Castan Centre Goes to Geneva

By Sarah Joseph, Castan Centre Director

In June of 2019, I was fortunate to attend the first week of the 41st Regular Session of the UN Human Rights Council at the Palais Nations in Geneva. In doing so, I witnessed a number of important debates on human rights. I highlight the following.

A report was delivered by the UN Independent Expert on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity (SOGI), Mr Victor Madrigal-Borloz. It was interesting here to gauge the reactions of States. After all, the SOGI mandate was created in 2016 despite fierce opposition to the idea of SOGI rights from some States, particularly from the Africa group and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation. On this occasion, recalcitrant States did not take the opportunity to again attack the mandate, indicating that they realise they have lost this battle – SOGI rights are entrenched on the global human rights agenda despite their spoiling efforts. Indeed, later in the session the mandate was renewed easily with a greater majority than in 2016.

A most interesting report was delivered by Agnes Callamard, the Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Killings and Summary Executions, which focused on her investigation of the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi embassy in Istanbul. Her report makes for unpleasant reading, and is a damning indictment of the Saudi government. Again, the response of States was instructive. Saudi Arabia and most of the Arab world predictably attacked Callamard. The most poignant intervention came from the floor, during the NGO interventions, when Khashoggi’s widow Hatice Cengiz reiterated Callamard’s call for an international investigation. 

In contrast, the tentative nature of the support offered by many States to Callamard was disappointing. However, it must be noted that the Khashoggi murder has finally prompted scrutiny on Saudi Arabia’s human rights record in the Council, previously an apparent no-go zone. Notably, Australia delivered a statement against Saudi Arabia in the 42nd Council session in September.

Other highlights included the delivery of the report from Australia’s own Philip Alston on Extreme Poverty and climate change, an Australian exhibition hosted by the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, June Oscar, and a rich array of side events hosted by NGOs and States. And, as is par for the course, a real understanding of the Council entails numerous meetings in the Serpentine Bar (for coffee, I add, not alcohol(!)).

I must thank the Human Rights Law Centre for its generosity in according me accreditation to attend the Council, and also the hospitality of Australia’s DFAT mission in Geneva. And I must congratulate the Human Rights Law Centre and the others it accredited for some excellent statements, especially Annie Braybrook (“Djirra”) holding Australia to account regarding Indigenous women and children, and Abdul Aziz Muhamat, formerly detained on Manus Island, who excoriated Australia’s cruel refugee policies.

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