Council Condemns Honduras Violations; Calls for Release of Burma’s Political Prisoners
October 2, 2009

The council deserves kudos for taking up Honduras and for acting on a range of situations in other countries. Now what about the abuses in the many other places the council ignores like Afghanistan, Russia, Ethiopia, and Sri Lanka?

Juliette de Rivero, Geneva advocacy director

(Geneva) - The UN Human Rights Council concluded its session with mixed results, Human Rights Watch said today. The council adopted helpful resolutions on the human rights situations in Burma, Somalia, Honduras, and Cambodia and unanimously supported resolutions on freedom of expression, migrants' rights, HIV/AIDS, and access to medicines.

But it took no action on Justice Richard Goldstone's report on the recent conflict in Gaza, stalling justice for the civilian victims of the conflict. It also passed a divisive and dangerous resolution on "traditional" values and human rights, and neglected a range of other abuses worthy of its attention.

"The council deserves kudos for taking up Honduras and for acting on a range of situations in other countries," said Juliette de Rivero, Geneva advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. "Now what about the abuses in the many other places the council ignores like Afghanistan, Russia, Ethiopia, and Sri Lanka?"

The council broke ground through its resolution on Honduras, taking action for the first time on a country that was not already on its agenda. The resolution called on Honduras to end human rights violations immediately and to restore democracy and the rule of law. It also called for the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to report to the UN General Assembly and the next session of the Human Rights Council on rights violations committed since the coup.

The resolution on so-called traditional values and human rights adopted by the Council is a cause for concern, though, Human Rights Watch said. The resolution presupposes that "traditional values" make an exclusively positive contribution to promoting and protecting human rights and does not acknowledge that many harmful practices such as female genital mutilation are justified by invoking "traditional values." The Mexican ambassador, speaking to that point, said that by not defining traditional values, the resolution could "erroneously introduce the concept of cultural relativism."

The resolution was adopted by 26 to 15, with six abstentions. South Africa voted in favor, though its own constitution explicitly requires traditional or customary practices to conform to human rights protections. "This resolution fails to recognize that many values that political and cultural leaders exalt as ‘traditional' can stand at odds with international human rights law," de Rivero said.

The council noted that 25 million people have died of HIV/AIDS and that there were 2.7 million new infections in 2007. However, it fell short of recognizing the need to protect specific marginalized groups, such as drug users, sex workers, and men having sex with men.

The council regrettably also stopped short of creating an expert mandate on the elimination of discrimination against women. Instead, it adopted a resolution calling for the preparation of a study of women's equality before the law, a project that has already largely been carried out by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.

The resolution on Burma calls not only for the unconditional release of the opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, but also for the release of all other political prisoners. Human Rights Watch has reported that the number of political prisoners in Burma has more than doubled in the past two years, with more than 2,100 now held. Even states such as India and China that have sometimes shielded Burma from public condemnation joined this resolution, which was adopted by consensus.

"Burma's continued detention of 2,100 political prisoners is unacceptable, and everyone seems to know it but the junta," de Rivero said. "The council has sent a clear message that elections in Burma will be a sham next year unless the political prisoners are freed."

The Human Rights Council also rightly decided to keep Cambodia and Somalia under examination, Human Rights Watch said. It renewed for another year the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on Cambodia. On Somalia, the council expressed its concern at the human rights and humanitarian situation in the country and alarm at the deteriorating conditions for refugees and internal displaced persons.

The council extended the mandate of the UN expert on Somalia for a year, asking him to report back on the situation at its March and September 2010 sessions. Human Rights Watch expressed concern at the widespread unchecked and unpunished rights violations in Somalia and called on the council to step up its work on Somalia by organizing a special briefing on the situation.

There were great expectations for the US return to the council at this session. A week before the session, the US announced it would introduce with Egypt a resolution on the right to freedom of expression, one of the more polarizing issues in the Human Rights Council. The ability of the US to work constructively across regions to achieve this text was an important step forward and could contribute to reducing politicization in the council. The freedom of expression resolution was adopted without a vote.

The council deferred until its March 2010 session a vote on the report from the fact-finding mission chaired by Justice Goldstone that it created to investigate abuses in the Gaza conflict. The decision came after the US and the EU refused to endorse the report, with the US calling it "deeply flawed."

"The US effort to put forward a freedom of expression resolution that could be endorsed by states from all regions really paid off," de Rivero said. "But that achievement was unfortunately overshadowed by the US role in deferring consideration of the Goldstone report."