Does the UN Human Rights Council have its mojo back?

Does the UN Human Rights Council have its mojo back?

By Luke Vargas   
A wide view of the U.N. Human Rights Council Chamber in Geneva, Switzerland. UN Photo/Jean-Marc Ferré
A wide view of the U.N. Human Rights Council Chamber in Geneva, Switzerland. (UN Photo/Jean-Marc Ferré)

From condemning China’s treatment of Muslim minorities to probing the gory details of the drug war in the Philippines, the Geneva-based council is making headlines this month.

UNITED NATIONS – Who said the U.N. can’t get things done? The Geneva-based Human Rights Council left its mark twice this week, turning up the pressure on the governments of the Philippines and China.

On Wednesday, 22 of the Council’s 47 members – among them Australia, Canada, Japan and the U.K. – issued a joint statement demanding that China end the mass detention of Uighur Muslims in the country’s western Xinjiang region.

Various human rights groups have said up to 1 million Uighur Muslims are being detained by the Chinese government, with many forced into reeducation programs aimed at stripping away their religious identity in favor of subservience to the Chinese state.

Then, on Thursday, the council formally ordered a report on allegations of widespread extrajudicial killings in the Philippines as a part of President Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs. By some estimates, upwards of 25,000 have been killed since that campaign began three years ago.

Lou Charbonneau is the U.N. director for Human Rights Watch and says despite warnings from countries like the U.S. that the Human Rights Council was being taken over by rights-abusing countries, important work is still getting done.

“Unlike the U.N. Security Council, where you have five countries with a veto, we’ve seen countries come together in coalitions to do some very important work.”

Whereas the U.S., China, Russia, France and the U.K., steer the agenda of the Security Council, smaller countries are stepping up at the Human Rights Council.

Iceland led this week’s push to investigate the Philippines, while the Netherlands led recent efforts to probe atrocities committed in the Saudi-led war in Yemen.

And with the United States no longer on the council after President Donald Trump ordered a pullback last year, Charbonneau says some council work has gotten easier. Whereas Venezuela used to claim human rights criticisms were a mere U.S. hit job, that excuse is now a lot less viable.

“The Venezuelans can’t say that this is just the Yankee imperialists hijacking the Human Rights Council and forcing something down their throats.”

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