Human Rights as an Internal Affair and Criticism of the United States: A Summary of the 139th Session of the UNHRC

On November 3, the 139th and final session of the Human Rights Committee for 2023 concluded. As per the rules of procedure, the Committee convenes only three regular sessions each year.

Even though Belarus denounced the Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, its commitments under the Covenant itself, which is a distinct international treaty, remain intact. These commitments encompass the necessity to take due actions that uphold the rights enshrined in the Covenant. Ensuring the effective realisation of human rights entails giving due consideration to the Committee's interpretations of specific Covenant provisions, including its elucidation of the standards in its General Comments and its communications on individual cases. While there may not be a direct path to filing a complaint against the Belarusian state, monitoring the Committee's activities remains crucial for a more comprehensive understanding of the existing standards.

Wan-Hee Lee, Head of the Human Rights Treaties Division of the UN Human Rights Council, spoke at the opening of the 139th session. She emphasised the significance of 2023, marking 75 years since the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This anniversary provides an opportunity to reflect on the evolution and current state of the human rights protection system and its development.

In this regard, Wan-Hee Lee briefly outlined the development of the current system, acknowledging the post-war euphoria and the subsequent bipolar world division, which hindered the transformation of the Declaration's non-legally binding provisions into the binding articles of the two Covenants*. Special mention should be made of the 1993 World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna, adopting the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action. This document achieved consensus on two crucial issues, unfortunately, still relevant today:

· "...the promotion and protection of all human rights is a legitimate concern of the international community" - a provision resolving the confrontation between state sovereignty and the issue of human rights protection in favour of the latter; a similar provision** is contained in the Final Document of the Moscow Meeting of the CSCE Human Dimension Conference.

· "All human rights are universal, indivisible, interdependent and interrelated. The international community must treat human rights globally, in a fair and equal manner, on the same footing and with the same emphasis. While the significance of national and regional particularities and various historical, cultural and religious backgrounds must be borne in mind, States, regardless of their political, economic and cultural systems, have an obligation to promote and protect all human rights and fundamental freedoms." — Nowadays, when authoritarian states rely on the partial realisation of social and economic rights while ignoring their obligations in other areas, it is important to acknowledge that the truly effective realisation of social and economic rights is in one way or another conditional on the enjoyment of other human rights.

The Committee reviewed periodic progress reports from Iran, Kuwait, the Republic of Korea, Trinidad and Tobago, the United States, and Venezuela on their implementation of the Covenant's provisions.

Of note is the Committee's equal attention to the fulfilment of obligations under the Covenant, regardless of the country. For example, the Committee's concluding observations on the United States report included praise for positive developments and a list of criticisms, such as:

· the need to ensure accountability at the state level for past human rights violations: all cases of wrongful deprivation of life, torture or other prohibited treatment, enforced disappearances should be investigated by an independent body to ensure the effectiveness of such investigations, those responsible for the perpetration of these acts should be brought to justice, and victims and their relatives should receive effective remedies;

· the need to consider ratifying the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women in order to strengthen gender-based discrimination prevention;

· the need to continue efforts to combat, inter alia, hate speech, racial profiling, to ensure that women have legal, effective and safe access to abortion throughout the State, to establish a moratorium on the death penalty at the federal level, etc.

The Committee also undertakes the task of drawing up lists of specific questions to be answered by States in the preparation of the next periodic report. At the 139th session, the Committee members drafted and adopted such questions for Pakistan. Preliminary lists of questions were prepared for San Marino and Slovakia.

It should be recalled that civil society can actively participate in the reporting process and in the Committee's assessment of States parties' compliance with their obligations. Non-governmental organisations can submit alternative reports containing information about Covenant provisions' implementation, comments on States' reports and their written replies to the list of issues, as well as information on the State's implementation of the Committee's previous concluding observations. This possibility is not exclusive to the HRC; various international human rights bodies also actively involve civil society organisations. Specific opportunities and relevant deadlines can be tracked here.

For a concise overview of the 136th session, during which the Committee rendered decisions on the merits of five complaints originating from Belarus, please refer to this link. An overview of the 137th session, where Committee members once again scrutinised Belarus' Covenant violations, can be found at this link. The review of the 138th session can be found here.

*Meaning the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Both have the status of international treaties, both have been ratified by Belarus, and are therefore binding. For more details see here (the material is in Russian):

**"...issues relating to human rights, fundamental freedoms, democracy and the rule of law are of an international character, since respect for these rights and freedoms constitutes one of the foundations of the international order. They [the participating States] categorically and definitively declare that the commitments they have undertaken in the human dimension of the CSCE are matters of direct and legitimate concern to all participating States and do not belong exclusively to the internal affairs of the State concerned." Consequently, since at least 1991, reference to "internal affairs of the state" when talking about human rights cannot be a valid argument.
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