UPDATE: includes the council’s amendment of the expert mandate on freedom of expression

(Geneva) - The UN Human Rights Council showed little resolve to take on states responsible for serious human rights violations in its session ending today, Human Rights Watch said. Although the council took action on Burma and Somalia, it ignored other human rights crises such as Tibet, and adopted a disturbingly weak resolution on Darfur.

“The Human Rights Council again favored platitudes and politics over steps that could actually protect people,” said Juliette de Rivero, Geneva advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “The council should care more about saving lives, and less about letting governments save face.”

Since its inception in June 2006, the Human Rights Council has been dominated by a mantra of “cooperation, not condemnation.” But the limits of that approach have rapidly become obvious, Human Rights Watch said. While the council has bent over backwards to cooperate with states facing criticism, those states have unsurprisingly taken advantage of the council’s timidness by continuing their abusive practices.

The council’s engagement on Darfur highlights its failure to adopt strong measures. Although Sudanese government troops and “Janjaweed” militia have flouted Security Council resolutions and Sudan’s obligations under international law by carrying out a series of attacks that have killed hundreds of civilians since February 8, 2008, the council shockingly adopted a resolution on March 27 that merely “takes note with interest of [Sudan’s] engagement with the international community on human rights issues.” The resolution expressed concern that “for various reasons” measures taken by Sudan have “not yet led to the desired positive impact on the ground” – failing to point out that it was the Sudanese government’s own actions that have blocked such change, as determined by a Group of Experts appointed by the council.

At this session during the month of March, the council ended the mandate of its human rights expert on the Democratic Republic of Congo. In taking that decision, council members seemed to treat the actual situation in the Congo as largely irrelevant, and just gave credence to the Congolese government’s unwillingness to support continuation of the mandate. States and nongovernmental organizations that sought to raise concerns about Tibet were silenced, in a ruling that gave priority to China’s sensibilities over the council’s responsibilities.

In the final moments of the session the council adopted a resolution which inappropriately alters the focus of the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression away from violations by the state by requiring the rapporteur to report on abuses of freedom of expression by individuals. The council also adopted an amendment put forward by Cuba which states the “importance” of the media reporting and delivering information “in a fair and impartial manner.” With these amendments the rapporteur’s mandate effectively develops a policing function over individual freedom of expression and clearly calls into question the very essence of media freedom and independence.

The council did adopt a strong resolution calling for an end to violence and hostilities by all parties to the armed conflict in Somalia, and extended the mandate of the expert appointed on that country. Mandates for human rights experts appointed by the council on Burma and North Korea were also extended.

“This session of the Human Rights Council was marked by missed opportunities and timidity in the face of abuse,” de Rivero said. “States truly concerned about rights need to do much more to get the council on track.”