General Assembly: Third Committee

Note: The following is a partial summary of today’s Third Committee meetings. The full summary of the Third Committee meetings will be available later today.


The Third Committee (Social, Humanitarian, Cultural) met today to continue its debate on the promotion and protection of human rights.  For more information, please see Press Release GA/SHC/4235.

Interactive Dialogues — Minority Issues

FERNAND DE VARENNES, Special Rapporteur on minority issues, said statelessness is a minority issue:  a handful of minorities represent a staggeringly high proportion of the world’s stateless population.  Focused measures and attention are needed because statelessness as a minority issue remains unrecognized and unaddressed by international organizations and human rights groups.  Statelessness is neither accidental nor neutral as it involves discriminatory practices and a disregard of minorities’ human rights.  “Just as was the case for the Jewish minority in Germany before the Second World War, minorities too often continue to find themselves ‘unworthy’ of citizenship, with consequent obstacles in accessing basic public services, even including in some cases education, and the exercise of other basic human rights,” he said.

While commending Slovenia for its long-standing and positive measures in relation to minorities, such as the Hungarian and Italian communities, he called on the Government to address the particular vulnerability and marginalization of the Roma community, by notably removing the distinction between “autochthonous” and “non-autochthonous” Roma communities.  It should also implement comprehensive legislation for the protection of all minorities, while respecting the currently established constitutional status of Hungarians, Italians and Roma.  Regarding the situation in Cameroon, he expressed hope that the minority question — including the English-speaking minority — will be discussed dispassionately and comprehensively now that the election is over.

In the ensuing dialogue, the representative of Hungary, referring to the education law in Ukraine, expressed concern over obstacles to enjoying the right to education in the mother tongue.  Calling for immediate steps to protect minority rights, she asked how the Special Rapporteur will address these concerns.

The representative of Spain, inviting the Special Rapporteur to visit, asked whether he would soon organize an international forum on resolving statelessness issues and about the mechanisms needed to ensure that nationality cannot be refused.

The representative of the European Union said it is a national prerogative of States to establish citizenship regulations.  He asked for guidance on how to determine whether State requirements constitute discrimination and how to better address the denial of registration at birth.

The representative of Mexico asked about additional actions for increasing birth registrations, especially of isolated nomadic groups.

The representative of Slovenia, making a distinction between historically established minorities in a certain area and migrant communities, asked how to consider the needs of these different groups when designing policies and legislation.  She also asked about data collection for policy making and good practices.

The representative of Iraq drew attention to a quota for minorities in Parliament, adding that Iraq guarantees birth registrations of all groups.

The representative of the Russian Federation stressed the need to analyse the issue of refusing or striping citizenship.  Referring to two Baltic countries, he called on the Special Rapporteur to work with authorities on the issue of non‑citizens.

The representative of Myanmar expressed opposition to the report’s use of the controversial term “Rohingya minority”, stressing that the issue of citizenship is entirely the prerogative of a sovereign State.

The representative of Latvia, referring to the report, said non-citizens are not considered stateless; the only difference to citizens is in the right to vote or work in civil service.

The representative of Austria asked about the outcome the Special Rapporteur hopes to achieve from the forum, and addressing legal measures.

The representative of Syria expressed regret that the Special Rapporteur’s report did not refer to the information sources for paragraphs 37 a and d, nor mention the real reason behind the loss of citizenship of many Syrians, referring to Israel and countries supporting terrorism in that context.

The representative of Cameroon, drawing attention to Anglophone minorities in Cameroon, asked about good practices for preserving linguistic minority languages, stressing that linguistic minorities should not be confused with ethnic minorities.

The representative of Ukraine said reforms to the education law enables his country to provide systemic education aimed at independently acquiring knowledge.

The representative of India replied to the Special Rapporteur’s comments by noting that the rights of minorities are safeguarded by the Constitution; the situation referenced is not a minority issue.

