UN Human Rights Council president on protecting civil society space

“We cannot function without civil society; protecting it is a priority”


Shreerupa Mitra-Jha | October 1, 2015

#Joachim Ruecker   #president   #United Nations Human Rights Council   #human rights   #HRC  
Joachim Ruecker, president, United Nations Human Rights Council, UNHRC
Joachim Ruecker, president, United Nations Human Rights Council, UNHRC

Joachim Ruecker is the current president of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC). Appointed in January this year, he is the first German diplomat to hold the office. Ruecker has held various positions in the federal foreign office in Bonn and German diplomatic missions. He has been the special representative of the secretary general at the UN Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK). Ruecker spoke to Shreerupa Mitra-Jha on the  UNHRC’s 30th session (September 14 to October 2) and on issues like accusations of bias against the HRC and the need to protect the civil society space.

We are seeing a surge in HRC’s functions. There has been an explosion of resolutions, special procedure mandate holders and independent experts as well as a multiplying of side events. Do you think the structure is becoming unwieldy?  

There is certainly something – which some states term – “inflation” in our initiatives. Whether it is special procedures or resolutions, we have seen a steep increase. But, on the one hand, I think, this is part of the success story of the Human Rights Council because it shows how much trust the member-states actually put into the council and its mechanisms. On the other hand, you are right and I would certainly agree that we have to do something about this increase in workload, and we are trying. We have, for instance, in our recent session in June had a presidential statement where we enumerated a couple of steps to enable us to cope up a bit better with the increase in initiatives. So I am actually confident that we can, at least, curb the increase somehow.  

It is the 70th anniversary of the UN’s founding. How do you think human rights – considered the third pillar in the UN system – has fared thus far?

We don’t even say third pillar – we say, three pillars and don’t rank them [laughs]. As you well know, peace and security which is prosperity, and development and human rights [are considered the three pillars of the UN system]. And, I think, what we are seeing in these 70 years is an enormous evolution of the weight that the human rights pillar carries and that is attributed to it and you can actually see the evidence of it by the growth of the normative body of hard law and soft law on human rights as it has developed over the years. You can see that also by the mainstreaming initiatives, including the secretary general’s [Ban Ki-moon], of course, on the mainstreaming of human rights into all of the UN activities in different countries. There is also, I think, evidence by Kofi Annan’s famous dictum where he said that you can have no peace and security without development and no development without security and you have certainly neither one without respect for human rights. So, I think, there has been an evolution that has increased the meaning of human rights pillar in the past 70 years, in particular, during the last, let’s say, 20 or 25 years especially since the Vienna Conference in 1993. Having said that, I think, there is still room for improvement. I think if you look at the financing, for example, of the human rights pillar, from our Geneva perspective, it does not receive enough financing – the crisis and the problems increase and the finances are not sufficient, including the finances from the regular budget of the UN. So there is room for improvement. We are also looking forward now to the Summit of the Sustainable Development Goals where the rule of law, including human rights, will play an important role and we expect an additional boost for our cause.  

Do you see tangible impacts of UN resolutions and reports from Commission of Inquiries (CoI) on conflicts on the ground? To give you two instances, the CoI on Syria has been regularly updating the HRC with ensuing resolutions but the conflict in Syria is only intensifying with ISIL capturing more and more territory, while resolutions against Israel are a record number, but the Palestine question remains unresolved with worsening human rights situation for the Palestinians.

I think you have to look at the particular angle which we cover, which is, the human rights angle. We do not have a mandate for peace and security –that’s the Security Council – and wider political mandate to solve conflicts. However, having said that, if you look at the contribution we make from our particular angle, I think, it is a very significant contribution that leads, or at least, can lead to changes, also in the political field. If you look, for example, at the CoI for Syria, which you have mentioned, then it is basically our Human Rights Council’s instrument that is the voice for victims and witnesses. As you probably know, they are putting together a documentation of crimes against humanity and violations of human rights and international humanitarian law – that’s basically the only UN mechanism that puts together such a documentation and that plays a major role in not only getting to a political solution but also plays a role in the potential follow-ups with regard to accountability also, criminal accountability. I think that the council already has a role, of course, a limited role when it comes to actually solving the problem but it certainly contributes. I would say that about many other examples you partially quoted. Inter alia, maybe, I should also mention North Korea/DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) CoI which had a very, very sobering and actually horrifying result that was then passed on from us to the General Assembly, from the General Assembly to the Security Council. It led to the Security Council now being permanently seized by this situation in North Korea. And we have seen now, of course, it is a tough subject, but we have also seen reactions like the North Korean foreign minister coming to our council to justify from his perspective. So, I think, some of these things are for the medium term but I think, we do make a difference with many of our commission of inquiries. And I could actually elaborate the same thing on our independent experts, on our special rapporteurs, be it thematic, be it country-specific. But I don’t want to consume too much of your time.  

