Posts Tagged ‘Imogen Foulkes’

Basic intro to the UN Human Rights Council

February 23, 2022

On 22 February 2022 Imogen Foulkes (a journalist reporting from Geneva for SWI swissinfo.ch as well as the BBC) published a piece: “What can the Human Rights Council do for you?”

Next week the spring session of the UN Human Rights Council begins [see also my: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2022/02/21/guide-to-49th-session-of-human-rights-council-with-human-rights-defenders-focus/]. Geneva will be inundated with the world’s top diplomats and human rights activists, who will wade their way through mountains of reports.  Foulkes brief survey helps to see the essence:

It’s too easy, sometimes, to be overwhelmed by all the paperwork and protocol of the human rights council. The 47 council members sit, day after day, in the vast council chamber, listening to those endless reports, and waiting for their two minutes to speak. 

Of course, the content of the reports is utterly serious; from possible war crimes and crimes against humanity in Syria, Yemen, or Myanmar, to the plight of child soldiers, to violence against women, and racial discrimination. Our world continues, day after day, to flout the human rights standards we’ve all signed on to defend. 

But the very quantity of those reports, the way multiple human rights crises are addressed in a single day, before moving on to the next litany of cruelty and misery, can be exhausting, and, somehow, desensitising. I, and my journalist colleagues at the UN in Geneva, often find it difficult to interest our editors in what the human rights council is doing. Not least because, when those editors ask “so, once they’ve passed the resolution condemning x or y country, what happens then?” our answer has to be “not much”. The council has no power to impose sanctions, it cannot prosecute, its investigators can never apprehend someone they know to be a war criminal, and drag him or her to the International Criminal Court. 

So what’s the point of it? That’s the question we try to answer in this week’s edition of Inside Geneva. We talk to human rights investigators, and to human rights defenders, people who bring their own testimonies of atrocities to the UN, often at great risk to themselves, and, often, because the UN is their last and only hope. 

Andrew Clapham, who is currently a member of the UN team investigating violations in South Sudan, tells us that “The idea that someone has listened to your story, and you have taken your case to the United Nations is incredibly important.” 

But is that enough? Is the UN’s human rights work simply a form of counselling, a way for victims of violations to talk through their trauma? 

Feliciano Reyna, a human rights defender from Venezuela, explains that the UN’s regular reviews of a country’s record, from its upholding of the convention against torture, on women’s rights or the rights of the child, allow human rights defenders to participate – they come to Geneva to present their version of what’s happening in their country. This process, Feliciano tells Inside Geneva has been “absolutely key in advancing our work on human rights and putting Venezuela on the international and local agenda”. 

We also talk to Collette Flanagan, whose son Clinton was shot and killed by Dallas police in 2013. Together with many other US mothers who have lost a child to police violence, Collette brought her case to the UN, because, she told us, her attempts at home to get answers for what had happened to her son, who was unarmed, were “dismissed by…the police department, we couldn’t get any answers to what happened to our child.” 

See also her piece: What does the Human Rights Council mean to victims of atrocities?

Collette’s campaigning resulted, eventually in the UN’s report on the treatment of people of African descent. Presenting that report last year, UN Human Rights Commissioner Michelle Bachelet drew a direct link between slavery and the violence and discrimination inflicted on people of African descent today. She said there was “an urgent need to confront the legacies of enslavement” and called for “amends for centuries of violence and discrimination”, including “formal acknowledgment and apologies, truth-telling processes and reparations in various forms”. 

For Collette, the report was a hugely important sign that even the most powerful country on earth, with its oft repeated promise of “liberty and justice for all”, is not above international scrutiny. 

“The United States is a democracy,” Collette says. “And we are supposed to uphold life, liberty and freedom for every citizen. And that is not happening in the United States. And if those things are not happening in the United States then that is an egregious attack on democracy and human rights and freedom. How can the United Nations not be involved?” 

