The Human Rights Council this morning opened its forty-ninth regular session, hearing statements from the President of Switzerland, the President of the General Assembly, the United Nations Secretary-General, and the High Commissioner for Human Rights. The Council also decided to hold an emergency debate on the situation in Ukraine.
Federico Villegas, President of the Council, Ukraine, said he had received a request from Ukraine urging the Council to hold an urgent debate on the “situation of human rights in Ukraine stemming from the Russian aggression. Following a roll-call vote of 29 votes in favour, 5 against and 13 abstentions, the Council decided to hold the urgent debate.
Ukraine and the Russian Federation spoke as countries concerned.
Ignazio Cassis, President of Switzerland, said war was raging in the heart of Europe again. Switzerland condemned most firmly the attack by the Russian Federation against Ukraine. This was a blatant violation of international humanitarian law.
Abdulla Shahid, President of the General Assembly, said there was no sustainable peace and development without human rights and invited all members and observers to not lose their sense of collective responsibility in their deliberations in the Council.
Antonio Gutteres, Secretary-General of the United Nations, said the escalation of military operations by the Russian Federation in Ukraine was leading to escalating human rights violations. The Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine was continuing its work and humanitarian agencies would step up their operations.
Michelle Bachelet, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, said the military attack on Ukraine was putting at risk countless lives. Between Thursday morning and last night, the Office of the High Commissioner had recorded 406 civilian casualties, including 102 killed -including 7 children – and 304 injured.
The webcast of the Human Rights Council meetings can be found here. All meeting summaries can be found here. Documents and reports related to the Human Rights Council’s forty-ninth regular session can be found here.
The Council will next start its high-level segment at 10:30 a.m.
Opening Statement by the President of the Council
FEDERICO VILLEGAS, President of the Human Rights Council, said while the COVID-19 pandemic continued, the Human Rights Council continued to demonstrate flexibility and perseverance to ensure that it was able to fulfil the collective responsibility to uphold human rights standards and respond to the human rights challenges exacerbated by times of crisis.
Before everything else, there was a matter of urgency in connection with the forty-ninth session. On 24 February 2022, a letter had been received from Yevheniia Filipenko, Permanent Representative of Ukraine, requesting the Human Rights Council to hold an urgent debate on the “situation of human rights in Ukraine stemming from the Russian aggression” as urgently as possible during this session. Urgent debates were based on a decision by the Council to adjust its programme of work in order to address a human rights matter which was considered to be urgent. The reorganization of the programme of work was made upon the request of a State or a group of States. Such a debate should be organized in a constructive and efficient manner and be as non-disruptive as possible to the programme of work.
There have been six urgent debates organized so far. In conformity with these precedents, the urgent debate would be organized under agenda item 1 and would follow the modalities of a general debate. The debate may be followed by the adoption of a resolution on the matter, provided the main sponsors submitted a draft resolution at least 24 hours before its adoption and organized at least one informal consultation. The Bureau had come to the conclusion that the requested urgent debate could take place immediately following the conclusion of the right of reply that would take place following the conclusion of the general segment. The Bureau had agreed only on a possible timing for the holding of the urgent debate, and not on the proposal itself.
Request for Urgent Debate on Ukraine
YEVHENIIA FILIPENKO, Permanent Representative of Ukraine to the United Nations Office at Geneva, said its call for an urgent debate was supported by many delegations. Russia had attacked Ukraine – this was an attack on every Member State, on the United Nations and on the principles that the Organization was created to defend. After weeks of escalating threats, Russian troops had entered from Russia and Belarus in a wide-scale invasion. The toll had become devastating in only a few days. Hundreds of thousands were displaced, the people were subjected to bombing and shelling.
Attacks on Kiev and other cities had forced people to spend days and nights in shelters. Hundreds of thousands of children had been deprived of their basic needs. Thousands were deprived of electricity and water. Russian forces had targeted kindergartens, hospitals and orphanages, committing acts that could amount to war crimes. Russia must be brought to account. The Russian leadership did not hide the fact that the attack was grounded in deep disdain for Ukrainian statehood. Russia’s acts had been unequivocally condemned by the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Secretary-General. The Russian aggression was accompanied by a massive flow of disinformation. Some of this would be heard here today. It was the responsibility of the Council to push back against this and strongly respond to the blatant violation of international law. The United Nations Security Council had been unable to take action, but the United Nations General Assembly and the Human Rights Council must respond to the violations of international human rights law. The Human Rights Council had to act and put an end to this situation, and members should exercise their responsibility and support the call for an urgent debate.
