South Asians for Human Rights

Promoting Democracy, Upholding Human Rights

Published in by Rene Wadlow ::
Two major advancements in the universal application of world law were made by the UN Human Rights Council Special Session in Geneva on 1 September 2014. The Council met in response to wide-spread and converging accusations of human rights violations in territory in Iraq and Syria under the control of the Islamic State (IS) also called the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIM) and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). I will use the term “Islamic State” which is the title that the movement most often uses now for itself.
For the past several years, the IS was one of a good number of shifting insurgency groups active in Syria in opposition to the government, and it did not receive more attention than any of the other insurgencies. It had no clear political program, and its ideology was not particularly different from that of other Islamist groups. Then suddenly in June 2014, under the leadership of the young Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the group shifted its focus from Syria to Iraq. It was able to build on the growing resentment and sentiment of marginalization o the Iraqi Sunnis and the disorganization o the Iraq army to sweep through large parts of western Iraq and eastern Syria. IS’s ideology does not recognize existing nation-states but rather a potentially unified Islamic world. One of its first symbolic moves was to destroy frontier wall and frontier posts on the Iraq-Syria frontier. Thus the name of Islamic State and the title of Caliphate for the area under its control.
In the areas under IS control, IS armed groups have killed prisoners of the Iraqi army and members of religious and ethnic minorities leading to larger scale displacement of people, often to the Kurdish Autonomous Area − some 800,000 during August. The Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees has stated that this is a “humanitarian crisis” and appealed for support from governments and civil society to meet the urgent needs of the displaced. On 12 August 2014, Heiner Beilefeldt, the Special Rapporteur of the Council on Discrimination due to Religion or Belief warned of the destruction of religious minorities and the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination activated its early warning and urgent action procedures.
During August, IS forces took areas close to the Kurdish Autonomous Area, areas in which there is a large Kurdish-speaking population but is outside the Kurdish Autonomous Area’s boundaries. The Kurdish forces fought back, helped by US bombing missions aimed at IS military equipment and posts. The danger of a military escalation and a spreading of the conflict was (and still is) a real possibility.
Many looked toward the UN Human Rights Council to speak out. Both some governments and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) urged a Special Session of the Council, the highest profile action which the Council can take. It seems that France took the lead in the effort to get a Special Session. Although a minority of 16 States among the 47 Members of the Council is needed to call a Special Session, diplomatic sense requires that as many States as possible participate in the call and that they would vote positively on the resolution at the end of the Special Session.
In the case of this session, it was agreed by government negotiators to limit the discussion to IS actions in Iraq and not bring up violations in Syria on which governments hold differing views. The negotiators organizing the effort had to have the agreement of Iraq, the concerned State, of Iran which holds the presidency of the Non-Aligned Movement and its 120 members. Iran is also heavily involved in the conflicts of Syria and Iraq. Pakistan needed to agree as Pakistan is the usual spokesperson for the Organization of the Islamic Cooperation. Italy, as current president of the EU had to play a key role. The President of the Council, Ambassador Baudelaire Ndong Elia had to be kept informed as the Special Session would be under his leadership.
It is difficult for someone not party to the government private negotiations to know how they are carried out and how the resolution is written, well in advance of the Session itself. In this case, the Ambassador of South Africa felt that he had been left out of the discussions and complained bitterly that the resolution had not been negotiated inclusively and transparently and had appealed to the President of the Council to defer until more time was given to delegates to negotiate the text. His request was turned down, and so South Africa was the only State to say after the resolution was passed by consensus without a vote that had there been a vote, he would have abstained.
As the final resolution is written and agreed upon prior to the start of the Session, all the statements of the Member States of the Council, the Observer States and NGOs are “for the record”. Each States wishes to have been seen as saying something in the very short time that each State is allocated. The factual information was presented at the start of the Session by Ms Flavia Pansieri, Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights and Ms Leila Zerrougui, Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children in Armed Conflict. There is therefore a good deal of repetition in what government representatives have to say. There is a story in the USA about a mythical conference of comedians who have heard all the jokes before, so rather than tell a joke, they would just say a number, “number 10” and everyone would laugh. Along these lines, I have suggested that at the UN a good deal of time could be saved by having all ideas given a number, so the Ambassador could just say, “We believe, 7 9 15, Thank you” and a skilled technician would flash a red light if ever a new idea was mentioned. My suggestion has not yet been acted upon, and so one must listen carefully to “hear between the lines” and see who is saying something different or occasionally saying it very well.