One of the most disturbing investigations currently underway by UN human rights officers is the Fact Finding Mission on Myanmar, which is examining, among other things, the treatment of the Rohingya Muslim community by Myanmar’s ruling military regime. 

In 2016 and 2017 over a million Rohingya fled appalling violence. When human rights officer Ilaria Ciarla arrived in the refugee camps in Bangladesh to take witness accounts, among them from mothers whose babies had been killed before their eyes, she tells Inside Geneva her initial reaction was “incredulity… is this possible? How can human beings do such horrible things to other human beings?” 

Australian lawyer Chris Sidoti also served on the Fact Finding Mission, and highlights the inherent weakness in the human rights council’s inability to legally hold perpetrators to account. “I still know that the Myanmar butchers who are responsible for what happened may never individually be brought to justice,” he says. 

But, he explains, those UN investigations are quietly growing some teeth. Names of perpetrators, and all the evidence to convict them, is available to courts, national or international, who do have the power to try and convict. 

“We are seeing court cases in the top international courts now, dealing with Myanmar,” he notes. “The International Court of Justice is using our report. The International Criminal Court is using our report.” 

And for Khin Ohmar, who has devoted her life to the struggle for democracy in her native Myanmar, this is a milestone. “Oh yes, that is what I have been working for, there is no other way. We have allowed this military to enjoy blanket impunity for so long, and that must stop,” she says. “These perpetrators [must be] held to account by law, and there is no domestic law available, so now we need international law to hold them to account for all the crimes they have committed against the people of Myanmar.” 

https://www.swissinfo.ch/eng/what-can-the-human-rights-council-do-for-you-/47368266

Post 9/11: where did ‘human rights’ go?

September 8, 2021

LUNCH BRIEFING 9/11 Twenty Years On
Tuesday 28 September, 12:30-13:30
Auditorium A1A, Maison de la paix, Geneva, and online

Two full decades have elapsed since the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C. In the aftermath of these events, the world has entered a period characterised by a number of dynamics, which have persisted and shaped significantly the configuration of the global order. What is the nature of these transformations, notably the militarisation of international relations, the securitisation of social affairs, the rise of cultural and religious tensions and the crisis of democracy? Has the post-COVID-19 moment in turn ushered the end of the post-11 September world? Ultimately, what historical meaning can we ascribe to legacy of ‘9/11’?

Mohammad-Mahmoud Ould Mohamedou is Professor of International History and Politics, and Chair of the Department of International History and Politics at the Graduate Institute. Previously the Associate Director of the Programme on Humanitarian Policy and Conflict Research at Harvard University, he is the author of a trilogy on the post-11 September era and recipient of the 2021 International Studies Association (ISA) Global South Distinguished Scholar Award.

The Lunch Briefing will be moderated by Julie Billaud, Associate Professor of Anthropology and Sociology.

On cue Imogen Foulkes wrote on 7 September 2021 a post for Swissinfo “When the world became a ‘human rights free zone’ September 11, 2001″.

No one will forget the shock of that day. It’s hard even now, two decades later, to describe how it felt to watch something so unimaginable, so horrific. When I returned to my newsroom that evening, a colleague said to me “well, Imogen, that’s it, our world has changed forever”. I was still so focused on the immediate event that I didn’t quite understand him, and it took me a while to realise how right he was.

Our world did change forever that day; from smaller inconveniences around how we travel, to fears over how safe we are, to prejudices and intolerance towards groups perceived as a threat, to sweeping changes in security laws.

In the latest episode of our Inside Geneva podcast, we look at those changes, and the consequences, in particular for human rights. Gerald Staberock, secretary general of the World Organisation Against Torture, tells me: “I want my government to fight terrorism. I want those who did 9/11 or whatever terrorist attacks to be brought to justice.” But he also regrets the fact that the 9/11 attacks, which he describes as “a denial of the very values of human rights”, led to – in his view – “another attack on human rights, through counterterrorism”. 

Looking back now, with all the knowledge we have of extraordinary rendition, Guantanamo Bay, waterboarding and so on, it is quite hard to remember that in the first months and even years after 9/11, none of us, not even human rights defenders, were quite aware of how the “war on terror” was being fought.

