Human rights are a key element of German foreign policy. The main arenas for human rights policy are Geneva, seat of the Human Rights Council, and New York, home of UN headquarters. Ourcolleague Elisa Oezbek, political desk officer in Geneva, was in New York for the Third Committee of the General Assembly and so has been able to help shape Germany’s UN human rights policy in both places.
There are a number of contrasts between New York and Geneva. As well as the urban characteristics which can hardly be overlooked – 10 million inhabitants in New York as compared to 200,000 in Geneva, skyscrapers as compared to picturesque mountain scenery – all 194 United Nations member states are represented in New York, whereas only 47 member states vote in the Geneva Human Rights Council (Germany has been one of them since 1 January 2013). Another feature are the contrasting UN buildings: in New York the 40 storey UN building is on First Avenue on the bank of the Hudson River; in Geneva the neoclassical Palais des Nations, built in the 1920s as the headquarters for the League of Nations, stands amid green parkland on the edge of Lake Geneva.
Compromises hard to find
Notwithstanding these differences, however, there are also fundamental similarities: both the Human Rights Council in Geneva and the Third Committee in New York are committed to human rights. In both places every day sees lively and chaotic negotiations – informal negotiations on resolutions, meetings of co sponsors, delegation meetings, EU coordination meetings, plenary sessions, bilateral talks, and so on and so on. Meetings generally take place in windowless rooms and frequently last well into the night, because compromises are being sought on issues where compromise seems virtually impossible: for instance, questions of sexual identity, women’s rights, water, racism and the right to privacy in the digital age.
A large number of resolutions are negotiated in both places: in the Third Committee in New York this year more than 80, in Geneva generally around 40 per Human Rights Council session. As well as further consolidating and developing human rights, commissions of inquiry are set up for particularly important issues, special rapporteurs or independent experts are appointed, or reports requested from the High Commissioner for Human Rights. After controversial votes and the adoption of a resolution, delegates, UN staff and interns congratulate each other despite the tough negotiations – because who knows? Maybe today’s losers will be tomorrow’s winners.
A day in the life of a human rights desk officer
My work in Geneva and New York is unbelievably exciting. A normal day during the Council or Third Committee starts with a look at my emails and a brief meeting with colleagues, then there’s the EU coordination meeting on all resolutions scheduled for that day. Finally the informal negotiations begin, for example on the resolution on children’s rights; at the same time, in parallel, there will be a plenary session, where negotiated resolutions are voted on, and others submitted; then I meet my EU colleagues again at the last minute, for instance to discuss further moves regarding the human rights defenders resolution; finally I run along to the next round of informal negotiations, this time on questions relating to human rights and the fight against terrorism.
If I’ve got time, I go for a look at one of the many side events. These are events which take place outside the formal programme and serve to focus attention on major issues or aspects of human rights policy. At the end of the day I go back to our own mission for another short meeting and to report back to the Federal Foreign Office in Berlin. And it will be the same the next day, and the day after that, at least as long as the Committee or Council is in session.
New York and Geneva pass the ball to each other
Geneva and New York are two parts of a very large whole in UN human rights policy. The best example of this is the German-Brazilian initiative for a resolution on the right to privacy, which was adopted by consensus in the Third Committee on 26 November 2013. In this case, New York and Geneva passed the ball to each other: thanks to a side event organised by Germany, Brazil and a number of other states, discussions on the right to a private sphere have been on the agenda in Geneva since the September Council. The New York resolution has now anchored the subject of data protection and privacy in the digital age firmly on the UN’s agenda. In the meantime, internal discussions are already going on about the follow up event in Geneva about the right to privacy which was announced in New York, and then next autumn the ball will be passed back to the Third Committee in New York.