As the conflict in Ukraine deepens and the COVID-19 pandemic wears on, the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva is gearing up to hold its annual month-long session, which begins on Monday.
More than 130 foreign dignitaries are expected at the Palais des Nations, the UN Office in the Swiss city, for the high-level segment of the debates.
Secretary-General António Guteres was scheduled to participate but will remain in New York "due to the aggravating situation in Ukraine", his Spokesperson announced on Saturday.
Ahead of the opening of the Council's 49th session, its newly elected President Federico Villegas spoke to UN News about his vision for the proceedings, challenges linked to the polarization of the Council, and the critical role of civil society organizations.
‘A collective responsibility’
"There is no country that can say that it does not have a human rights challenge," said Mr. Villegas, who is the Ambassador of Argentina to the UN in Geneva.
While the international community is currently witnessing an increase in geopolitical tensions, the veteran diplomat recalled that no nation is beyond reproach.
He said no country can claim to have “solved everything” when it comes to issues such as the right to freedom of expression or the fight against discrimination, adding “we therefore have a collective responsibility".
The Human Rights Council is where that responsibility is upheld.
Request from Ukraine
Established by the General Assembly in 2006, it is an intergovernmental body within the UN system, made up of 47 States responsible for strengthening the promotion and protection of human rights around the globe.
As the crisis in Ukraine escalated last week, the Council reported on its Twitter account that the country's UN Ambassador in Geneva, Yevheniia Filipenko, requested that an urgent debate on the human rights situation there be convened during the upcoming session.
Countries such as Afghanistan, Syria, South Sudan and Myanmar are on the agenda this year, as are issues such as the access to decent housing and the rights of minorities. An annual debate on the rights of persons with disabilities will also be held.
In total, the Council will consider over 100 reports presented by more than 30 human rights experts and groups, before the 49th session concludes on 1 April.
Reports will address some 50 country situations and 40 themes, including COVID-19. Three panel discussions will be held to examine public health policies, access to vaccines, and the impact of the pandemic on human rights.
This latest session will be held over a record period of five weeks, and in a hybrid format, with meetings taking place both in-person and online.
Delegations have welcomed the return to face-to-face meetings after being deprived of holding informal consultations for two years.
Mr. Villegas described in-person meetings as the “heart of multilateral diplomacy”, saying the easing of health restrictions in Switzerland will facilitate the discussions.
However, he pointed out how the pandemic has also brought about valuable technological innovations.
Virtual meetings mean participants from far corners of the world can still take part in the debates, when previously they were hampered by distance or cost.
For example, the President of the Marshall Islands, David Kabua, and the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Mauritius, will deliver their remarks via videoconference on opening day.
Hope for constructive dialogue
Mr. Villegas also spoke of his wish to avoid politicization of the Human Rights Council during its 49th session.
"We have to learn from history and find the opportunity for constructive dialogue," he said, emphasizing that the UN body is the best way to prevent conflicts and ensure the protection of civilians caught up in war.
The Council President also does not ignore the fact that his own country has had a history of numerous rights violations, and that there are still lessons to learn from the past. He stated that as an Argentine, “it's an emotion and an additional responsibility".
Therefore, the contributions by non-governmental organizations (NGOs) will be essential to the debates in the Council. Representatives from several NGOs will also be welcomed at the Palais des Nations, alongside diplomats and human rights experts.
Mr. Villegas highlighted the dual role of civil society, namely “to show the errors of the States and to collaborate with them to develop more efficient public policies.”
He concluded by reflecting on the importance of protecting human rights to “ensure the future of generations to come, who can have a much better life than those present and past”.