GHRP's 2023 Conference Strengthens Geneva-New York Human Rights Interconnectedness

6 November 2023

The 2023 Annual Conference of our Geneva Human Rights Platform (GHRP) successfully took place in New York from 21 to 24 October. This GHRP landmark event focused this year on the need to bridge the gap between Geneva-based human rights mechanisms and the United Nations (UN) in New York, based on the interrelated nature of human rights issues across both cities. The conference drew upon recent documents by the UN Secretary-General, such as the ‘Call to Action for Human Rights’ and ‘Our Common Agenda’, which underscore the pivotal role of human rights in maintaining peace and preventing of conflict.

Virginia Gamba, the Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict (SRSG), reiterated the conference's overarching goal during the opening panel, an objective that extends across a multitude of issues and the diverse topics discussed during the annual conference: ‘I thank the GHRP for dedicating this year's annual conference to the importance of ensuring solid and consistent cooperation between Geneva and New York-based actors involved in the protection of children in armed conflict. Too often, mandates working under the umbrella of the UN system work in silos, blinded by the old dogma of the three pillars as if those pillars would not be supporting a common edifice. Child protection in armed conflict is a cross-cutting issue that transcends geographic boundaries and mandates and requires the mainstreaming of child rights principles into all areas - peace and security, development and human rights.’

The conference featured five panels, each exploring distinct yet interconnected themes that underscore the significance of fortifying the relationship between the UN human rights system and its peace and security architecture.

‘Human rights’ responses to current challenges like counterterrorism, armed conflicts or the climate crisis to cite a few demand more extensive cooperation and interactions between Geneva and New York. This requirement extends beyond institutional cooperation and encompasses interpersonal connections. This is precisely why we invited experts from Geneva to foster exchanges and forge stronger institutional bonds’ explains Felix Kirchmeier, Executive Director of the Geneva Human Rights Platform.

The Practice of the UN Human Rights Treaty Bodies: Beyond International Law?

During the 2023 ABILA International Law Weekend, this panel, co-organized with the Norwegian Centre for Human Rights and the Albanian branch of the International Law Association, shed light on the multifaceted role of UN human rights treaty bodies (TBs) in shaping the horizons of international human rights law. The discussion featured insights and critical analysis from Virgínia Brás Gomes, Mikiko Otani and Gentian Zyberi (all current and former TB chairpersons and members), and Arnold Pronto (Principal Legal Officer of the UN Office of Legal Affairs). The panel underscored the significance and challenges of TB’s practices in the ever-evolving landscape of global human rights norms.

In front of an engaged audience, the panelists delved into the controversies surrounding General Comments (GCs), examining both their content and development process. They raised questions about stakeholder consultation, transparency, and state party involvement. Additionally, they debated the role of GCs in international law, emphasizing their vital function for evolving human rights law, clarifying ambiguities, and maintaining international treaty relevance. The panel also aimed to bring to light the far-reaching impact of TBs' practices in the vast realm of international law. The influence of TBs, primarily through their GCs, extends to international jurisprudence, state practices, and the drafting of new international legal instruments. Their interpretations often serve as guiding principles for both national and international courts, while significantly shaping the human rights discourse at various levels, including their notable influence on the work of the International Law Commission.

Enhancing Cooperation between New York and Geneva for the Protection of Children in Armed Conflict and from Other Forms of Violence

This high-level panel at UN Headquarters – co-organized with with Switzerland, Uruguay, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, the Watchlist on Children and Armed Conflict and Child Rights Connect – marked the official opening of the 2023 Annual Conference.

Ambassador Adrian Hauri, Deputy Permanent Representative of Switzerland to the UN, Virginia Gamba, SRSG on Children and Armed Conflict, and Ilze Brands Kheris, Assistant Secretary-General for human rights and Head of OHCHR New York office collectively emphasized the significance of fostering connections between discussions in New York and Geneva in the spirit of connected multilateralism. During the subsequent discussion, the panelists delved into the protection of children in armed conflict or subject to other forms of violence as a key example of how rights-holders can benefit from closer ties between the discussions in these major UN centres. They also shared their experiences and views on the numerous avenues of existing cooperation and outlined new ones like the opening of an office of the SRSG on Violence Against Children in Geneva to promote interactions with the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, OHCHR and other actors.