Once that war was being conducted in earnest in Afghanistan, I remember getting a hint, off the record, from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), who told me that they were aware of detainees being transferred from Bagram airbase, but had no idea where they were being taken. It is the ICRC’s role, under the Geneva Conventions, to visit those detained during conflict, a role which was, for a while at least, impossible to fulfil.

Fionnuala ní Aoláin, currently UN special rapporteur on human rights and counterterrorism, also joins us on the podcast. Her position, she points out, was not created until five years after 9/11, and, she says “in that absence lies the story of a human rights free zone”, during which “the United States moved to engage in practices of torture, of rendition, or the establishment of a black hole where people were held arbitrarily”. 

Governments have argued that extraordinary measures are necessary to counter extraordinary threats. Certainly no political leader wants a 9/11 type attack on his or her watch. And, many opinion polls show, the public are prepared to compromise some fundamental human rights standards in the name of defeating terrorism.

A 2016 study by the ICRC found that, among millennials in industrialised countries, many agreed that torture was justified if it led to information that could save lives. Strikingly, among young people living in conflict zones, or under repressive regimes, a large majority remained opposed to torture.

This shift in opinion is a concern for ní Aoláin, who points out that some governments have taken to justifying increasingly repressive laws in the name of the war on terror. “Right now, in…Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Egypt, we see governments saying that human rights defenders are terrorists, that eco warriors are terrorists, that women’s rights defenders are terrorists.”

Interestingly, ní Aoláin comes from Belfast. She grew up with terror attacks, and counterterrorism measures. She believes that “actually it is counterproductive to security to violate human rights”, a point of view Staberock agrees with. He remembers research done in Northern Ireland in which senior security officers admitted that preventive detention had been a disaster, not just from a human rights perspective, but from a security perspective because “it made the cause much broader, it made the problem much bigger…by victimising people, you weaken the cause”.

Both ní Aoláin and Staberock believe the term “terrorist” is too widely used, and that it can become a convenient slogan for governments to introduce all sorts of legislation which would otherwise not easily be justifiable.

Staberock argues that “the best answer to terrorism is to demask it as killings. Not allow it to hide behind ideology. Demask it in an ordinary criminal process, bring people to justice, punish them, stick to your rules”.

The first shots in the war on terror were fired, 20 years ago, in Afghanistan. Today, in that same country, we are watching a humanitarian and foreign policy disaster unfold. As western diplomats made a panicked dash for the airport, they left millions of Afghans to live, again, under the Taliban, the very “terrorist” group the US and its allies entered Afghanistan to defeat.

So have we learned anything from the last 20 years? Do listen to Inside Geneva to find out more, but I’ll leave you with these final thoughts from ní Aoláin.

“We appear not to have learnt any lessons,” she says. “What we appear to be doing is betraying civil society, leaving women, human rights defenders and girls…when we conveniently decide that we’ve had enough and it’s time for us to leave.”

But, as a human rights defender herself, she is not deterred: “If you fight for human rights you’re always pushing big rocks up mountains, and you watch them fall down, and you push the same rocks up the mountain again. I think those of who work on human rights in the context of counterterrorism are looking at an enormous big rock.”

http://view.com.graduateinstitute.ch/?qs=03593ae72d465f424c62524fcb3b0674a1400adcb8708ad99947e5c2a73185ef84f12eb7b35f47251d236364d73d73396f7f3d03e7c28892b24b62800c3fbf2a0ccfc7e543a7d5d02fcd6e2c5427714a082f2ab63c8151e4

https://www.swissinfo.ch/eng/response-to-9-11—counterterrorism-attack-on-human-rights/46906238

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2021/sep/09/blacklisting-terrorist-groups-911-wars

Former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid, speaks freely

June 28, 2020
Imogen Foulkes

Imogen Foulkes – who regularly reports from Geneva – wonders whether being UN High Commissioner for Human Rights is it the toughest job at the UN? On 27 June 2020 she published a lengthy interview with Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, who was UN High Commissioner for Human Rights 2014-2018.

