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Ms Ashley Müller: Welcome to the Geneva Centre for Security Policy Podcast. I’m Ashley Muller. This week’s episode explores some of the latest global issues affecting peace, security, and international cooperation.
Ms Ashley Müller: Ambassador Yvette Stevens is the former Ambassador and Permanent Representative of Sierra Leone to the United Nations Office at Geneva and she is a current Executive in Residence with the GCSP's Global Fellowship Initiative. We discuss sustainable peace and the prevention of human rights violations.
Ms Ashley Müller: Ambassador Stevens, thank you for joining us here today.
Ambassador Yvette Stevens: It’s a pleasure to be here.
Ms Ashley Müller: You are the former ambassador and Permanent Representative to Sierra Leone at the United Nations Office in Geneva. You have a long and broad experience with the United Nations system, and you are an engineer by training. Today you are an Executive in Residence with the GCSP’s Global fellowship initiative. On 6 July 2018, the United Nations Human Rights Council adopted resolution 38/18 on “the contribution of the Human Rights Council to the prevention of human rights violations”. You were appointed as chair-rapporteur in October 2018.
Ms Ashley Müller: Ambassador my first question to you is can you please explain the work that you have done in passing this report for the United Nations Human Rights Council?
Ambassador Yvette Stevens: Yes. The report that we presented was as a result of consultations, widespread consultations, and it is to look at how the Human Rights Council can enhance its role in preventing human rights violations. Sierra Leone joined the Human Rights Council in 2013. And because of its experience, as you will recall, Sierra Leone fought an 11-year war, which ended in 2001. And you know, UNHCR had a Human Rights component, which played a major role in resolving the conflict in the first place, and in also avoiding the country lapsing back into conflict. So, we can say we very much appreciate the world that human rights played attention to human rights played in our own specific situation. This was why in 2015, at the high-level segment in the segment that Sierra Leone made, it specifically requested the Human Rights Council to see how it could enhance its role on prevention. And, look at how it's mechanisms could do that, bearing in mind that human rights violations are usually the main causes of conflict that countries slowly move into conflict. So, in that same year 2015 there are other three countries that were also interested in the subject, this was Switzerland, Norway, Colombia. So we teamed up to form a core group on prevention of human rights violations, the role of the Human Rights Council in preventing human rights violations for two sessions of the Human Rights Council made statements and then there was a decision was taken to say that, we had to have some people really examine the role that the Human Rights Council was playing and also to recommend to the Council how it could enhance its role in preventing human rights violations. Now the resolution because usually the way it's done is that the group is the core group, which isn't a resolution to a session of the Council, there will be consultations. And in between during the session of the Council there will be in format of community consultations with different groups. I think for each resolution, you are supposed to have at least two informal consultations with members of the club, not only members of the Human Rights Council, but with those who participates in the Human Rights Council, then the resolution is presented at the Council, and if it's not a consensus resolution, voting is done, and then the resolution is adopted. So, this resolution that came to the Council was precisely one, to look at how the Human Rights Council could enhance its role in preventing human rights violations. So, how the Human Rights Council can work with the other pillars of the UN, meaning peace and security and development in order to address its role in preventing human rights violations. And the third is to look at sources of funding for the four prevention activities of the Council. So this was how the resolution was, what the resolution covered, we were three rapporteur’s, I was the chair-rapporteur but we also had two other rapporteur’s: r. Pablo de Greiff (Colombia) and Mr. Nils Muižnieks (Latvia) with whom I worked to be able to first of all have two sessions, consultation sessions, with members and observers and all the stakeholders of the Human Rights Council here in Geneva. We went to New York and had consultations with all the others of organs of the peace and security, the Security Council members, the Peacebuilding Commission members, and with the Secretary General himself, and ECOSOC. And then this report brings together all what we got from these consultations, as the report was presented at the 43rd Session in March to the Human Rights Council.
Ms Ashley Müller: What particularly inspired you to pursue this?
Ambassador Yvette Stevens: Yes, as I said before, because of the experience of Sierra Leone, Sierra Leone was involved in a 11-year war. And because of what we gained, we gained from paying attention to human rights. I was specifically interested in trying to say this is an example that should be replicated and in fact, it's not only that Sierra Leone can say, it's not only that it should be replicated by other countries, even for Sierra Leone because what happens in many of these countries, once you change the government things change again. So, this is a repeated process that needs to be done. But the Council itself, I believe had a role to prevent, rather than what it sounds like now that they wait until everything is wrong that they bring a country to the Council, and the country considers this a naming and shaming. Why don't we look at preventing the human rights violation before they occur? In which case we can work with member states, we can work with member states of the United Nations. So, we can help them to address these human rights situations before they need to get into a situation where conflict becomes inevitable.
Ms Ashley Müller: So how do resolutions get created and passed and implemented? You mentioned the consultation but how long does that take? For the listeners who are listening today, can you break it down for our listeners?