Mr. DE VARENNES replied to questions about statelessness by emphasizing the fundamental human right to be free from discrimination.  Decisions relating to citizenship are not the sole prerogative of the State.  More must be done to ensure respect for the rights of stateless people, especially in addressing arbitrary requirements for citizenship.  Once this issue is recognized, remedies must be found.  The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has provided citizenship guidelines for women and children, he said, stressing that similar tools must be developed to address statelessness.  He identified the use of minority languages in education as a thematic priority, recalling his plans to organize three regional forums in that regard.  Addressing countries with multiple official languages, he invited Cameroon to exchange ideas about good practices related to linguistic minorities.  Another priority is to address hateful propaganda and its use against religious minorities, he added.

Human Rights Defenders

MICHEL FORST, Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders, recalled that the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders not only acknowledges the importance of defenders, but also establishes the responsibility of States to protect them.  Over the past 20 years, the male archetype of human rights defenders was complemented by various other figures:  women fighting against corruption and impunity, indigenous communities denouncing the devastating consequences of so-called development projects and parents advocating for the rights of their transgender child.

All victories, whether small or great, that contributed to the recognition and protection of human rights defenders must be celebrated, he said.  And yet, the advances, if significant, remain insufficient.  The current situation is alarming:  almost 3,500 defenders have been assassinated in the past few years.  Countless more were attacked, slandered or jailed.  Even States previously spared are now falling into authoritarianism.  When human rights defenders are attacked, the edifice of human rights as a whole is undermined.  The future of the community of human rights defenders must now be envisaged with audacity and pragmatism.  Noting that oppression is once again “in fashion”, he urged open and frank dialogue with all actors to address this reality in a spirit of solidarity.  Practices must also be renewed to better interact with those who are in the field or feel excluded or estranged from the community of rights defenders.

In the ensuing dialogue, the representative of Spain, noting that 3,500 human rights defenders have been killed since the Declaration to protect their rights was adopted 20 years ago, asked about measures for addressing the negative consequences that human rights defenders can face while working with the mandate holder.

The representative of Iceland, stressing that environmental human rights defenders facing risks, asked for new approaches to enhance their protection.

The representative of Canada said States increasingly criticize human rights defenders.  She asked how the international community can best assist and provide remedy for defenders who are victims of States which should protect them.

The representative of Australia encouraged the Special Rapporteur to continue working with treaty bodies and to deepen the awareness about the work of human rights defenders.

The representative of the European Union asked for examples of when States negatively limited the activities of human rights defenders.

The representative of Poland, underscoring the need to legally and physically protect rights defenders, asked about practical responses to States that are reluctant to broaden such protections.

The representative of Ireland asked whether there have been developments on the topic of reprisal, and more broadly, about effective measures to address this issue.

The representative of Switzerland asked about the best ways to achieve positive narratives in the fight for human rights and efforts to reinforce cooperation in the fight against intimidation and reprisal.

The representative of Liechtenstein asked for guidance on increasing accountability for perpetrators of violence against rights defenders and journalists.

The representative of Estonia asked for recommendations on how to better advance human rights online and for proposals on increasing participation of non-government organizations in that regard.

The representative of Slovenia asked how to translate developments in protection into actual measures.  On reprisals, she said human rights defenders engaged with the United Nations are silenced and asked for guidance on how to best fight impunity and address causes.

The representative of Belgium said a vibrant civil society is the cornerstone of democracy.  Noting the attacks and threats against human rights defenders, he said efforts to protect them should be put forward at all levels.

The representative of the Russian Federation recalled that the Declaration is not legally binding and cited pressure by the United Nations on States.

The representative of China said human rights defenders should not be treated as a special group.  On the negative and groundless assertion by the mandate holder, he expressed hope that the Special Rapporteur will conduct his work in an impartial and objective manner. Regarding comments by his counterpart from the United States, he said that country should pay attention to their ethnic minorities, including Asian minorities.

The representative of the United Arab Emirates said limitations on rights must be prescribed by law, noting the establishment of a national human rights institution.