Zeid, as he likes to be known, is from a privileged background. He is a member of Jordan’s royal family, but never seems to have been comfortable with the term ‘prince’. His career with the UN began, he told me, almost by accident, when he accompanied his brother on a trip to the United States. He ended up in New York, where a friend at the United Nations told him the UN was recruiting for its work during the conflict in former Yugoslavia.….

Almost 20 years later, in 2014, Zeid was approached to become UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. His initial reaction, perhaps based on his experience in former Yugoslavia, and his knowledge that the UN could at times be frustratingly ineffective, was to refuse. But he took a walk around New York’s Central Park to think about it. “That was probably fatal,” he remembers with a laugh. “If I had just said no, that would have been the end of it, but once I had thought about it I couldn’t say no.”

.…His maiden speech to the Geneva-based UN Human Rights Council in September 2014 contained a withering attack on Islamic State, warning that any territory it controlled would be ‘a harsh, mean-spirited house of blood’. He also turned his attention to Europe’s rightwing populist leaders, calling the UK’s Nigel Farage and Geert Wilders of the Netherlands ‘demagogues’. And when Donald Trump was running for office, Zeid described him as a ‘bigot’, and suggested it would be dangerous for him to get elected.

Clearly this is not a strategy designed to win friends in governments, but Zeid is unapologetic. Trying to keep governments on side, whatever their actions, is, he believes, a mistake the UN makes far too often.’…[see: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2018/06/15/not-so-diplomatic-diplomat-of-the-year-zeid/]..

Rather than worry what the reactions of government leaders might be to the words and deeds of UN officials, Zeid believes it is governments who should have a wary respect for the UN.

And while we may remember Zeid most for his outspoken comments about Donald Trump, in fact during his four years in office, he and the UN Human Rights Office were hard at work, often quietly behind the scenes, investigating human rights violations around the world. ,(Syria, investigations into the conflict in Ukraine, into the persecution of the Rohingya in Myanmar, …..He described the violence as containing ‘elements of genocide’, and, in a final interview before leaving office, told me Aung San Suu Kyi should have resigned rather than preside over such atrocities.

Nowadays, Zeid is Professor of Law and Human Rights at the University of Pennsylvania, and a member of The Elders [see: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2019/01/25/two-human-rights-personalities-join-the-elders/]

But he remains a keen observer of the United Nations,and thinks to key to progress is persuading the permanent members of the UN Security Council to give up their veto when atrocity crimes are taking place. “That would unlock the possibility for collective action… and we can see the Security Council operating in the way it ought to be operating,” he said……

See also: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2019/05/09/former-u-n-high-commissioner-for-human-rights-zeid-warns-about-the-moral-collapse-of-global-leadership/

https://www.swissinfo.ch/eng/is-it-the-toughest-job-at-the-un-/45863026

2017 (1): Are we heading towards a ‘post human rights world’?

January 11, 2017

The start of a new year is often the occasion to make some broader analysis. So it is with the issue of human rights defenders. I have collected some of the more interesting and will report on these in the days to come.

The first is an article (30 December 2016) by ith more states seemingly reluctant to honour human rights treaties – whether we are “heading towards a ‘post human rights world‘?:

A man looks at one of the first documents published by the United Nations, The Universal Declaration of Human Rights
Image copyright THREE LIONS/GETTY IMAGES

With an increasing number of states seemingly reluctant to honour human rights treaties, is there a future for this type of international agreement? “We stand today at the threshold of a great event both in the life of the UN, and in the life of mankind.” With these words, Eleanor Roosevelt presented the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to the United Nations. It was 1948 and UN member states, determined to prevent a repeat of the horrors of World War Two, were filled with idealism and aspiration…… Mrs Roosevelt’s prophecy that the declaration would become “the international magna carta of all men everywhere” appeared to have been fulfilled.