Ambassador Yvette Stevens: Well, within a session, you know, the Human Rights Council has three sessions per year, but within a session, this can be done. The work goes before the session, the Human Rights session itself starts, and it will depend on the core group, because the core group draws up the resolution. And drawing up the resolution again, sometimes benefits again, if you can do enough consultations ahead to see how the members of the Council and the observers all view this, get inputs from everybody and get inputs from the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. And once you draft a resolution when a session starts, there is usually a deadline within the session, I think, two weeks into the session when all draft resolutions should be submitted. Now, before you submit it you must come out and say yes, there has been informal consultations. So, we have sessions of informal consultations, where we listen to the core group of the resolution, listen to other member states, listen to observer states, and listen to NGOs to play an important role in the Human Rights Council. And so whatever they present of the Council would have taken into account what inputs they have gotten, it's almost impossible to take all of the inputs because sometimes you have a resolution that they are so please leave and you feel it's addressing it and some of the suggestions or recommendations which you get through the consultation would completely wipe out what you want to achieve by the resolution. Therefore, it comes to a compromise. And then once this is done, the core group launches the resolution and during or at the end of the session the Human Rights Council then votes and considers all the resolutions that have been submitted and for some, it's passed by consensus and others, they have to vote and the Human Rights Council resolution is carried if it has a majority of votes in its favour.
Ms Ashley Müller: You mentioned the importance of the recommendations and the conclusions that are drawn in the report. What four conclusions were drawn in your specific report?
Ambassador Yvette Stevens: Yes, the first conclusion relates to how prevention is viewed. The Council has a lot of mechanisms which address human rights issues. We saw that there had to be a conscious policy on addressing prevention and how prevention would be incorporated into the work of the different mechanisms of the Council. So, some of the special rapporteurs will tell you yes. This is what we do in prevention, but we believe that it must be up front. So that's what a special country is viewing how it can help prevent these abuses. Rather than going there to act as a policeman to say, you are doing this wrong, you're doing this wrong, so actually a proactive approach to addressing prevention. This is the first conclusion.
The second one is that there's a need to enhance the implementation of human rights recommendations. The Council itself has a peer review process, which is called the Universal Periodic Review. Every country every UN state must face that review. And once they come to that, it means that every three or four years every country comes in front of the Human Rights Council in the session to address the human rights in that country. Now this review is good in that first, everybody comes through and is considered. So those countries are not saying “Why did you pick on me? Why didn't you pick another country?” So, everybody's there. And everybody's free to make recommendations. So, the country is under review, so what happens is that the country has several recommendations. Usually people think it's excessive, but I believe that's usually when you look at those recommendations, some of them could be bought together, but what the recommendations reflect actually is what are the human rights concerns in a particular country, which needs to be addressed. So, by the time the country has all these recommendations, it has a catalogue of the human rights issues that require attention. And even though the country can say okay accept this resolution, because they cannot reject a recommendation. It can only say it is being considered so during that a country then accepts the recommendations and even after it accepts it, there is no question of saying that this is against my sovereignty because they will not accept it. But then the recommendations are not implemented. So, this whole process, especially for countries that really do not have the means to implement the recommendations. At present, the way the Council acts is that, you know, you come, you have your resolution and recommendations, you go away for three or four years later you come and they said, Yeah, but this is a recommendation, you accepted it, but you haven't implemented it. And for some countries, especially like mine, some of the recommendations which are accepted require technical assistance and capacity building to implement, so even though you come, the country comes back and says, we have accepted this recommendation, but we need assistance to implement ABCD. Nothing happens because the fund at the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights has at its disposal is really limited. I know personally because when Sierra Leone faced the committee, I wrote a letter to the Office of the High Commissioner to say, we have agreed on these recommendations, could we please have some assistance in implementing them. And this was not forthcoming. So, my idea is that the Council itself should not only concern itself with this recommendation, but also go a bit further and see how countries are coping. Of course, they won't go to a country if the country doesn't ask for assistance, because many countries do not need assistance. But this assistance does not only have to be in terms of money, in terms of dollars, and it could also be matchmaking, because some countries from the developed world for instance, they have certain human rights issues that they like they that they champion, and if it country like Sierra Leone really want to do this, but I do not have the means, the Human Rights Council should find a means whereby this partnership could take place. It could also be sharing of experiences, you know, or it could also be pointing in the direction where the country can find the assistance. It requires, for instance, economic and social rights, which is basically what you see for development. It comes from funds from different countries, if a country is looking at environmental issues, which, after a recommendation by the Council, then if it doesn't have the money to implement it, there are funds that are around which they could benefit from. But all the points we're trying to make here is that the Council itself needs to concern itself with the implementation. And this has not been done so far, the consequences recommendations, come back three years later, they haven't been implemented and that's not that's a good thing. So that's the second conclusion we came to.