It has become a common practice for member-states to accuse the HRC of being “biased” when they get pulled up for human rights situation, be it Israel, Myanmar, Syria or North Korea, to name a few. How do you navigate such accusations?  

I think in a political body – and we are a political body – you cannot completely avoid that you have some countries being dealt with and others maybe not, even though from an objective point of view this could also happen. But I would like to draw your attention to one, if you so wish, ‘correcting’ element, if you assume there is a bias. There is certainly one instrument that would correct these biases, which is our Universal Periodic Review (UPR) because this was a new instrument that was created by the human rights council in 2006 and we are now entering into the second cycle. In all the 193 member-states of the UN undergo, if you so wish, political-technical check on human rights and it ends up in very substantive discussions and recommendations. And there is no singularisation of any state, there is no bias because all the 193 states undergo this procedure. Since you mention, for example, the US – they had more than 300 recommendations in their UPR which we conducted this year. And among them, of course, very serious ones. So even if I would assume a sort of a political bias in the selection of topics of countries, I think, the UPR is a mechanism to correct that.  

About 80 percent of the funding requirement for UNHRC comes from the US and other developed nations. Many important positions in the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) is held by those who have served in the foreign service of these countries. There have been resolutions for the transparency in staffing and funding of the HRC mainly sponsored by developing countries. Do you think that funding realities do have or may have implications for the neutrality of the OHCHR?  

I think we can always work in the UN system towards better gender and geographical balance towards the staffing of the UN, in general, also the OHCHR, in particular. I think there is always room for improvement – I would totally agree to that. However, efforts are being made to not only come to a gender balance but also to a good regional balance. Sometimes, it just depends on people who apply, for example, for certain positions and people apply from a certain region. But having said that, I would also like to draw your attention to the fact that the high commissioner’s office is financed partly by voluntary contributions and partly by the regular UN budget. And of course, there is a natural assumption that – whether it is right or wrong, I leave aside for the moment – that if you have this financing structure where 60 percent or half of your financing comes from voluntary contributions of member-states, instead of the regular budget, then you would have an inclination to certain projects with certain people. I am not sure if we should jump to that conclusion but the solution for that problem – if we assume it creates a problem for the OHCHR – it is certainly that the OHCHR should get more regular budget funds from the UN in that this balance between voluntary and regular budget should be redressed in the sense that most of its income should come from the regular budget.    

What is the focus of the 30th session of the UNHRC?  

This will be a very interesting session, once again. We also had interesting sessions in the past but here we will hear from a number of special rapporteurs on various issues of concern, for example, contemporary forms of slavery, rights of older persons, rights of indigenous peoples, water and sanitation – these are important reports we will hear from the special rapporteurs. We will have important initiatives from member-states who have already announced, including resolution on violent extremism, side events on climate and SDGs – a very timely topic because it coincides with the SDG summit.

We will also have panel discussions on the impact of the world drug problem on human rights, and the dire human rights situation in North Korea. Country-specifically we will talk of Democratic Republic of Congo, we will speak about Sri Lanka, we will speak about Ukraine and Syria, once again.

What have been some of the challenges as the president of the UNHRC? How do you self-assess your term?  

It is not over yet but it has been challenging so far. I think what we have been able to do, at least, in my personal assessment is we have avoided unnecessary politicisation. Human rights, of course, are per se political. So I am bit sceptical when people say we should avoid the politicisation of the council – the council is per se political. But, I think, we have pretty well avoided unnecessary politicisation. What I mean by that is importing, let’s say, political conflicts that do not belong to the core of our human rights angle, for example, bilateral-territorial conflicts. We have been able to keep that out as much as possible from the council. I would consider that to be a success so far though it is not over yet. And I have put great emphasis on reaffirming our consensus on keeping the civil society as an integral part of the council. I think, we cannot function without civil society; so protecting the civil society and space for the civil society has been a priority in my presidency. One of the things under this headline is, of course, that we go very thoroughly after each case of reprisals against human rights defenders that comes to my attention. And what I mean by that is we follow up thoroughly if we hear somebody being stopped from participating in the council or are being harassed before or after the council interacting with our mechanisms –we try to follow up on all of these very carefully because it is one thing to say you protect the space for the civil society and another thing to really contribute that this space is really protected. Because we need the civil society otherwise we cannot function, we need this critical mirror of the civil society in order to assess our work and progress with regard to protection of human rights and projection of human rights. There are other issues but these are the central ones.

(The interview appears in the October 1-15, 2015 issue)



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