But fast forward almost 70 years, and the ideals of the 1940s are starting to look a little threadbare. Faced with hundreds of thousands of migrants and asylum seekers at their borders, many European nations appear reluctant to honour their obligations to offer asylum. Instead, their efforts, from Hungary’s fence to the UK’s debate over accepting a few dozen juvenile Afghan asylum seekers, seem focused on keeping people out. Meanwhile across the Atlantic, president-elect Donald Trump, asked during the election campaign whether he would sanction the controversial interrogation technique known as “waterboarding”, answered ‘I’d do much worse… Don’t tell me it doesn’t work, torture works… believe me, it works.” And in Syria, or Yemen, civilians are being bombed and starved, and the doctors and hospitals trying to treat them are being attacked.

Donald Trump
 Image copyrightDREW ANGERER/GETTY IMAGES

 Little wonder then, that in Geneva, home to the UN Human Rights Office, the UN Refugee Agency, and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the guardian of the Geneva Conventions, there is talk of a “post human rights” world. “There’s no denying that we face enormous challenges: the roll-back that we see on respect for rights in western Europe, and potentially in the US as well,” says Peggy Hicks, a director at the UN Human Rights Office. Just around the corner, at the ICRC, there is proof that those challenges are real. A survey carried out this summer by the Red Cross shows a growing tolerance of torture. Thirty-six per cent of those responding believed it was acceptable to torture captured enemy fighters in order to gain information. What’s more, less than half of respondents from the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, among them the US and the UK, thought it was wrong to attack densely populated areas, knowing that civilians would be killed. More than a quarter thought that depriving civilians of food, water and medicine was an inevitable part of war.

For ICRC President Peter Maurer these are very worrying figures. “Even in war, everyone deserves to be treated humanely,” he explains. “Using torture only triggers a race to the bottom. It has a devastating impact on the victims, and it brutalises entire societies for generations.” But how many people are listening, outside the Geneva beltway? Peggy Hicks attempts an explanation as to why attitudes to human rights may be changing.

“When confronted with the evil we see in the world today, it doesn’t surprise me that those who might not have thought very deeply about this [torture] might have a visceral idea that this might be a good idea.” But across Europe and the United States, traditional opinion leaders, from politicians to UN officials, have been accused of being out of touch and elitist. Suggesting that some people just haven’t thought deeply enough about torture to understand that it is wrong, could be part of the problem. “I do think the human rights community, myself included, have had a problem with not finding language that connects with people in real dialogue,” admits Ms Hicks. “We need to do that better, I fully acknowledge that.”

What no one in Geneva seems to want to contemplate, however, is that the principles adopted in the 1940s might just not be relevant anymore. They are good, so Geneva thinking goes, just not respected enough. “We aren’t looking for an imaginary fairytale land,” insists Tammam Aloudat, a doctor with the medical charity Medecins sans Frontieres. “We are looking for the sustaining of basic guarantees of protection and assistance for people affected by conflict.” Dr Aloudat is concerned that changing attitudes, in particular towards medical staff working in war zones, will undermine those basic guarantees. He was recently asked why MSF staff do not distinguish between wounded who are civilians, and those who might be fighters, who, if treated, would simply return to the battlefield.

“This is absurd, anyone without a gun deserves to be treated… We have no moral authority to judge their intentions in the future.” Extending the analogy, he suggested that doctors or aid workers could end up being asked not to treat, or feed, children, in case they grew up to be fighters. “It’s an illegal, unethical and immoral view of the world,” he says. “Accepting torture, or deprivation, or siege, or war crimes as inevitable, or ok if they get things done faster is horrifying, and I wouldn’t want to be in a world where that’s the norm.”

And Peggy Hicks warns against hasty criticism of current human rights law, in the absence of any genuine alternatives. “When we look at the alternatives there really aren’t any,” she said. “Whatever flaws there may be in our current framework, if you don’t have something to replace it with, you better be awfully careful about trying to tear it down.”

Source: Are we heading towards a ‘post human rights world’? – BBC News