The third one is the enhancement of the early warning and early action. Now, what happens is that the Human Rights Council itself has a mechanism which is which kicks off when already things are going wrong. I think several countries must sign up to have a special session on the country, but a special session by then we argue that by then it is too late. Right? So, what happens when all the warning signs keep coming up? You know, we have NGOs, you have different civil society groups. You have Amnesty International, you know, so many that come up and say, look, something is going wrong, something's not quite right here. And the Human Rights Council itself doesn't act on that. And so, it waits, so as I said, this session is the first thing. So, we believe that there should be something, first, a capacity to analyse all the information that comes in because you can take all information that comes in nowadays you get some that are phony. So, the Office of the High Commissioner should have an enhanced capacity to analyse the information, and then make recommendations to the Council. Now, when the Council gets it, it should look at, you know, what should be done before these things really explode. It could have tried to have confidential sessions with the country concerned. It could try to also propose a goodwill mission, I mean, to the country to discuss with the government when things have not really gotten out of hand and we know that that works, this kind of confidential discussion with the government, because there is a committee a complex mechanism of the Council, which takes complaints from individuals, which when it does summon the country, in confidentiality, they get a lot of cooperation from the country. And many a time the country has gone and addressed that situation that is brewing. So, we believe that the Council itself, you know, for some of these things that are really coming out, should be able to act. This is not to say that they're going to resolve everything through this, because some countries, you know, there are some situations where it will not change, but at least we would have looked at this, what we would call the primary prevention before it becomes a special session, because once they have a special session, they determine whether or not to have a commission of inquiry to have a special rapporteur, but by then, the country has its back against the wall because they say oh, you're naming and shaming us. And then it's not so easy for these mechanisms to work. Although you can say also, they collect evidence that could be used later. But if you're talking about prevention, our own argument is that why don't we try to prevent it if we can, before it gets to that point.
Now, that leads to what we mean by upstream prevention, which is the fourth conclusion that we need to give more attention to upstream prevention from what we call upstream prevention, meaning preventing the human rights violations before they occur in the first place. So those are the main conclusions that we had from there.
Ms Ashley Müller: So then what was the difference between the conclusions and the recommendations that you have made?
Ambassador Yvette Stevens: Yeah, well, the recommendations emerge from the conclusions. For instance, I will just give you the main recommendations. The one recommendation we had is that each of the mechanisms is just a special opportunity to look at the terms of reference again and see how elements of prevention can be included. And, that when the Council is setting up new special procedures, they make sure that prevention is put in the terms of references. That's the first one.
The second one is to have what we would call a human rights recommendation implementation facility, which would cover all what I have said it would have a base of funding to assist countries, it would do matchmaking, it will bring in our experiences. It will also direct states to where they can get the assistance required to implement a given recommendation.
Then we also have a recommendation. We have recommendations relating to how the Human Rights Council can work more closely with the Security Council. That is a bit sensitive because the southern states believe that these two bodies should be kept separate. Don’t ask me why. And we do see their ways in which the corporation could be better. Through the special procedures as the Human Rights Council, within the Security Council to have been a bit closer interaction. We also see how the Human Rights Council can work with ECOSOC in looking at the implementation, so the Sustainable Development Goals there are specific recommendations as to how human rights issues could be brought in at the country level, which is where all these things are done, and how this could then be, these recommendations, that I told you about could also be incorporated in this new system that the Secretary General is setting up at the country level, the resident coordinator system, which is now being revised to include the Human Rights component, and so on.
Then the last recommendation is relating to how the Human Rights Council can work with regional and sub regional human rights organisations in Europe, in Africa and all the continents of the world. So, these were the major recommendations which emerged from the conclusions which we came up with.
Ms Ashley Müller: You have referred a few times to how the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights could possibly do more to defend human rights. Is there anything else that you would like to add to that?
Ambassador Yvette Stevens: No, I think, to be honest, the limitations that the OHCHR has is mainly due to financing, because even though the UN talks about three pillars, human rights is one of the three pillars. Some people say the third pillar, I refuse to say the third pillar because I already designated the least important part of it. Okay. So human rights are one of the three pillars but when it comes to financing, the funding, the UN Human Rights does not get much even of the of the regular budget of the UN. It's a tiny percent, which is a single figure percentage. That's what is dedicated to human rights. And every so often during the year, of course, the whole of the UN is suffering when funds are not forthcoming, but during the year the OHCHR also faces formal reduction in whatever funding they're getting from the UN. So, they are really strained by that. The willingness to do more is there and that you cannot dispute and, and the office is doing a great job. They can only assist the countries if they have the means to do so.
Ms Ashley Müller: And finally, what would you like to leave us with any final words before we conclude the interview? Any final words before we sign off?
Ambassador Yvette Stevens: Yes. The final word I have is to say that a great deal more of international attention must be focused on human rights. Because when we talk about prevention, we are only thinking about the last stage of how to prevent conflict. But if you do not start from the very beginning to address the human rights issues, then by the time it comes to the point where we think now prevention should be done, we can go in when there is a conflict and try to prevent further abuses of human rights. But wouldn't it be better if we could do it before?
Ms Ashley Müller: Thank you Ambassador. That's all we have now for today's episode. Thank you to Ambassador Yvette Stevens for joining us. Listen to us again next week to hear all the latest insights on international peace and security and don’t forget to subscribe to us on Apple iTunes, follow us on Spotify and SoundCloud. Bye for now.