HRC 19TH SESSION: Countries under the spotlight

Summary: The Human Rights Council held its general debate on human rights situations that require the attention of the Council (Item 4), on 13 March 2012. The debate saw the participation of many States and NGOs.

On 13 March, the Human Rights Council (the Council) held a general debate, with a number of countries in the spotlight.

There was obvious disagreement between States on the issues discussed. Those States exercising the right of reply towards the end strongly refuted the allegations or human rights violations made against them, with some accusing Western States of hypocrisy. It was noticeable that the majority of States on the speakers list were from the Western European and Others Group. Major situtaitons discussed included Syria, Iran, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Belarus, and Eritrea.

The situation in Syria was brought up by the vast majority of States. States such as Denmark and the UK expressed their support for the Council’s action so far, and France said it was crucial that the Council continue these efforts to show solidarity with the Syrian population and condemn the barbaric actions of its Government. Canada emphasised the crucial role of the Commission of Inquiry on the situation, and called for President Assad to step down. NGO speakers included a student from Syria who described his arrest and ill-treatment at the hands of authorities. However the Union of Arab Jurists criticised international involvement in the crisis, saying that foreign interference has ‘marred the noble cause of the opposition’.

Comments on the human rights situation in Iran largely echoed the concerns raised in the interactive dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on the country. The US, Belgium, and the Czech Republic made specific reference to the worrying levels of detention of journalists, lawyers, and human rights defenders in the country, and Reporters Sans Frontières made a statement that Iran holds more journalists in its prisons than any other country in the world. The organisation condemned the ‘deplorable’ conditions of detention and said that renewal of the mandate on Iran’s human rights situation is essential. As in the dialogue, the other concerns were extensive use of the death penalty, including against minors, and discrimination against women and religious minorities.

A large number of States spoke about the issue of impunity in Sri Lanka, of particular importance at this Council session considering the US’s proposed resolution on the subject. Norway, France, UK, the Asian Legal Resource Centre, and the International Commission of Jurists voiced support for a resolution on the situation, whilst Belgium and Denmark simply called for Sri Lanka to engage constructively with the Council on the implementation of the recommendations from the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) report. Australia and Canada’s statements revealed a lack of faith in the impartiality and comprehensiveness of the LLRC report, and called for fuller investigations into human rights violations committed by both sides during the hot war ended in 2009. Japan’s statement focused on the importance of dialogue, stating that it had been working quietly and constructively with Sri Lanka on this issue. Sri Lanka responded that it had already briefed the Council on the steps it was taking towards implementation, which it believed to be sufficient. Faced with the possibility of a resolution on the issue, it warned that this would ‘undermine international law’ and turn the Council into a tribunal. It also took the position of the many States opposed to country specific discussions in saying that the UPR is the only appropriate forum to address human rights issues in all countries.

The humanitarian situation in Sudan was raised by several States and NGO Rencontre Africaine Pour la Defense des Droits de l’Homme. However, the State itself refuted claims of a deteriorating situation, claiming there are positive developments and stability in many areas. Its response had an accusatory tone, and referred to the recent massacre of Afghan civilians by a US military officer as a similar situation of human rights violations that needs addressed.

Almost all European countries speaking in the general debate, as well as the US and Canada, made statements calling for the release of political prisoners in Belarus, and expressed concern at the deteriorating human rights situation in the country following the 2010 elections. However Belarus denied these allegations and sought to deflect attention by referring to the ‘harsh repression’ of protestors in the US and EU, and raising other issues in relation to the countries that had addressed it.

Eritrea’s ‘systematic’ human rights abuses (as stated by the Czech Republic) were a concern for many States. Notably, Somalia made a statement on behalf of 44 other States to ‘bring the situation to the attention of the Council’. It spoke of the lack of independent media, serious restrictions on freedom of religion and belief, and a shoot to kill border policy; and called on the State to grant access to the Council's special procedures. Eritrea responded to the joint statement calling it ‘regrettable, confrontational, and unproductive’, adding that the State is a party to all the core human rights instruments and is currently working on implementing its UPR recommendations.

The responses of States in the right to reply section of the debate were defensive, and whilst some explanations were made in response to allegations of human rights violations, responses mostly attacked the ‘political’ character of statements. Zimbabwe in particular launched a strong verbal attack on the UK calling it a ‘systematic violator of human rights’, and saying it was spreading lies in the Council due to colonial ‘bitterness’. The idea that States condemning violations should ‘look in their own backyards’ first was a common sentiment, and formed a part of several States’ denials of allegations of abuses. Interestingly, though, several States used their rights of reply to raise their concerns about the human rights situations in the countries they responded to, instead of simply using the general debate for that purpose.

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