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Climate tech and fighting racism: What’s on the agenda as UN rights body meets?

Abuses in Sudan and a clutch of other settings – from Ethiopia to Afghanistan, from Burundi to Russia – could come under the microscope.

Delegates attend the Human Rights Council at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland September 11, 2023. Denis Balibouse/REUTERS
Delegates attend the Human Rights Council at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland on 11 September 2023.

The latest Human Rights Council session begins today in Geneva, with calls to investigate abuses in several urgent humanitarian emergencies and warnings of new risks ahead.

Examinations of abuses within pressing humanitarian crises often take centre stage at the UN’s intergovernmental rights body. The sessions are also a chance to interrogate cross-cutting issues, from arbitrary detention and enforced disappearances to sanctions and, increasingly, racial justice and climate change.

This session is scheduled to run from 11 September to 13 October. Here are a few questions, among many on the table, as delegates meet:

Will the crisis in Sudan come under the microscope?

 

More than five million people have been displaced in Sudan since mid-April, when a fight for control over the country erupted between Sudan’s army and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces.

Hunger levels are rising, there are widespread reports of sexual violence, and in West Darfur, signs of ethnically targeted violence are stirring up reminders of the Darfur genocide.

Rights groups are calling for the council to set up an investigative body to examine abuses and to collect and preserve evidence.

“Impunity is at the heart of the current crisis, and addressing it should be a priority,” states a letter signed by some 120 Sudanese, regional, and international civil society groups. “The failure of the international community to hold accountable those responsible for international crimes in Darfur decades ago has sent a dangerous message to all parties that they can continue to commit crimes with impunity.”

Will investigations continue elsewhere?

 

While there are calls to step up scrutiny in Sudan, there’s also pressure to continue investigative and watchdog mandates for crises in other countries.

The mandate of the International Commission of Human Rights Experts on Ethiopia is up for renewal, and rights groups are urging the council to extend it until September 2024.

The commission was set up to investigate abuses since conflict broke out in Ethiopia’s north in November 2020. It has previously found ”reasonable grounds to believe that parties to the conflict have committed war crimes”, and that the government and its allies have committed crimes against humanity in Tigray.

Rights groups say Ethiopian authorities have obstructed investigations, and tried to end the inquiry’s mandate. They say the commission is the only investigative body collecting evidence of abuses – and the only credible avenue for accountability for possible crimes.

The mandates of other bodies, and of independent rights experts known as special rapporteurs, are also up for renewal. These include the rapporteurs for Afghanistan, Burundi, and Russia.

Should humanitarians get mandatory training on fighting racism?

 

Systemic discrimination must be understood if it’s to be stopped.

That’s why training to combat institutional racism should be mandatory for humanitarian workers, according to a report on ending systemic racism that’s going before the council this session.

“All public bodies need to be equipped to understand, pay attention to, and address any form of discrimination, including systemic discrimination,” states the report, which comes from the council’s advisory committee, its self-described think tank.

The committee is including humanitarian workers as public servants (though most are not government employees), along with law enforcement, lawyers and judges, teachers, military, and peacekeepers.

It’s part of a wide range of recommendations aimed at “advancing racial justice and equality by uprooting system racism”.

Like all institutions, the UN itself has its own systemic racism.

Senior positions are “disproportionately staffed” by people from a group that includes Western Europe and North America, according to a 2022 report on addressing racism within UN management. And in job rosters for these professional and decision-making roles, candidates from mostly Western countries outnumber people from other regions by a three-to-one margin.

The council’s advisory committee says the UN needs to have “more meaningful representation” from the Global South – in making decisions at the global body, and in staffing the system itself.

Will climate tech experiments be a disaster?

 

The council is also set to examine the implications of the emerging technology aimed at geo-engineering humanity out of the climate crisis.

This includes new or in-the-pipeline tech that may sound like source material for an apocalyptic Hollywood blockbuster: enhanced weather modification, ocean fertilisation, and solar radiation modification, for example. The latter, in theory, would cool the planet by reflecting light back into space.

Part of the concern is the unproven and theoretical nature of this geo-engineering tech, for now referred to as “new technologies intended for climate protection”, or NTCPs.

Experts consulted by the council’s advisory committee see a slew of problems: What are the knock-on environmental impacts from messing with the weather? Would geo-engineering, even if it works, distract from the need to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that actually cause climate change? Could weather modification tools even be weaponised?

“If climate becomes a tool a state can use against another state, it could radically change climate politics, making it a political security issue,” the committee warned.

Its report to council calls geo-engineering speculative, unfeasible at scale, and potentially catastrophic.

“If the gamble fails, present and future generations and the poorest within them will bear the cost of that failure,” the committee said.

Will a spotlight on sanctions fallout persuade governments to change course?

 

A UN expert will call for countries to lift “suffocating” sanctions on Syria that have worsened a “catastrophic” humanitarian crisis.

Alena Douhan, the UN’s special rapporteur on “unilateral coercive measures”, says sanctions, or the fear of running afoul of them, “have placed the country in a straitjacket”.

The United States, the EU, the Arab League, Britain, Canada, and others have imposed layers of sanctions targeting President Bashar al-Assad’s regime since the start of anti-government protests in 2011, and in the years of splintering conflict that have followed.

Financial isolation has magnified conditions within Syria: Extreme food price hikes have brought radically changed diets, and medical equipment, life-saving medicine, and basic care are out of reach, Douhan said in a report to be discussed during this council’s session.

Local and international humanitarian groups also struggle to transfer funds for Syria operations – even in neighbouring countries, and even after the massive February earthquakes – as banks fear breaching sanctions or vague anti-terror laws.

Critiques of blunt sanctions and evidence of their humanitarian impacts aren’t new.

“Maintaining unilateral sanctions amid the current catastrophic and still-deteriorating situation in the country may amount to a crime against humanity, against all Syrian people,” Douhan warned.

Edited by Andrew Gully.

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