Geneva turns camera on human rights

During the festival Geneva will display huge portraits of Palestinians and Israelis – an attempt by the Face2Face project to illuminate similarities between the conflicting neighbours Keystone

Myanmar, dictator-hunting and Darfur are among the themes at the sixth International Film Festival on Human Rights, which opens in Geneva on Friday.

This content was published on March 6, 2008 - 21:53

The programme opens as the Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights Council is holding its seventh session, addressing rights violations and attempting to overcome its north-south divide.

Remaining faithful to its concept of "a film, a subject, a debate", in which each screening is accompanied by public debate, the organisers hope to strengthen the festival's role as a standard bearer for the victims of human rights abuses, opening up issues to the general public.

About 16,000 spectators are expected over the nine days, up from the 6,000 who visited the first event in 2003.

"We are going to tackle the questions which get people angry," in the face of the "silence" of the Human Rights Council, Leo Kaneman, one of the festival's founders, told journalists in Geneva.

States "poison the proper functioning" of the council, which is "above all supposed to condemn human rights violations" he added.

Special tribute

This year's programme is intended to be a celebration of the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The organisers have also decided to pay special tribute to Aung San Suu Kyi, the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize winner and opponent of the junta in Myanmar.

Swiss President Micheline Calmy-Rey will be attending, alongside 50 leading international human rights activists, including the prosecutor for the International Criminal Court, Luis Moreno Ocampo, and Human Rights Watch lawyer Reed Brody.

"These films are important as they re-articulate human rights ideas in ways that are often more accessible and interesting than most books on human rights," Andrew Clapham, professor at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva, told swissinfo.

Clapham said the festival was an important reminder that human rights are too important to be left solely in the hands of diplomats and politicians. Yet he also felt the event had a huge resonance beyond the two weeks, especially among UN decision-makers.

"During the Human Rights Council people at the UN come down and often refer to a certain film afterwards in the UN corridors," he said. "If [the festival] reminds some diplomats and ministers that human rights are more than the negotiation of a particular resolution or a vote at the UN and important to how we run the world, then I think it serves an amazing purpose."

War crimes and resignation

The festival opens as the top UN rights body ends an eventful first week of its seventh session.

On Thursday Muslim countries called on the council to condemn Israel's recent military strikes in Gaza.

A draft resolution, supported by the Organization of the Islamic Conference, expressed its "shock at the Israeli bombardment of Palestinian homes... and the ... collective punishment against the civilian population, which constitute a war crime."

It also called for Palestinian militants to stop firing rockets into Israel. More than 120 Palestinians, many of them civilians, have been killed in Israeli military attacks on Gaza over the past week.

On Thursday night an attacker killed at least eight students at an orthodox Jewish seminary before he was shot dead. It was the first major attack in Jerusalem in four years.

In an earlier development, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour, under fire from the United States and several developing countries, told her staff she would leave at the end of June.

Although the reasons for her departure are unclear, diplomats said there have been attempts by the African and Islamic countries to put the high commissioner's office under control of the council, which is heavily dominated by developing countries that are often in conflict with Arbour and Western nations over rights issues.

swissinfo, Simon Bradley in Geneva

In brief

Geneva's sixth International Film Festival and Forum on Human Rights is taking place from March 7-16. This year's festival, which is dedicated to Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, puts the focus on China, Russia, Darfur and Myanmar, the rise in populism in Europe and the role of women in the fight against impunity.

Twenty films are competing for a variety of prizes.

The festival jury includes the Senegalese sculptor Ousmane Sow, French-Canadian writer Nancy Huston, editor-in-chief of the Polish newspaper Gateza Wyborcza, Adam Michnik, founder of the Cinémathèque Suisse, Freddy Buache, and French actress and activist Philippine Leroy-Beaulieu.

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UN Human Rights Council

Swiss Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey came up with the concept of the Human Rights Council in March 2004 to replace the widely discredited and highly politicised UN Human Rights Commission created in 1946. The UN officially accepted the idea in September 2005.

The first session of the UN Human Rights Council took place in June 2006 at its headquarters in Geneva. The Council reports directly to the UN General Assembly.

It consists of 47 member states, which are selected with absolute majority by the UN General Assembly. It meets at least three times a year and can in addition hold special meetings to discuss crisis situations.

The 27 seats of African and Asian countries heavily outvote western countries, which hold seven seats on the council.

The council is holding its seventh regular session from March 3-28 in Geneva. It hopes to finalise the difficult task of agreeing on the internal structure and rules governing its functioning, which has been criticised by non-governmental organisations for its slowness.

As well as considering the human rights situations in Sudan, North Korea, Myanmar, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Cambodia, Somalia and Liberia and a range of specialist subjects, it is expected to review the mandates of independent human rights experts.

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