Journal Letter - November 2011 - QUNO Geneva
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Quaker United Nations Office, Geneva
It has been three months since Lynn and I arrived in Geneva. The city is beautiful and we have been made to feel very welcome. I have met many dynamic and fascinating people who are working for an effective UN, using international law as a tool with which to act for peace and social justice.
Soon after I arrived, the Human Rights Council (HRC) began its 18th session. I attended many sessions, side events and publication launches. A highlight was a side event on Human Rights and Climate Change. It was heartening to see how well-attended it was, and only standing room was available when I arrived. Mary Robinson (former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and President of Ireland) and the President of the Maldives spoke powerfully about climate justice – at the nexus of climate change and human rights. The effects of climate change clearly threaten the enjoyment of many human rights, such as the rights to food, water, health and housing. Robinson suggested that international negotiations on climate change should incorporate the principles of restorative justice, and that we should acknowledge that those countries hardest hit are those who have contributed least to creating the problem. She called for a legally-binding agreement compelling richer states to provide financial and technical assistance for poorer states to support their adaptations to climate change. This would succeed the Kyoto Protocol, whose first commitment period ends in 2012.
At the HRC, an interesting development was the resolution to create a Special Rapporteurship on ‘Truth, Justice, Reparation and Guarantees of Non-Recurrence of Serious Crimes and Gross Violations of Human Rights’. (I have come to appreciate acronyms.) Their role will be practical – they will gather information, exchange and promote good practice, provide technical assistance and make recommendations. The resolution was widely supported (backed by over 75 countries). Several countries raised legal objections, querying the validity of a ‘right to truth’, and others expressed concern at the sheer scope of the 3-year mandate.
It has been fascinating to attend high-level meetings on behalf of QUNO and really interesting to see some of what goes on at the UN, which is often seen as the pinnacle of global human rights negotiations. There have also been occasions when I have wondered about the means by which treaties, conventions, commissions and reports make a difference to the millions of people around the world who suffer human rights violations on a daily basis. For human rights ideas to be useful, they need to be picked up and used by regional, national and local actors, adapted to particular contexts and then used as tools in struggles to overcome everyday practices of violence. How does this happen? How can we help it to happen more effectively?
Undoubtedly, the most exciting event on the QUNO Human Rights and Refugees calendar since my arrival was the Committee for the Convention on the Rights of the Child’s Day of General Discussion (DGD) on the Children of Incarcerated Parents. Parental incarceration affects millions of children worldwide – an estimated 2.8 million in the USA alone – but this was the first time that this neglected issue had been discussed substantively anywhere in the UN system. It was also the first time that the Committee has invited young people to take part in proceedings as plenary speakers. Sian (13) and Raheel (17), both from the UK, have been taking part in the COPING study 1. They spoke out about the difficulties that they and other young people face during parental incarceration. They called for change in prison systems and hoped to inspire affected children to find support from helpful organisations and information about how to cope.
QUNO have an established interest in child’s rights and have been working on children affected by imprisonment since 2003, and child soldiers before that. Rachel Brett and Oliver Robertson drafted the proposal for the DGD. Relatively speaking, however, the idea that children have rights is still fairly new (as is human rights law more generally). In practice, this means that there are often discrepancies between what gets decided in the halls of the UN and what children around the world actually experience in their families and communities. What I appreciated most about the Day was that it brought together people who work with children of prisoners on a daily basis – social workers, NGOs, prison workers, teachers, health services and others. It was a rare opportunity to share ideas and learn from one another.
Three things really struck me. First, the tangible benefits of international dialogue. For example, participants from one country would request protocols for police arresting parents when children are present, and another participant would explain that their team had spent the past five years working on precisely that. Of course, materials would always have to be developed and adapted for the local contexts, but there is a clear need for spaces in which to share good practice.
Second, the scope for awareness-raising about the relevant documents and provisions of the human rights system. Civil society can take part in the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) process, for example, by submitting stakeholder’s information to the Office for the High Commissioner of Human Rights. A strong and effective system requires participation.
Third, that child rights are never just about children. Of course, the DGD was a child rights discussion, and the CRC is used to address injustices facing children. However, as soon as we start to look at the ways in which our prison systems impact on children, or indeed ask why children are ever neglected, abused, commit crimes, go to work or take up arms and fight in wars, we are inevitably compelled to connect the injustices suffered by children with much wider structures of violence and discrimination.
Besides work, we have spent a good proportion of our time cycling, hiking, eating Toblerones and the occasional bowl of melted cheese. Switzerland is a great place for anyone who likes outdoor sports and we are very excited about the snow.
I look forward to the coming months at QUNO and would like to take the opportunity to thank the Quakers for giving me this fantastic opportunity.
In Peace and Friendship,
- (‘Children of Prisoners, Interventions and Mitigations to Strengthen Mental Health’, an EU-funded project carried out by a consortium of 10 organisations – QUNO is one of them.