Thus, it was impossible for the Ambassador of Syria not to mention that the IS was also in Syria, which the Canadian Ambassador did as well. Germany mentioned that there were Syrian refugees in Iraqi Kurdistan but did not go into more detail. Cuba and Venezuela mentioned that the problems of Iraq were due to the US invasion of 2003 “responsible or sowing the seeds of death and th social breakdown among the Iraqi people”. Ireland was the one State to mention “open and possibly genocidal attacks on minority communities” but did not mention the 1948 Genocide Convention. Austria spoke of the “ total annihilation of minorities but did not use the term “genocide”. Morocco called or Iraq to become a “cohesive State in which all citizens were equal and enjoyed their human rights.” Malaysia called upon “the voices of moderation to drown out the destructive and divisive voices of extremism and terrorism”. Lebanon called for actions by the International Criminal Court, especially against those bearing passports of States which wee party to the Rome Statute setting up the ICC. The Holy See (the Vatican) made a moving call or tolerance and understanding among all religions.
After the speeches “for the record”, what was the action proposal which was an advancement for world law? The action proposal followed a Council pattern but with a significant difference. The Council in the past, following a practice o the earlier Commission on Human Rights, has created “Commissions of Inquiry” also called “Fact-finding Missions”. Currently there are four such Commissions at work: Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, the OHCHR Investigation on Sri Lanka, and the Commission of Inquiry on Gaza. Each commission has three, sometimes four people, each from a different geographic zone. The members have usually had experience in UN activities, and the chair is usually someone who has a reputation beyond his UN efforts, such as Mr Martti Ahtisari, the former President of Finland who heads the Sri Lanka study.
Since the commissions are usually not welcomed by the government of the country to be studied, the fact-finding is done by interviewing exiles and refugees. NGOs, scholars as well as governments can also provide information in writing. The Commission reports rarely contain information that is not already available from specialized NGOs, journalists and increasingly the INTERNET. However, the commission reports give an official coloring to the information, and some UN follow up action can be based on the reports.
It takes a good deal of time to put these commissions together as there must be regional balance, increasingly gender balance, and a balance of expertise. Moreover, the people approached to be commission members are often busy and have other professional duties. It can sometimes take a month or more to put together a commission. In light of the pressing need presented by the situation in Iraq, it was decided that the members of the fact-finding group would be members of the Secretariat of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights so that they can get to work immediately.
For the UN, this is a major step forward and must have led to a good deal of discussion before being presented in the resolution. As it is, India and China objected publicly in official statements just before the final resolution was accepted. Both States maintained that using Secretariat members went beyond the mandate of the Office of the High Commissioner. They were worried by the increasing investigative role of the Office which should be limited only to helping develop national capacity building: Iraq today, Kashmir and Tibet tomorrow. The Indians and the Chinese are probably not the only governments worried, but they were the only States which spoke up on the issue, objecting strongly but saying they would not block consensus on the resolution
The other advance or world law arising from the Special Session is the principle of the universality of concern and thus of investigation. In no previous case, has the UN looked at the violations within an area not under he control of a Member State. In this case, the investigation concerns actions of a non-state actor who nevertheless controls territory and to some extent administers the territory trying to impose its vision of strict Islamic law. This is a major step forward and has implications or other state entities but which are not members of the UN or recognized by the majority o UN Member States such and Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Transnistra, Nagorno-Karabakh, and if a state were set up in eastern Ukraine.
This principle was stated in a widely distributed text for the Special Session and which will come out as a written NGO statement at the regular session of the Council starting 8 September. With due modesty, I quote from myself: “The Association of World Citizens believes that world law as developed by the United Nations applies not only to the governments of Member States but also to individuals and non-governmental organizations. The ISIS has not been recognized as a State and is not a member of the UN. Nevertheless the Association of World Citizens is convinced that the terms of the Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief applies to the ISIS and that the actions of the ISIS are, in the terms of the Declaration adopted by the General Assembly on 25 November 1981 “inadmissible”.
Citizens of the World stress the need for world law and certain common values among all the States and peoples o the world. We are one humanity with a shared destiny. The challenge before us requires inclusive ethical values. Such values must be based on a sense of common responsibility for both present and future generations.”