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Thoughts on the Human Rights Council's 10th Session

The UN Human Rights Council’s 10th Regular Session is currently coming to a close. As usual, the various reports available make for fascinating and frustrating reading, not least because of the design of the OCHR’s website, which could charitably be described as eccentric.

The major point of interest was the report of Richard Falk, the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967. It is interesting for two reasons:

Firstly, it is illustrative of the growing trend for human rights law to encroach on areas which traditionally belong to other fields of international law. Mr. Falk’s report concerns itself almost entirely with the legality of the use of force in Gaza and the crime of aggression – neither of which are human rights law issues and both of which are firmly outside of his mandate as a Special Rapporteur on Human Rights. (He acknowledges as much in Para. 2 of the report.) According to him this venture outside of his responsibilities is justified because “[those matters] bear directly on the interpretation of violations of international humanitarian law and human rights law” and because he was not permitted to assess the human rights situation on the ground by the Israeli government. Regardless of the correctness or otherwise of these justifications (in my opinion they are rather spurious and do nothing to dispel the impression that Richard Falk is biased), there is no doubt that this sets an unusual precedent in Special Rapporteurs stepping out of the bounds of their mandate.

Secondly, the account of the debate following the report shows the Human Rights Council at its worst – the usual barrage of unhelpful rhetorical bombast and muckslinging on the part of Islamic states which has by now become almost ritualistic when a report on the Occupied Palestinian Territories comes before a UN body. It is illustrative to compare the restrained, constructive debate accompanying the reports on human rights in Myanmar and the Democratic Republic of Congo with that following the Falk report in this regard.  Once again one is forced to agree with Ban Ki-Moon that the Human Rights Council’s apparent obsession with Palestine damages its credibility and prevents it from focusing on other areas – which is doubly frustrating when one considers the relatively useful work done regarding Myanmar or the DRC. For example, it seems astonishing that the agenda for the 10th regular session includes just one item for “Human Rights situations that require the council’s attention” (i.e., all around the world), and a separate one for “Human Rights situation in Palestine and the Occupied Territories”. Does the HRC really believe that Palestine requires its own agenda item when Darfur, Myanmar, North Korea, Zimbabwe and every other human rights situation do not?


  1. Mathias Vermeulen Mathias Vermeulen 27 March 2009

    Good post.
    It was indeed again quite an eventful council. Philip Alston’s report on Kenia, Martin Scheinin’s report on the role of intelligence agencies in the fight against terrorism (ok I admit I’m biased when it comes to this one ;)), Manfred Nowak’s report on the death penalty… were all very good.
    The most worrying fact for me however was the adoption of the Resolution on Combating Defamation of Religions. This can have serious consequences for the future and is quite a worrying precedent…

  2. davidmcgrogan davidmcgrogan Post author | 29 March 2009

    Thanks for the comment. Yes, the defamation of religions resolution is a whole post in itself. I think a rather large can of worms was opened.

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