GENNADY GATILOV, Permanent Representative of the Russian Federation to the United Nations Office at Geneva, said the proposal to hold this debate was a topic which had nothing to do with the true concerns about the human rights situation in Ukraine. It was the usual attempt of Kiev to distract the attention of the international community about what they had been doing for nearly eight years now, which was a targeted destruction of completely innocent people in Donetsk and Luhansk, women, children and the elderly. The tragic result of this inhumane policy was well known to all. Tens of thousands of human lives had been lost. For eight years, Kiev had continued to bomb its own citizens, with the silence of the Western curators or sponsors. Where had the Western colleagues been for all these years. Why had they not raised their voices in the Human Rights Council whilst the people in the Donbass were dying and when Ukrainian artillery carried out targeted shelling of hospitals and schools. Instead, the Council had talked about the territorial integrity of Ukraine.
Mr. Gatilov said he would not go further into this topic as the Human Rights Council was simply not empowered to discuss issues relating to this issue. After Russia’s recognition of the independence of these republics, the shelling had not stopped but in fact had increased, and it was still ongoing today. In this situation, the decision to conduct a special operation to stop the tragedy in Ukraine had been taken. Russia had had no other choice. This operation was targeted in nature and there was no firing on civilian sites. The Russian Federation would continue to speak in an honest and depoliticised dialogue on the situation of human rights in Ukraine. This discussion must be held on an equal footing with an honest approach to all existing problems. It was quite clear that the urgent debate as proposed would clearly not serve this objective. In this context, Russia was against this urgent debate and called for a vote.
The results of the vote were as follows: 29 in favour, 5 votes against and 13 abstentions.
In favour (29): Argentina, Benin, Bolivia, Brazil, Cote d’Ivoire, Finland, France, Germany, Gambia, Honduras, Indonesia, Japan, Lithuania, Libya, Luxembourg, Malawi, Malaysia, Marshall Islands, Mexico, Montenegro, Nepal, Netherlands, Paraguay, Poland, Qatar, Republic of Korea, United Kingdom, United States and Ukraine.
Against (5): China, Cuba, Eritrea, Russian Federation and Venezuela.
Abstentions (13): Armenia, Cameroon, Gabon, India, Kazakhstan, Mauritania, Namibia, Pakistan, Senegal, Somalia, Sudan, United Arab Emirates and Uzbekistan.
FEDERICO VILLEGAS, President of the Human Rights Council, said the results of the vote were 29 in favour, 5 against and 13 abstentions. Therefore, the proposal was adopted. The urgent debate would be added to the programme of work.
Mr. Villegas said the Human Rights Council was one of the United Nations bodies that continued to work fully during the pandemic. “We never stopped the joint action wheel to generate greater protection of human rights around the world”, he said, inviting all actors to preserve the space for dialogue, understanding and cooperation to strengthen the Council. There was no sustainable peace and development without human rights, Mr. Villegas continued as he urged all members and observers to not lose their sense of collective responsibility in their deliberations in the Council.
The President extended a very warm welcome to all delegations and other stakeholders who were to participate in this session of the Council and explained that due to the prevailing sanitary conditions and the extraordinary modalities for this session, only one of the 12 selected beneficiary delegates supported by the Least Developed Countries – Small Island Developing States Trust Fund would be able to participate in this session in person: the delegate from Benin.
Additionally, Mr. Villegas highlighted that the active participation of representatives of civil society and national human rights institutions in the work of the Human Rights Council was essential to the fulfilment of its mandate. As President of the Council, he assured that he would follow up on all allegations brought to his attention of acts of reprisal and intimidation committed against persons in connection to their contribution to the work of the Human Rights Council, its mechanisms and procedures. Mr. Villegas called on everyone to take all necessary measures to prevent such acts in the first place and to ensure that they were promptly and seriously addressed in case they were to happen.
