The Arab Spring at the Human Rights Council: Success and selectivity

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  • Laila Matar

2011 was the year of unexpected and unprecedented change for the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). Events in the MENA region also tested the relevance and efficiency of the international human rights mechanisms, such as the UN Human Rights Council (HRC). The HRC has often been criticized for its inability and inflexibility when it comes to responding to country-specific situations. So, did the Arab awakening translate into the awakening of the HRC? In 2011, as the hundreds and thousands who took to the streets to demand their right to dignity and democracy across the MENA region faced brutal repression by the authorities, the HRC proved able to provide a potent response – but selectively so.

In February 2011, the HRC held its first ever Special Session on a country from the MENA region (except for to address violations by Israel and Sudan) to discuss the situation in Libya. At this session the HRC adopted by consensus a strong resolution which fed into the UN processes in New York, leading to the suspension of Libya from the HRC – another first time event.

The HRC also convened three Special Sessions on Syria, and established a Fact Finding Mission to investigate and report on the situation in the country, followed by a Commission of Inquiry. This is indicative of the severity of the situation on the ground, but equally of the political will of states to address Syria in particular. While the resolutions adopted at these sessions were substantially weakened due to objections by governments opposed to international accountability, nonetheless, these sessions constituted a relative success of the HRC.

During this year, the HRC also strengthened its work on thematic issues of particular relevance to recent events in the MENA region. At its September session, the HRC established a Special Procedures mandate on Transitional Justice: the Special Rapporteur on the promotion of truth, justice, reparation, and guarantees on non-recurrence. This mandate will be important for monitoring the advancement of the goals of the revolutions in the Arab world. In March, the HRC also elected Maina Kiai as the first Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful association and assembly – rights that have been deeply undermined in the Arab region and which lie at the core of the pro-democracy movements. The new mandates are both very significant and very timely given the events in the Arab region and beyond.

In the shadow of these successes, calls by national, regional, and international NGOs from every part of the world for the HRC to address the crackdown on protesters in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, and Yemen, fell on deaf ears. The lack of political will by actors such as the US, Russia, and the European Union, the intransigent belief in the “repression = stability” equation, as well as the dynamics of block politics that plague the HRC, were largely responsible for this failure. Most disappointing was perhaps the position of democracies such as South Africa, India, and Brazil, which failed to fully support efforts for international accountability for crimes committed against peaceful protesters. In the absence of decisive action on Egypt, Bahrain, and Yemen, a panel on human rights in the context of peaceful protests was held at the HRC in September. While the panel was itself a success, a general thematic debate with no concrete outcome was hardly an adequate response to the widespread extrajudicial killings, arbitrary detentions, and rampant torture taking place in these countries.

There are reasons to believe that the positive action by the HRC with regards to Libya and Syria may not constitute a positive precedent for the Council’s ability to address the worst human rights violations committed by authorities all over the world. At its last session this year, the HRC once again failed to adequately address the ongoing violence in Yemen, instead adopting a resolution asking Yemen to investigate its own crimes – a feeble response to a full-fledged human rights and humanitarian emergency. In addition, the HRC remained silent while over 12,000 civilians were tried in military courts and unprecedented attacks against NGOs and human rights defenders were taking place in Egypt under military rule since the fall of Mubarak. When violence once again broke out in November, and another 41 deaths were added to the list of those killed in their fight for democracy in Egypt, one could still not expect, nor hope, that the HRC would be prepared to respond.

The degree of attention and action by the UN to promote and protect human rights and democracy within the Arab region during 2011 is historically unparalleled. However, the events of this year also served to emphasize the political limitations and double standards associated with the promotion and protection of human rights within the Arab region. These double standards were blatantly displayed by states from around the world at the HRC – by democracies and autocracies alike. The HRC had some accomplishments in 2011. In order for the HRC to genuinely strengthen its ability to fulfill its mandate of promoting and protecting human rights, in 2012 it will have to add to its list of accomplishments coherence and non-selectivity.

Laila Matar is the UN Advocacy Representative at the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies

Published in HRLC


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