Speaking on the numerous connection points and efforts undertaken by her office to connect with the CRC and other Geneva-based entities, Ms Gamba reaffirmed that ‘enhancing cooperation between New York and Geneva is not just a matter of administrative convenience, it is a fundamental necessity’.

Informal Briefing to Members of the UN Security Council

This informal briefing titled ‘Linking Geneva-Based UN Human Rights Mechanisms and the UN Peace and Security Architecture: What Substantive Input Can the Human Rights System Provide To NYC-Centered Debates?’ underscored the invaluable contributions of human rights mechanisms as early warning of political instability, civil unrest, and potential crises or conflicts.

The Universal Periodic Review, UN special procedures, investigative bodies and TBs offer insights that can pre-emptively address the root causes of conflicts and crises. Their recommendations not only detail actionable solutions to mitigate risks but also foster dialogue and collaboration across various stakeholders.

Virginia Bras Gomes, former Chairperson of the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR) elaborated on the committee's pivotal role in conflict prevention. She emphasized the wealth of information that can be gleaned from CESCR's concluding observations and other committees' outputs, highlighting their early warning and conflict prevention function.

Fionnuala Ní Aoláin, who concluded her mandate as UN Special Rapporteur on counter-terrorism and human rights that very week, shed light on her engagement with the New York security architecture. She provided a detailed account of her successful collaborations and challenges, particularly in her formal participation with the Counter-Terrorism Implementation Task Force (CIFTF). Her insights offered a comprehensive perspective on the potential improvements that could further strengthen this cooperation.

UN Accountability Mechanisms

Co-organized with the Human Rights Caucus Co-Chairs Germany and Switzerland, the International Commission of Jurists and the University of Oxford, this panel explored UN accountability mechanisms, which encompass independent investigative mechanisms and commissions of inquiry established by the UN General Assembly (UNGA) and the UN Human Rights Council (HRC).

Discussion points included strategies for enhancing their effectiveness and optimizing their outcomes, the respective roles of the UNGA and UN Security Council in responding to their findings, and the importance of achieving coherence between Geneva and New York.

Additionally, the conversation delved into the overall efficiency and effectiveness of these mechanisms and considered the possibility of establishing a standing independent investigative mechanism. Despite a robust international legal framework, significant gaps in enforcement persist when it comes to addressing violations of international human rights and humanitarian law. Notably, there have been increasing calls from victims' groups and other stakeholders for the UN, particularly the UNGA and HRC, to create innovative mandates. These mandates would go beyond conventional human rights structures and possess the capability not just to document violations but also to enforce accountability. Proposals were also made to establish a joint secretariat to facilitate coordinated activities such as perpetrator identification, evidence collection, and preservation of collected evidence for future legal actions, including collaboration with entities like the International Criminal Court.

Geneva Meets New York: Workshop for Small Delegations at the Third Committee

The concluding panel, in collaboration with Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the International Service for Human Rights, the Rosa Luxembourg Stiftung New York Office and the Universal Rights Group explored the relationship between the HRC and the UNGA Third Committee. Since the HRC operates as a subsidiary body of the UNGA, its resolutions require UNGA confirmation at its Third Committee.

This workshop, designed for small delegations, addressed the numerous intersections between these two pivotal bodies. It provided valuable insights into the functioning of UN human rights mechanisms, the operations and challenges faced by Geneva-based human rights mechanisms, their connections to their New York-based counterparts, recent HRC resolutions up for negotiations this year and the current political dynamics in Geneva.

Next Steps

All panels emphasized the substantial contributions originating from Geneva and their pertinence to discussions in New York, while also identifying areas for improvement and the potential for future collaborations. These discussions also allowed UN human rights experts to have an impact on the debates and decisions in New York.

‘Based on the conference’s outcomes, we now envisage a range of new activities. Child Rights will be a significant focal point in our work for 2024 work, along with discussions regarding the functioning of the HRC mechanisms, including the possibility of establishing a permanent support structure for HRC mandated accountability mechanisms’ explains Felix Kirchmeier.

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