IGNACIO CASSIS, President of Switzerland, said Switzerland had a long tradition as a host country on the basis of universal conventions. The Human Rights Council made a fundamental contribution to the respect and promotion of human rights around the world, allowing human rights violations to be denounced, providing accountability, and protecting from future violations. Today the turn of events was unexpected – war was raging in the heart of Europe again. Here in Geneva, an emblematic city of peace, humanitarianism and multilateralism, this needed to be discussed. Switzerland condemned most firmly the attack by the Russian Federation against Ukraine. This was a blatant violation of international humanitarian law. Russia had violated the most fundamental principles of the United Nations Charter. The attempts of the Russian Federation to legitimise its actions were not credible. There was nothing that could legitimise this intervention. Russia should withdraw immediately from Ukraine and de-escalate its military.
Switzerland was prepared to welcome all persons in need and called upon the parties to the conflict to respect international humanitarian law and civil rights. All civilians must be protected and treated with humanity. Medical structures, infrastructure and personnel must be protected in all circumstances. All parties should ensure rapid humanitarian access with no impediments. The Russian people could not have free access to information on the events and could not express themselves freely. The arrest of peaceful demonstrators was condemned. The Geneva humanitarian institutions could make a major contribution to protecting international human rights and human rights in Ukraine. Those who committed grave violations of international law and international human rights law must be brought to account. Switzerland supported the urgent debate. This session of the Human Rights Council would of course be marked by the dramatic events, but there were other matters of concern: stability and prosperity would be better guaranteed in a world where the human rights of all were respected. The respect of human rights was a key element to prevent conflicts and to strengthen democratic structures. Switzerland was committed to taking further account of human rights in the Palais des Nations and ensuring cooperation between the three pillars of the United Nations. Switzerland had submitted its candidacy to the Security Council as a non-permanent member for 2023-2024.
ABDULLAH SHAHEED, President of the General Assembly, recognised the tremendous efforts of High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet, her Office, and the whole United Nations system in the promotion and protection of all human rights for all. Regarding the COVID pandemic, he reiterated the conclusions of the recent high-level thematic debate on vaccine equity, which stressed the importance of including a human rights perspective when recovering from the pandemic and using the 2030 Agenda as the roadmap to recovery. Beyond COVID, Mr. Shaheed said he would prioritise the needs of the planet in his presidency and welcomed recent progress at this Council on these issues, including two resolutions, on human rights and climate change, and on the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment. A high-level event in July would highlight the synergies on this issue across the various meetings taking place during his presidency.
Gender equality would also take a priority during his presidency, with the President’s cabinet being gender balanced, with more women than men, and the President promised to participate only in panels that were gender balanced. In addition to his commitment to women and girls was an understanding that young people must be empowered. Mr. Shaheed said he had made it a point to include their voices at meetings and events at the General Assembly during this session. Under the Fellowship for HOPE, eight young diplomats from underrepresented countries had joined his team to gain valuable insight into the work of the United Nations. He hoped that they would take these insights and lessons back to their home communities and support their nations in the field of multilateralism. Upholding human rights also meant tackling racism and other forms of discrimination, and as such one of the first meetings he had presided over was the commemorative meeting to mark the twentieth anniversary of the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action, in September 2021. He would also continue to prioritise bringing the voices of civil society back into the halls of the United Nations during his presidency.
ANTÓNIO GUTERRES, Secretary-General of the United Nations, said that human rights were under assault everywhere. Human rights could not be confiscated by dictators or erased by poverty. Nor were they a luxury that could be left for later. They were inescapable and powerful. The United Nations worked every day, everywhere, to uphold and promote human rights for all. The solutions to crises were all rooted in human rights, COVID-19 pandemic included. The unequal recovery from the pandemic had revealed the moral bankruptcy of the global financial system. Calling for a renewed social contract, based on rights and opportunities for all, the Secretary-General said that it was essential to tackle poverty and hunger, invest in education and lifelong learning, and rebuild trust and social cohesion. The rights of women and girls must be at the forefront and the recovery was an opportunity for targeted investments in women’s education, employment, training and decent work, to make up ground lost during the pandemic.
