I leave the United Nations Directorate in Paris for a week on assignment to help out my colleagues at France’s Permanent Mission to the UN in Geneva. The 24th Session of the Human Rights Council: three weeks of declarations and discussions, nearly 200 countries, dozens of languages, colours and costumes, litres of coffee downed unthinkingly in a Bar Serpent abuzz with the hum of informal consultations and, at the end of the day, forty or so resolutions adopted (a record). I arrive in the second week, when negotiations start to hot up before the following week’s vote.
TGV Paris-Geneva. How I was transformed
I take with me the ten or so draft resolutions for which I will be tracking negotiations. In Paris, we have already seen the devil in the detail, the pattern in the carpet and the associated budget costs. In Geneva next week, once the resolutions have been cleared of dross, unpicked and put back together again in round after round of negotiations, they will be adopted or put to the vote of the 47 countries with seats on the Human Rights Council. In the train, with an armful of “red lines”, “tough points” and “alternative wordings”, I suddenly wonder how you say “position de repli” in English (fallback position, I discover).
In Geneva, the Permanent Mission fights the negotiating battle. Paris is HQ, giving the Mission its instructions. Paris identifies the target, Geneva chooses the weapons, the people and the strategy.
In Geneva, our experts at the Mission submit French amendments during “informal meetings” and devise strategies to achieve the best text, the best vote. France has no seat this year (it is a candidate for 2014-2016) and no vote, but it has clout in the negotiations and can propose texts.
The instruction drawn up in Paris, sometimes with several departments, is transmitted to Geneva by the United Nations Directorate. It reflects a considered position based on law, our previous commitments and our political priorities. But our action is guided above all by reality, the reality of human rights violations on the ground, reported by our embassies or by United Nations agencies or by NGOs. Little by little the law of these resolutions, though still recent and soft, helps to adapt the international law which will provide the framework for national laws and policies. The UN is not only a talking-shop; these resolutions may have a very practical impact in terms of protecting the most vulnerable, for example, or setting up a monitoring mechanism. That is the case with so-called country resolutions such as those on Syria, the Central African Republic, Yemen, Sudan and Somalia.
Setting aside my contributions to notes on bilateral discussions, COREU messages and other national languages, I plunge into the heart of our multilateral work. That heart beats faster during these quarterly sessions of the Human Rights Council.
- Council Room
There are texts you like (this year, among others, on civil society, freedom of association and assembly and, above all, the one sponsored by France on arbitrary detention) and texts you don’t (which I will not gratify with free coverage here). There are those which are consistent with the Charter, the Universal Declaration and the major human rights conventions and those which run counter to them, put forward by what we war-wearily end up by calling the “bad guys”. There are even resolutions whose only point lies not in their content but in their nuisance value. They are submitted in order to clog up the agenda, strike a political pose, pollute the debate or undermine the principle that human rights are universal and indivisible and apply to everyone. It makes you wonder when we’ll see a resolution on the protection of people under five foot three with flat feet (which, by the way, and in a strictly personal capacity, I would willingly cosponsor). None of these texts can be ignored, otherwise positions which are not ours could unwittingly pass into law.
In the second week of this session there are only three days left before the texts have to be filed, at 1.00pm on Thursday. On arrival I feel a little bit like a soldier greeted by the Genevans with a “Welcome to the front line!”.
Day 1: How I negotiated
Eight o’clock and the first informal meetings at the Palace of Nations. We are some distance away from the Art Deco edifice whose monumental proportions are on a scale with the hopes of the erstwhile League of Nations. In this 1970s building, screens display the obscure agenda of the many meetings scheduled, difficult to decipher in the pale early-morning light. Ah! Found it: Room XXVIII.
It is a meeting of friends, a core group, a group of the like-minded (which since 15 September our language police have required us to call “homodoxes”). But that doesn’t mean we just sit and twiddle our thumbs. Even among friends we have to agree on what the text says, and deciding a wording is a bit like choosing a restaurant: it is not always self-evident.
