several other international, regional and local organizations, responded to the US withdrawal by issuing a statement that highlighted our commitment to strengthening the Council and that any such efforts must be informed by the experience and expertise of national and regional level actors, including rights-holders, human rights defenders and other civil society actors, victims, survivors (and their representatives). The letter rejected suggestions by U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley that opposition to U.S. proposals for changes to the Council from non-governmental organizations had been a factor in its decision to leave.  It stated: “the decision to withdraw from the Council was that of the U.S. administration alone.”

In some cases, the US had used the Council negatively to hamper efforts towards ensuring human rights in particular situations, such as voting against all resolutions on the human rights situation in Palestine and advocating against an international investigation into human rights abuses in Yemen.  In other cases, the US used the Council to promote human rights protections. We regret the U.S. government’s decision, but remain confident that there are leaders within the international community who will keep utilizing the Council positively to improve human rights conditions worldwide.

Israel refuses to engage with its UPR report adoption

Israel refused to engage in the adoption of its Universal Periodic Review (UPR) outcome report. No explanation was given by the Israeli government to clarify its decision. Such action further illustrates Israel’s unwillingness to engage constructively and in good faith with the Council regardless of the Agenda Item under which its human rights record is being discussed.

In a joint intervention with Palestinian partners Adalah – The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, Al-Haq, Al Mezan Center for Human Rights, BADIL Resource Center for Palestinian Residency and Refugee Rights, CIHRS highlighted that Israel’s refusal to be present at its UPR report adoption and to commit to recommendations made by several states, including Germany and the United Kingdom, demonstrates an entrenched lack of political will to abide by its obligations under international law, including as an occupying power.

Agenda Item 10: Beyond Technical Assistance

CIHRS also joined several international and regional human rights organizations in an oral intervention highlighting that a debate on technical cooperation under Agenda Item 10 of the Council will be incomplete if it does not address non-cooperation and country situations that have worsened despite technical cooperation. The intervention reflected recently documented efforts to restrict discussion on country-specific human rights situations by some states under this Agenda Item. The statement further noted that the concept of international cooperation should never be invoked to shut down any criticism of human rights situations in individual countries.


Libya was not addressed during the Council session. The High Commissioner mentioned the following on Libya in his oral update:

Libya, following my visit to Tripoli in October, accepted its first ever mission from a mandate holder, the Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Internally Displaced Persons, and other mandate-holder visits are planned, should the security situation allow. Libya has also co-sponsored this Council’s Resolution 37/45, which encourages monitoring and reporting by UNSMIL on human rights violations and abuses in the country and calls for cooperation with human rights mechanisms. The recent decision to redeploy UN staff to Tripoli should also open the door for greater access across the country.”

Main photo: UN Geneva on flickr.

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