The climate crisis was a human rights crisis, Mr. Guterres said. Today’s report on adaptation from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was another death knell for the world that they knew. Floods, droughts and rising sea levels would lead to even greater humanitarian catastrophes, food shortages and migration. Up to one-fifth of the planet could be too hot for humans to survive. A few countries were trampling on the rights of the rest of the world and a few companies were reaping rich rewards, while ignoring the rights of the poorest and most vulnerable.
Welcoming the Council’s recognition of the right to a healthy environment, “an important tool for accountability and climate justice”, the Secretary-General said the Paris Agreement was intrinsically linked to human rights.
Digital technology was “the Wild West” for human rights and the internet must be treated as a global public good that should benefit everyone, everywhere. The world needed a digital public square that was inclusive and safe for all, and social media platforms that supported human rights and freedoms.
The escalation of military operations by the Russian Federation in Ukraine was leading to escalating human rights violations. The Secretary-General said conflict was the utter negation of human rights across the board. The Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine was continuing its work and humanitarian agencies would step up their operations. The grim irony, he continued, was that conflicts were themselves frequently rooted in the denial of human rights, from discrimination against minorities to gaping inequalities and injustice. He said protecting minorities and promoting their economic, social, cultural, civil and political rights were among the most important conflict prevention tools that were available. Around the world, a much sharper and more sustained focus on minority rights was needed. The Secretary-General urged the authorities in countries from Myanmar to Afghanistan, Ethiopia and beyond to step up the protection of minorities and respect the equal rights of all their people, during and after war.
Supporting that diversity defined the richness of human civilization, he highlighted the need for a much sharper and more sustained focus on minority rights. “Refugees and migrants are a group that need special protection”, he said, adding that hostile asylum and migration policies, as well as the xenophobic rhetoric that often accompanied them, threatened the lives of migrants and refugees and made hypocrites of those who purported to lead by example on human rights. He expressed his strong support for the work of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, to protect and enhance human rights everywhere. The Secretary-General stated that the human rights movement was an affirmation of basic humanity. “Through the daily grind of advocacy, monitoring, and investigation, human rights defenders, including journalists and lawyers, are standing up for our common humanity – often at great personal risk” he stated. Mr. Guterres concluded by saluting them and honouring their work.
MICHELLE BACHELET, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, said this Council session was taking place at a time that called for strong and visionary leadership. Remarkable progress that had been made over two decades in every region – in decreasing conflict, reducing poverty and expanding access to education and other rights – was in jeopardy. Depleted by the pandemic, divided by growing polarisation, undermined by growing environmental harm and corroded by digital disinformation, hatred and distortions of democracy, and disregard of the rule of law, many societies were evolving – or plunging – into increased repression and violence; rising poverty; anger; and conflict. The military attack on Ukraine was putting at risk countless lives. Between Thursday morning and last night, the Office of the High Commissioner had recorded 406 civilian casualties, including 102 killed -including 7 children – and 304 injured. Meanwhile, millions of civilians, including vulnerable and older people, were forced to huddle in different forms of bomb shelters, such as underground stations, to escape explosions. The High Commissioner for Refugees had reported that 422,000 people had fled the country – and many more were internally displaced. Action to end conflict, respect the United Nations Charter, and abide by international law were needed.
The international community must also, with unprecedented vigour, fight corruption, which robbed the public treasury for private gain – creating predatory élites whose interests may sharply diverge from the well-being of the people. Tackling the root causes of grievances and instability, and investing in justice and human dignity was urgent to the task of guiding societies – in every region – away from reckless and escalating violence. Already, conflict was creating humanitarian need on a scale that far exceeded the capacity for assistance. It was shattering lives and economies, driving people from their homes and creating both bitter grievances and despair. Decisions that were taken at this crucial time would have lasting impact. They must re-establish a trajectory that benefitted all. The Secretary-General had set the path for that global effort – framing a new approach that was anchored in human rights, and supported by a strong human rights system, at the core of revitalised and strengthened multilateral organizations. The Office of the High Commissioner stood ready to support this crucial work in every way.