Today we are looking at the text of the resolution on Syria. Before enlarging the negotiating group, we finalise a first draft amongst ourselves. We wanted it to be short and non-provocative. That way, we will avoid endless negotiations on a long-winded resolution whose scope and substance would be diluted. We need to send strong messages which show the international community’s cohesion and the Council’s engagement. But I can’t help wondering whether it might not be an all-or-nothing gambit. Will the strategy pay off? Will we get the votes?
Although the war crime of the chemical weapons attack on 21 August is uppermost in everybody’s minds, we must not interfere in the Security Council agenda. Now, we agree on strategy and on who does what in order to get Member State delegations to vote in favour. We can even formally ask our capitals for their backing; we call this “demarche” and the sweet talk to convince them will be the “terms of reference”.
In Geneva, countries take flesh. They are no longer soulless states reduced to a couple of initials and a few stereotypes. Russia is Olga and her fur coat, the UK is red-cheeked Tom, Peru is the tall ambassador who seems to be everywhere. I recognise the vivacious, polyglot Turkish lady and the waxy-faced man with the icy stare I would rather never have seen again, far from us and yet so astute. My colleagues in Geneva are good at playing on psychologies, attitudes and habits, while I stick to my reading of the text and of countries’ interests. And yet personal chemistry is just as important in deciding the outcome of negotiations as the intrinsic worth of positions defended and interests well understood.
To begin with those positions coagulate in various groups with names that sound like some sort of exotic food – grulac, weog, nams, oic – and then the more obvious ones like the Scandinavians, the Africans, the BRICs and the Brits (almost a group in their own right and a bit like family: lots of them, everywhere, and very good). The grammar of each group is so familiar that we know where the gaps and cracks will appear. I am slightly disappointed to see countries exactly where we expect them. I would like to be surprised, to be thrilled, for example by Belarus presenting me with a resolution on protecting human rights defenders. Alas.
Day 2: How we got mad
A bus for the Palace every half an hour and Swiss punctuality is getting the better of me. I’m always slightly on the run. Today we have an interactive dialogue with the commission of inquiry on human rights violations in Syria. The Chairman of the International Commission of Inquiry for Syria, Paulo Pinheiro, paints an alarming picture. Two years ago, the Council got upset about the deaths of hundreds of peaceful protesters. “Two years later the death toll has risen above 100,000 and lawlessness is commonplace.” It is strange to see the Syrian representative sitting at his country’s place, isolated, even as TV cameras and photographers close in on his impassive countenance. He will be the first to respond, in a neutral tone of voice. His speech follows the expected line, denying the accumulated evidence from all sides, except on the ground. Does he believe it, even a little bit? Does he still believe it? Who is he in the infernal machine of the Syrian regime?
Delegations from dozens of countries want to speak after Chairman Pinheiro and the Council members. They wave the card with their country’s name on it up in the air, stand on their seat so that the Chairman can see them. It will take more than a day for all of them, including the NGOs, to have their say. Nicolas Niemtchinow, our Permanent Representative to the UN in Geneva, speaks for France. The Commission of Inquiry must be given access to Syria, must continue its work and document crimes. It is essential for future justice, so that those who have committed war crimes and crimes against humanity are held to account. The matter should be referred to the ICC (International Criminal Court). The British Ambassador endorses the message. Leaving aside these ritual formulae, when will we be able to go where words count?
- Interactive dialogue with the Commission of Inquiry for Syria
- Interactive dialogue with the Commission of Inquiry for Syria – Speech by France’s Permanent Representative at 1.13.33 on WebTV Nations Unies The plastic earpiece is to check the live translation
I will not attend the vote on the Syria resolution, adopted by 40 votes out of 47 with only one vote against (Venezuela). It is a success. A few hours later, in New York, the Security Council adopts a resolution on the consequences of using chemical weapons. In New York and in Geneva, on the same day, the international community has said what it thinks about the situation in Syria.
The argument will have taken place. Yes, countries have their differences, on where responsibility lies, on sanctions, on the messages to send to one side or the other. But no, the United Nations will not look silently on as the law is systematically flouted, as civilians – men, women and children – are massacred by banned weapons. They have proclaimed with a single voice, in Geneva and in New York, that there will be no impunity.