The representative of Cuba objected to claims by the United States to be judge and jury, noting that in Cuba, human rights defenders have broad guarantees for their safety.  He rejected attempts to declare political prisoners as human right defenders.

Also speaking were representatives of Mexico, Czechia, Colombia, France, Norway, United States and Iran.

Mr. FORST replied, expressing hope that the “Webb report” — which contains important information about human rights defenders around the world — will be posted on the United Nations website.

More broadly, he said the Human Rights Defenders World Summit, to be held in Paris, will focus on gains made over the past 20 years.  A statement will be prepared, and ultimately presented to the United Nations, outlining that more could be done to protect defenders.  Noting that he has visited 25 countries, he said the United Nations could redouble efforts at the country level, notably by executing a better strategy.  He expressed hope that UNHCR and the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN-Women) will become more aware of the situations of human rights defenders around the world.  While not a binding instrument, the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders does refer to such instruments, including those that mention the freedom of association and the right to foreign funding.  He expressed concern over information he had received from non-governmental organizations about the lack of access to United Nations premises, noting that his next report will focus on the at-risk category of women human rights defenders.

Cultural Rights

KARIMA BENNOUNE, Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights, said the universality of human rights, which enhances the lives of all human beings, is under sustained attack.  Cultural diversity is still wrongly construed by Governments and actors who use it to violate the very universal rights in which it is embedded.  Cultural diversity and universal human rights are mutually reinforcing:  one cannot be used to override or justify the violation of the other.  Cultural relativism ‑ which uses culture to take away rights rather than amplify them ‑ is destructive and the exclusions from rights protection it creates are grave.  The fact that the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women is the human rights instrument subject to the most reservations — many of them based on cultural relativism — is a matter of urgent concern.  It is reprehensible that relativist arguments find their way into United Nations resolutions.  “Sensitivities” do not overrule States’ international human rights obligations and they cannot justify the criminalization of sexual orientation or gender identity or racial discrimination.

She said laws that discriminate on the basis of cultural or religious arguments should be reviewed and brought in line with international human rights standards.  States must refrain from using culture, cultural right or tradition to justify violations of international human rights in national and international forums.  Recalling that universality is about human dignity, not homogeneity, she emphasized the importance of recognizing the “diversity of diversities”:  the diversity that exists not only between but also within human collectivities.  In that spirit, States should recognize and respect cultural dissent, syncretism and cultural mixing, as well as the right to reinterpret cultures.  They must also ensure the separation of religion and State and reaffirm the importance of secular and intercultural spaces.  Diversity is not a threat or an impediment to universal rights, but a reality and a resource, she stressed.

The representative of Egypt recalled that an individual had allegedly been persecuted for cooperating with the United Nations.  There can be no double standards or impunity for such crimes.

The representative of European Union said the universality of human rights is under threat.  It is vital to respect cultural diversity as a human right and to avoid using culture or traditions to justify rights violations, he said, encouraging Member States to adopt the resolution on cultural rights and asking how human rights education can promote universality.

The representative of Russian Federation expressed surprise over the resolution on the role of the family.  The Universal Declaration of Human Rights enshrines the family unit as “natural”, she said, disagreeing that it is an outdated institution.

Ms. BENNOUNE advocated broader support for the universality of human rights, as it is a critical time to do so.  She highlighted the importance of State discussions on the challenges around cultural rights, calling the popularity of cultural relativism discourse “worrisome” and stressing that relativist ideas must be challenged through funding and scholarships for students.  To comments about the limits of her mandate, she said she bases her views on international standards.

Turning to the role of family, she said the family can play a positive role in human rights, and on the other hand, offer a place for rights violations to be carried out against women and children.  She noted the lack of definition in debates about traditional values.  “Tradition is often invoked to justify the status quo”, she stressed, recalling that culture evolves over time in accordance with dignity and human rights.  She said slavery and alien domination are considered repugnant and must be left behind.

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