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Group of people at the United Nations in Geneva

Listening, leading and learning at the UN Human Rights Council: A Commonwealth story

22 April 2020
By Sanjoy Hazarika, international director of the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI), and convenor of the Working Group on Human Rights in India and the UN

Image: Anne Pakoa (Vanuatu Human Rights Coalition), Turenga Nakalevu (Homes of Hope), Sanjoy Hazarika (CHRI), Hannah Bondi (CHRI), Lynnie Roche (Homes of Hope) and Sneh Aurora (CHRI)’

The three women sat quietly together in a corner of the large room, their hands clasped together, heads bowed in prayer.

They then hugged each other and moved decisively to the U-shaped table at the centre of the room, which was filling up with diplomats, human rights defenders, researchers and participants from the United Nations Human Rights Council (HRC).

I watched with curiosity and empathy, touched by their humility. They appeared to be overwhelmed by the occasion.

The three were civil society organisation (CSO) representatives from the Pacific, billed to speak at a side-event at the 42nd session of the HRC in Geneva, their first such interaction at a UN forum.

But they were not intimidated. A depth of knowledge and conviction drawn from decades of human rights work in the island nations of Fiji and Vanuatu, involving issues of trafficking, child abuse and domestic violence, helped capture the attention of the audience.

Lynnie Roche, founder of Homes of Hope in Fiji, spoke of the “culture of silence and shame” in her country, calling for co-ordinated efforts across the Pacific to help victims.

The then special rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery, Urmila Bhoola, stressed the need for all stakeholders to work with “smart use of digital technology, strategic and sustainable approaches”.

The representatives from the Pacific CSOs were part of a partnership designed and developed by the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative to build capacity among civil society actors from small states in the Commonwealth.

These past two years, CHRI has been at the forefront in bringing voices, experiences, people, organisations and resources to engage with, connect to and impact Permanent Missions, HRC systems and civil society networks through the HRC. 

CHRI has been uniquely placed to play such a role with offices in India, Ghana and the UK.  It also works at the field level in no less than 12 countries.

CHRI’s strengths come from working in the access to justice and information sectors for over 20 years, including programmes relating to police and prison reforms as well as right to information (also known as freedom of information). A new area of work is media advocacy and rights, standing up to pressures on journalists and media. It has special consultative status with the UN Economic and Social Council and is recognised for its expertise by governments, oversight bodies and civil society.

CHRI has worked closely with the Commonwealth Secretariat’s Human Rights Unit (HRU) through the Commonwealth Small States Office (CSSO) in Geneva to build a better understanding with CSOs of HRC mechanisms including treaty bodies and special procedures as well as the Universal Periodic Review process which reviews the human rights records of member states.

This has been a process of demystification of the Council which now appears to those who come to it as a place of empowerment and engagement.

Training has been organised by HRU through the CSSO, using side events, one-on-one meetings, engagement with Permanent Missions as well as with staff members of various UN bodies..

The support of the Commonwealth Secretariat has enabled CHRI to achieve the following:

  • New issues have been raised at side-events at the Council including Sorcery Accusation-Related Violence (SARV) against women in Papua New Guinea, which are rarely discussed at the global level. Ruth J Kissam, from the Tribal Foundation in Papua New Guinea, will now be speaking on the issue at the Commemoration of the 75th Anniversary of the UN in New York in 2020.
  • Fijian civil society groups who came to the HRC over the course of a year built a special Fiji CSO UPR Working Group to make recommendations to Fiji’s UPR which was held in March 2020 during the 43rd Session of the HRC. The statement delivered by Sandra Fong commended Fiji for accepting 207 out of the 242 UPR recommendations received.
  • The UPR intervention by the Fijian civil society coalition was one of 16 oral and written statements made by CHRI and its partners at the Council over the last year.
  • There is a proposal to hold a Pacific-wide consultation on the issues raised at the Council later this year, once the Covid-19 crisis eases. This could create a Pacific-wide network to influence some of these issues.

The substantive partnerships with the Commonwealth Secretariat’s Human Rights Unit will help translate these ideas and actions to ground-level changes which are anchored in international jurisprudence and national laws.

This critical new work needs to be supported and carried forward at a time of great economic and social stress that has grown out of the pandemic, which has adversely impacted vulnerable groups, especially women and children.