Overheard at the UNHRC

Posted on March 15, 2012


10 am, Room XX, Palais des Nations, Geneva, Switzerland.


10:17, The room with the cool ceiling, an inappropriately named building, a ridiculously expensive city, a smallish neutral country.

The UN Human Rights Council is in session. It’s early(ish) in the morning and the room is quite empty except for the panel upfront and a few scattered delegations around the room. The High Commissioner for Human Rights is giving the opening speech.  She mouths words inaudibly on a screen and most delegates reach for their earpieces which blare out important-sounding things in 6 different languages at adjustable volumes. They all look slightly strange with their plastic grey ear hanging from one side of their face.

The serious delegates have their space cluttered with reports and notes, and are pressing their earpiece really hard against their cheeks, listening intently. Others, like Cyprus, just let it hang loosely, aloofly, wearing it merely for politeness.Vietnam, sitting at the back, doesn’t have it on at all. He’s talking with other members of his delegation about things that most likely aren’t about the day’s session. The members of the Vietnamese delegation chuckle quietly as the High Commissioner continues to speak inaudibly. They look around the room, then stare at the ceiling for a while.

The ceiling is really distracting. Stalactites of all different colors and sizes cover the domed ceiling as if the paint had frozen and dried as it dripped. Morocco is taking pictures of it. He then gets Mali to snap an “action” shot of him and the Maldives “discussing a resolution.” The speaker is oblivious to the goings on in the room.

She’s the representative of the FAO and she’s talking about a vague framework that serves as a “tool” for human rights mainstreaming:  “The Food and Agriculture Organization views the human rights mainstreaming process through three lenses: the first acknowledges the integration of the human right to food into hunger reduction initiatives… PANTHER principles, which stand for Participation, Accountability, Nondiscrimination, Transparency, Human Dignity, Empowerment and Rule of Law, should be involved in the promotion of rights and obligations…

NGO observer 1 :  This one has a penchant for acronyms doesn’t she?

NGO observer 2:  PANTHER, that’s a good one. I wonder how long it took them to come up with that.

NGO observer 1: Why do you think they chose that and not something more in line with their mandate? Like— CORN principles.

NGO observer 2: (laughs) What would CORN stand for?

NGO observer 1:  Completely useless, Organizational, Redundant, Nemonic device.

NGO observer 2: That spells CORM. Mnemonic has a silent ‘M’

NGO observer 1:  Damn. Ok, this is harder than I thought. What’s a food item that ends in with ‘m’?

NGO observer 2:  Ham.

NGO observer 1:  Ham. Ok, Hazardous, Antiquated, Mnemonic Device

NGO observer 2: No, that doesn’t really work…

Venezuela is starting blankly ahead,  ignoring the whispered conversation the NGO workers are having behind him. The delegate of Cuba drops by for a visit. Venezuela shakes his hand and gives him a manly pat on the back.

Venezuela: Hey! Como estas?

Cuba: Bien bien. Que pasa?

Venezuela: Nada, aqui na’ mas. Are you speaking?

Cuba: No, que va.

He sits down and picks up the earpiece from Vietnam’s side. Vietnam is now reading a magazine. Venezuela and Cuba sit and listen to the FAO woman with a penchant for mnemonics talk for a while. Then Malta comes in one row below them.

Cuba: “Hey, hey. You see what I see?”

Venezuela looks at the plump aide from the delegation of Morocco. “What, la gordita over there?”

Cuba: No, there! Not bad eh?

Venezuela sees Malta putting her stuff down and nods with interest, smiling like a lewd creep.  “Ah, si… she’s not bat at all.”

Malta settles down in her seat and starts typing away on her Lenovo, oblivious to the oggling coming from the row above and to the fact that the entire Vietnam delegation decides to leave mid-session, probably for an early lunch. Somewhere down the row, Yemen is checking Facebook. Meanwhile, a stranded NGO observer is wandering along the back corridor looking for a seat. She spots one behind the Ukraine and begins to put her stuff down.

Ukraine: Excuse me, this seat is taken.

NGO Observer 3: But it’s empty.

Ukraine: No, it’s taken.

NGO Observer 3: I’m sorry, it’s just that I didn’t see anyone’s stuff on it and so it looked as if no one was using it.

Ukraine: Each delegation has two seats. This is delegation of Ukraine’s seat.

NGO Observer 3: Oh, I’m sorry. It’s just that there aren’t any seats for NGOs, and if you’re not using it…

Ukraine: You could look on the other side?

NGO Observer 3: I just came from there. There  really aren’t any seats left.

Ukraine: Sorry, this seat is delegation’s seat.

Ukraine puts her fur coat on the seat and turns around. The NGO Observer glares at the delegate of the Ukraine and stalks off. A few moment’s later she’s out of sight wandering around the other side of the room. The delegate of the Ukraine rummages about in her purse, sends some texts and then walks out to lunch,  leaving her coat as the official representative of her delegation.  Meanwhile, the High Commissioner calls on delegates from a list to present 2 min speeches.

“Algeria affirms the importance of integrating human rights approaches into the work of UN subsidiary organizations and hopes that member states will follow in an approach towards development which necessitates collaboration in today’s globalized world…”

“The European Union is increasingly aligning development projects with human rights and would ask the panelists present how organizations can benefit more from the recommendations made by…”

“When the World Bank adopts human rights it does so through an instrumental and technical rather than normative approach…”

“Senegal agrees that only collaboration and the fundamental right to development will…”

“… working towards non discrimination of all persons regardless of…”

“members should give priority to development and cooperation above all…”

“corruption and the rule of law need to be addressed before in order to ensure the respect of…”

Members of the Non-Aligned movement expertly echo each others remarks about mainstreaming human rights without ever actually talking about mainstreaming human rights. Meanwhile, there is movement about the room. Delegates come and go, pages pass around documents, cameramen and members of the press circulate the aisles, delegations visit each other on official and unofficial business. But there is one delegation which sits sullenly on the right side of the room— Syria looks uncomfortable. The next item on the agenda is “Urgent debate on human rights and the humanitarian situation in the Syrian Arab Republic.”

After a short break, the High Comissioner speaks again.

The Syrian delegate looks stern now. Naturally he has to fight for the right his country has to abuse its own people without foreign intervention.

There’s some talk in the room, a few heads turn. But the session continues as if a fly had buzzed. The next speaker on the list is called. Diatribes are heard, pleas for compassion, condolences for the people lost are echoed around the room. But their words are as empty as the Syrian delegation’s seat.

Posted in: Politics